Small Wedding Road Map

As a wedding celebrant for over 10 years, I have helped hundreds of couples plan their elopements and small weddings. Over the course of my career, I have seen what works for small weddings and elopements. From my experience, I’ve developed a step-by-step guide to help you plan your own elopement or small wedding. And then, I distilled that into the Small Wedding Road Map.

This road map guides you to ask the right questions to put together your small wedding. You can download your PDF copy by clicking the button below. This page is a “legend” to the road map, and explains the phases.

Click on each phase for a description and additional planning questions.

Small Weddings Road Map

Here’s a general explanation of the wedding planning process from 30,000 feet. This is a companion to the Small Wedding Road Map.

Small Wedding Road Map with Clickable Elements
Newly Engaged Begin Planning - The Bigger Questions What's Your Style? Is Bigger Better? The Details - Your Budget The Details - Big Elements Hiring Vendors Setting a Timeline Critical Mass! Wedding Day More Information from Ceremonies by Jim Beidle

Newly Engaged

Congratulations on the “YES”! This is where everyone starts out.

One or both of you worked up the courage to pop the question. It may have been easy or hard, on some private get-away or among your family or friends. It might even have been on the 50-yard line at a Seahawks game! And best of all, you get to spend the rest of your life with the one you love.

There’s a honeymoon period for this, and it’s different for everyone. There’s no magical timeframe where you go from celebrating this win to planning the wedding. Eventually, you will start to figure out details for when, how, and where to get married. This road map takes you through the steps to get started.

Begin Planning – The Bigger Questions

The day arrives when you start your planning. I’ve seen a lot of couples who approached this by putting the vendors first, or the dress. Or some who planned out their reception, and forget this is about you’re getting married. And the broad view is this is a once in a lifetime event. You can throw a party any time – you get married to this person just once.

 So, let’s make that perspective the focus of our planning.

First things first. Make sure you have enough time to come up with a good plan, plus time to make that plan work. That’s what you would do in pretty much every other aspect of your life, right?

Choosing the Date

How long does planning a wedding take? It depends on how complicated the wedding and your lives are.

  • Even local elopements take around 4 weeks to plan. At a minimum, you need the marriage license, a couple of witnesses, and someone to marry you.
  • Micro-weddings can be a little bit more complicated, since there’s a somewhat bigger guest list and often a reception to plan. You might not need a formal venue, but you will need a big enough place to put everyone.
  • Small weddings are usually at a formal venue with appropriate decorations. This can take a couple of months or more to plan.

Jim’s Rule of Thumb: Give yourselves at least twice as much time as you think it will take,

What’s Your Style?

If you’ve already been browsing the bridal websites and magazines, you imagine that ‘wedding style’ is all about clothes and flowers. The outward appearance of the wedding is important, but most important is the two people at its heart.

When I say wedding style, I’m talking about the two of you. What lifestyle do you lead? How do you want that to change (or stay the same) after your wedding? It is from that essence that you should decide your wedding style. Here is a “starter list” of questions for you to ask yourselves:

  • What is your ideal time spent together?
  • What are your partner’s favorite activities that you’re willing to share?
  • Do you love the traditional flowery wedding or do you prefer something more casual?
  • Do you like adventure, or prefer a more spontaneous style?
  • Is a cityscape your idea of romance, or do you prefer a country setting?
  • And the obvious, Do you want a small wedding or a large one?

Jim’s Rule of Thumb: Figure out your style before you plan.

Is Bigger Better?

The last question of the previous section was about the size of the wedding. Often, once you know the style of wedding that fits you, this question is easily sorted.

Sometimes, it is not that easy. When this happens, there are social pressures pushing for a larger wedding. Maybe a favorite parent or grandparent is pushing for a larger wedding and wants you to invite the whole extended family. Or you have that crazy friend who insists adventure (elope on a mountain!) is the only way to go, but Grandpa couldn’t make it to that wedding, and you really want his presence.

And sometimes that family pressure means the two of you do want to run away and elope.

All of those are valid reasons for your choice.

Just remember, it is your wedding. Unless those applying pressure are supplying a majority of the budget, they don’t get that much of a say.

However, you can choose to plan a small wedding and scale up if you want. It’s much harder to go the other way.

Jim’s Rule of Thumb: You are in charge of your wedding, so you decide what size it will be.

The Details – Your Budget

After setting your core values, it’s time to set some wedding goals!

And the first thing to set is your budget.

For some of us, this is a scary word. Triggering, even.

Other folks live by their budgets, because it’s the tool that lets the be who they are in the world. And that’s how it works. It’s a tool, like a hammer or phone. For it’s job, it’s indispensable for getting the task done.

Setting Budget Goals

I see it in wedding planning groups all. the. time. “I need a venue for $1,000 but it’s got to have in-house catering.” Or, “I want a photographer for 8 hours for $600. And they need to edit my photos, too.”

