The Case for a Modest Wedding

I recently saw an old friend who had just returned from a destination wedding on the Mayan Riviera. When I asked about it, he handed me his phone so I could flip through the photos.

A beautiful wedding. It cost a lot. 

A lot

What looks like a wedding ring is actually a time machine. Each time I look at that tiny diamond, I’m reminded of how long we’ve been together and how far we’ve come. I wouldn’t “trade it up” for anything.

This blog is about minimalism and travel, so it may feel a little off-topic to tread into the shark-infested waters of wedding costs. But stay with me on this: a decision against a dream wedding, opting for a modest wedding instead, could be the beginning of a dream life.

Before I retired early in 2022 to travel full time with my husband, I had a conversation with a fellow teacher at my public elementary school. I often think of this exchange. 

Me: I heard you’re getting married! Have you set the date? 

Colleague: Yes! June. 

Me: So right after this school year ends. Sounds perfect. 

Colleague: [laughing] Oh no. June the year AFTER this. We’re both working side jobs to pay for it and we need more time to save up. Just the dress I want is so much money! 

Indeed. Weddings were spiraling upward in cost and extravagance way back in 1990 when I got married, and of course they’ve only continued to spiral since then. We have so many societal, familial, emotional strings pulling us to spend tremendous amounts on this one big day (plus the mind-boggling sums that can be reached for a few days of ultra-honeymoon). A whole wedding industry makes a very good living pulling those strings. 

I married my husband almost 34 years ago. My husband, sitting across from me right now in the furnished apartment we’re renting this month, is the same grinning kid in a rental tux standing next to rosy-cheeked me in our wedding photos. We married young, worked our respective careers, moved house many times, raised our two kids, saved and strategized and retired early, and now we travel full time together. 

The wedding that launched our partnership didn’t cost all that much. It was a morning wedding with a lunch reception in a university hall with views of Mount Rainier–rented for a song because we were students. We ordered flowers enough to look festive but not festooned. My dress, a white lace affair in which I enjoyed looking thoroughly bridal, was purchased from a regular dress shop (not a place specializing in wedding dresses). We fed our reasonable number of guests–mostly family and a few close friends–a simple but delicious buffet lunch from a local startup caterer. We hugged our relatives, chatted, and took pictures while we listened to the string quartet of music majors who cheerfully agreed to play for beer money and a free lunch. They sounded fabulous. It was the last time we saw Justin’s grandmother, and we both cherish the memory of her at the banquet table, smiling and telling stories with her family. Everyone had a great time, including the two of us, and the expense was more or less what any reasonably nice party would be for that number of people. We were launched into our new lives with sufficient fanfare to create sweet memories, but without extravagance or debt. 

June, 1990.

It can be done. If a marrying couple can manage all those wedding expectations, both their own and their families’, they can create powerful options for themselves. 

Our wedding wasn’t as frugal as it could have been, of course. A friend of mine in graduate school spun a storybook wedding out of the good will of loved ones and thin air. Returning to her small town to marry in the church she grew up in, her sisters arranged wild flowers in the tiny sanctuary. Her mom made the cake. She bartered house cleaning in exchange for a dress handmade by a friend, and the reception, to which everyone in town was invited, was a potluck out the back door of the church, down by the river. I saw the pictures and it was perfection. 

But the case I’m making isn’t to encourage a race to the lowest cost wedding; to follow out that logic, the lowest cost wedding would be no wedding at all. Of course many couples embark on a life partnership without marrying, and others who do marry do so without any ceremony or fuss. Different relationships and circumstances call for different approaches. It is those who would like a wedding and invite some people to be part of it who are confronted with an astonishing array of what are presented as once-in-a-lifetime purchases. But if we opt out of a splashy wedding and instead craft a modest, level-headed event, a day that speaks to who we and our family members are, and fits tidily into our current financial circumstances, many benefits await us.

It will feel like a part of our life. This is key. The wedding on the beach was very pretty, certainly, but the location had no meaning beyond that to either the bride or groom. One reason that memories of our wedding day are dear to us is that it took place on our beloved campus, where we met. We were comfortable and so were our families.

It will be possible to enjoy it. Ideally, a wedding is a celebration of some of the great joys in life: true love, strengthening of familial bonds, and hope for the future. If it comes with a price tag so big that those positive emotions are obscured, we’re in danger of missing the point of the day amidst the opulence. 

It will serve as a beginning, not as an end of itself. I recently read a social media post from someone crowdsourcing opinions on how much to spend on a honeymoon. One respondent said his over-the-top honeymoon was likely the best vacation he’ll ever take in his life, so he advised splashing out even if you’re paying it off years into the marriage. The alternative to that, of course, is to pop off for a quiet little trip. Our long-ago honeymoon was a drive up the coast into Canada with a borrowed Entertainment Book (remember those?) because it had hotel and restaurant coupons in Vancouver and Victoria. We walked along the water and went to the zoo. We couldn’t have been happier. The next year, when we’d started working good jobs, we took another trip, this time to Florida. That Florida trip wouldn’t have happened if we’d put a honeymoon on credit–we would have been paying it off still. And that Florida trip, along with our trip to Italy a few years after that when we were debt-free with growing savings, were important keystones not only in our relationship, but for our growing identities as travelers. When we took our budget honeymoon, we fully assumed that there would be more and better trips–many more. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and a newly married couple has just crossed the starting line. 

It could result in seed money. My teaching colleague and her fiancé both had side hustles and were saving money in the early days of their relationship, and that’s a dynamite way for a new partnership to start. But if they had chosen a modest wedding within their current means, they could have invested their savings. They could have started their married life with good financial habits, and that strategy plus that seed money could have grown into the stuff of dreams: financial independence.

But I need to wrap this up. It’s time to have a glass of wine on our apartment’s little balcony overlooking a quiet neighborhood and a row of elm trees. We have to figure out where we’re traveling next year–Egypt? Turkiye?–and make some reservations. There are so many things to do, and we have time together to do them. Our almost 34 years together have included our share of troubles, of course, like everyone else. But what we started together in 1990, that early vote for enough, followed by many, many similar decisions, led us here. We are financially independent years before traditional retirement age. This situation is so dreamlike that sometimes I remind myself that it’s real, this life we’re leading. 

For a young person, financial independence may sound too remote to have any effect on today’s decisions. But take my word for it. We really can make it happen, one choice for enough at a time. It’s worth every moderation to get here. Including–especially, even–that wedding day that gets us started. 

Thanks for reading, and by the way, I love comments. Bookmark for more on travel, minimalism, books, public transportation, and hikes. For daily postcards from, well, wherever we are, subscribe to

4 thoughts on “The Case for a Modest Wedding”

  1. I found your blog through no sidebar and have really enjoyed reading it! This one touched a place in my heart, because my husband and I also had an incredibly simple wedding. And I regret nothing! It was a beautiful day, in a lovely and peaceful setting that’s only an hour and a half away, up in the mountains of western north carolina. A place that we can visit regularly and reminisce together. In fact we’ll be driving up next week to celebrate our 3 year anniversary. Our honeymoon was equally simple, a jaunt over to the coast to explore the outer banks. I’ll forever be grateful we chose a simpler path, it was so much less stressful and created memories we’ll carry with us forever. I’ll be looking forward to more of your travel stories! We were planning to start traveling, but I’m pregnant now, so a different adventure awaits us! 😊 Although I must say I daydream about a van build and taking our kid around the states on fun getaways! Safe travels to you and your husband!

    1. Holly, what a joy to read about your lovely, simple, low-stress wedding. Love it. Thanks so much for sharing that. So happy for you and your growing family! My two kids are grown now–having them, and all the craziness when they were littles, are the best adventures my husband and I will ever have. <3

  2. I don’t know if I ever told you about my wedding. June, 1997… $3000 including rings, prime rib dinner for about 100 (which is almost as small as it gets in my family) and a lot of labor contributions from family for cake and flowers. When I see a young couple drop $30-40,000 on a single day… at which they have taken a chainsaw to the guest list because of cost… I could cry.

    1. Catherine, you have told me a bit about your wedding, and it sounds ideal to me. Sounds like the money you spent was on including as many people as possible and feeding them/hosting them well. I saw a photo once and loved your dress, too. You really can weep at what people spend. Someone sent me a link to an article: “Couple Came in Under Their $100,000 Wedding Budget.” Honestly, I thought it was a “The Onion” type of headline. Nope. It was a totally earnest writeup of their good sense and frugality to put on a high-end destination wedding under $100,000. I realized, reading the article, that their template was not a family/friends gathering, but a corporate conference. During my couple of years of corporate employment, the company put on a big holiday party, and it felt something kinda like this couple’s wedding looked: impressive. Disheartening.

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