Here’s the hard reality for some folk about budgeting. Things generally cost more than you think they will. All the material support for your big event has its own costs. And every vendor has to be able to pay their bills.

Your first step, then, is to list what you’d like to have on the wedding day and then start costing it out. It is not time to gather bids, yet, but most reputable vendors either have a price list on their website or are willing to share a ballpark number with you.

When you have the numbers, then take a look at the list and your finances to figure out the numbers you can afford. Avoid going with the lowest or highest prices; look for something in the middle.

A final word. These are ballpark numbers only, and subject to change. This isn’t the same as a quote or contract.

The Details – Big Elements

Now that you have a draft budget, it’s time to sketch out the three big elements of your wedding day. I lump these together because they’re often interdependent on each other. These three elements are the venue, the ceremony, and the reception.

Where you hold the two events is fairly important, and is often the most expensive part of a medium to large wedding. For small weddings and especially elopements, this doesn’t have to be true. The most important considerations are going to be the size of your guest list and style of your wedding. On the one hand, an elopement can pop up just about anywhere. On the other, you may need a professional venue if you plan to host 2o or more guests with the reception on site.

Ceremony style plays a role. If you’re planning a wedding party – attendants on stage with you – that affects the venue size as well. One couple had 12 attendants in this tiny chapel, and we sort of wrapped around the audience of 20 or so. That was awkward. Another wanted to do a formal walk – the processional – in a shallow restaurant space with 6 attendants. Again, less than ideal. So think about balancing the ceremony style against your venue. The restaurant couple’s audience would have been happy with the party informally gathered at the front. Or the couple might have chosen a different venue.

The reception also balances against the venue, and the ceremony to a degree. Too often couples start here, and it become more about party planning an less about planning for the rest of their lives together. It’s important to celebrate this day of union with your family and friends, to think about how that fits together as a whole.

It’s also possible to celebrate that small, intimate wedding that appeals to you and plan for a larger reception later. I know couples who went with a micro-wedding up front and celebrated with a small group of friends and family. The following year they’ve invited me to do a renewal or sequel ceremony at a much larger venue. That is when the folks from out of town show up to celebrate.

Take time to think about the whole day before you settle on your venue. It makes for a much less stressful wedding day.

Hiring Vendors

“Jim, why would you talk about hiring vendors for my tiny wedding?”

Sometimes the best qualified person is the one you pay.

It’s possible to get friends and family to help with nearly every aspect of your wedding. And, a lot of the time, that goes perfectly right. But there are as many negatives as potential positives when you use volunteers to do the work. These challenges include:

  • Time. Your sister wants to do your flowers. But she works full time and has a family of her own. Your cousin Jimmy loves photography and promises to get  the photos back to you…right after he gets back from Alaska. Timing can be a roadblock because there’s no incentive to keep to your schedule, and you might feel like Godzilla trying to keep volunteers on task.
  • Skill. This is a bad one. Your friend or family offers to help out, but they’ve never “done the thing” before. I hear this a lot in my specialty of creating ceremonies. Uncle Bob doesn’t know what makes a good story, so he tells embarrassing jokes and forgets to file the paperwork. Another example was the groom who tried to run music from their phone while at the altar. Being too far for Bluetooth, he handed the device of to a technically inept relative. I’m sure that six years on, that’s a great story; in the moment, it nearly wrecked the bride.
  • Reliability. I touched a little on this in the other points. Quality really suffers when the person you’re relying on lacks skill, or doesn’t show up. You need to know that person knows what they’re doing, and will do what they promise.

That’s where experts come in. Professional know what it takes to make your day perfect.

Here’s a short list in what I think is the order of importance.

  1. Venue. This could even be a municipal park, or a family home. This is number one always.
  2. Officiant/Celebrant. This professional knows how to create a ceremony and how to make your wedding legal.
  3. Photographer. This person knows the best poses and shots on your day. Many can edit the photos to improve the look.
  4. Planner/Coordinator. I think I have a blog post on this Pro. Their job is to make it happen and get the worry off your shoulders.
  5. Florist. If you want that floral arch on time, this is your professional.
  6. DJ/Musician. These folks know the music and the cues, and can serve at the reception.
  7. Caterer/Baker. If you’re doing a cake or hosting a reception, make sure the person knows what they’re doing.
  8. Videographer. My friends who chose videography tell me they’re still watching the videos years later.
  9. HMUA. This person will make both of you look your best for your wedding.

Do you need all these? No. But good wedding professionals make your life much, much easier.

Jim’s Rule of Thumb: Hire the professionals you can afford and get good volunteers for the rest.

Setting a Timeline

So, you’ve thought about the critical events and decided who is going to be on your team. Now is the time to work that timeline. My earlier advice of giving yourself plenty of time still holds, and that’s what I’m going to use for my example. I’m putting in more vendors than most people use, just so you can see how that works.

Ideally, Zero-day, the day when everything is 90% complete, is a week or so before your wedding. That gives you a few days for anything that goes sideways to be resolved. After Z-day, you should only have load-in, set up and day of activities to worry about. This is where a planner – professional or really proficient amateur – comes in handy.

This is completely fictional, and your mileage will vary. However, this notional timeline could work.

  • Week 16 – Start planning (Step 2 above).
  • Week 13 – Initial planning is done and contracts signed*. (Steps 3 and 4)
  • Week 12 – Interviews with the planner, DJ, photographer, and officiant. Invite your attendants. Order dress.
  • Week 10 – Interview with the planner and venue, florist, and caterer. (Schedule tastings) Check on dress.
  • Week 9 – Baker and Caterer tastings. Check in with planner. Order creative touches.
  • Week 8 – Get the wedding certificate started. Check with officiant. Check on dress.
  • Week 7  – Receive license. Follow up with officiant, planner, caterer, baker. Fix whatever communication isn’t working.
  • Week 6 – Creative touches are in. Follow up with DJ for final playlists.
  • Day 30 – Follow up with everybody. Get draft day-of timeline to everybody.
  • Day 29 to 21 – Start assembling whatever non-floral decorations and creative touches you’re bringing. Keep talking with the vendors. Make sure everyone acknowledges the schedule.
  • Day 14 – Check in with venue, florist, caterer, and baker. Keep that planner in the loop, or work through them.
  • Day 7 – Zero-Day! All non-perishable creatives are ready to go. Pick up special clothes. Everything but the flowers, food, and HMUA should be done or mostly done. Wedding week is for checking, rechecking, and finishing those tasks.
  • Day 3 to 1 – Rehearsal either physical or virtual. Invite the photographer for that.
  • Wedding Day – Turn everything over to the planner/coordinator. Have fun!

Critical Mass!

Wedding week is big! Everything comes together to make your day of events happen, like reaching critical mass in a reactor.

Organized Chaos

Setting the goal of Zero-Day a week before the wedding is an intentional way to relieve the stress of this final week. This is particularly true if you are doing the planning and coordinating by yourselves.

Having said that, there’s an old military axiom that goes, “No plan survives first contact.”

There are things that, for whatever reason, are late or turn out unexpectedly. Other things that are forgotten in the planning. This can be particularly true with volunteer help, since they don’t plan weddings every day.

That’s what wedding week is for – sorting out forgotten details or mislaid plans. If you’ve kept good notes and made communicating with your team the priority, the chaos of this week is manageable.

Final Week Tasks

Among the tasks that you can expect are these:

  • Final Consultations. Beginning at 10 days out, you’ll check in with the vendors and volunteers that are making your day happen. You’ll want to make sure they’re aware of each other and know who is coordinating the action on the day of your wedding.
  • Rehearsals. You will have rehearsed the dress fitting and HMU before this week. (But if you haven’t, do it early in the week to fix any issues. If you’re having a physical rehearsal, make sure the players know when to be there and what to expect.

Remember to take care of yourselves this week. Some couples take part or all of the week off to focus on the wedding. While I recognize this isn’t always feasible, it becomes more important if you’re doing your own planning.

Wedding Day

The bridegroom puts the wedding ring on the bride close up.

This is it!

The big day is here, and all the energy you’ve put into planning is about to pay off.

Some things to remember include

  • No plan survives first contact, and that’s okay. With good preparation and planning, your day will go smoothly and beautifully.
  • Because of those good plans and excellent preparation, your guests will never know what things didn’t go according to plan. Especially if you keep a cool head, and let it slide.
  • Concentrate on working with the coordinator, photographer, and celebrant. And have fun! This is a day to celebrate, and we’re celebrating the two of you.
  • Stay hydrated! Keep your water level up and alcohol level down throughout the day. Especially if you are coordinating your own wedding. You’ll need a level head for those details.
  • Eat, even if you don’t feel like it. Have protein and a little fat. Something a little salty to inspire thirst. I’ve had a couple of bride almost not make it through the day because nerves “kept them” from eating. Minimize the sugar until dessert time.
  • Your photographer will dominate your time. You hired them to get all the shots. (Just remember, you’re in charge).
  • It’s okay to start the ceremony a few minutes after the scheduled time. There are some good reasons for this.
    • One last breather before you’re “on stage” helps keep run-away emotions in check.
    • There’s always that couple who shows up 5 minutes after the published ceremony start time. If we start 15 minute later than published, they’re no longer a distraction.
    • Some days, traffic is intense and your guests are arriving late. Within reason, accommodate them by pushing back your start time.
  • Once you’re through the photo shoots and the ceremony, it’s time to C E L E B R A T E! Go have fun!