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How to Plan a Small Wedding

September 28, 2021

HOORAY! You’re engaged and you’ve started planning your wedding! Somewhere along the planning process you and your future spouse started thinking about the guest list, and where to have this wedding, and you both said “Maybe a small wedding is what we should do.”

Wedding couple celebrating their small wedding ceremony

Choosing to have a small, intimate wedding can be kind of daunting. Planning a wedding is stressful no matter who you are or the kind of wedding you are planning, but figuring out how to have a small wedding is a special kind of stress because it comes with a sense of guilt that couples planning big weddings don’t deal with.

“We could just elope…”

Yeah, you could. Full disclosure, that’s what I’ll be doing if and when my partner and I decide to get married. We’ve come to that decision over the course of a couple of years having all the “what if” conversations about our wedding and determined that eloping is the right course for us. But that’s not the case for everyone. As an intimate wedding specialist, I have a lot of knowledge in identifying the things that help couples know what makes them intimate wedding people.

How do you know a small wedding is right for you?

  • The idea of a big wedding is just downright unappealing to you. This one is kind of a no-brainer. If the thought of having your wedding in a huge ballroom with a dozen or so tables with 8-10 guests each sound like a logistical nightmare that sends your introvert heart into an anxiety attack, a small intimate wedding is the right way to go for you. Small weddings are perfect for people who don’t want to organize and manage an event with 100+ guests, but do want to make sure they’ve got the VIPs of their life at their wedding day.
  • You want the focus of the wedding to be more about interpersonal connections. This one is a less tangible thing, but small weddings are less about where the wedding day was held, what the food was like, or what all the decorations looked like. Instead the focus becomes more about the couple’s love for each other and the connections between them and the select guests they’ve chosen to include in their wedding day.
  • You want more flexibility with your wedding budget. When you have a big wedding, a huge chunk of your budget gets eaten up by the venue+catering to accommodate the dinner reception for all of your guests. That means you might be under-budgeting for other aspects of your wedding that you would rather be more spendy on. With an intimate wedding, you get to have more flexibility with your budget and it allows you to be more spendy in some areas if you want, or be more thrifty overall if you choose.
  • You want a bespoke wedding experience. Every couple should feel like their wedding day was created just for them, but with big weddings it’s hard to feel like the experience is really unique after you’ve been to more than one, especially once a guests starts comparing how your wedding is “just like so-and-so’s wedding.” With a small wedding, you get to have more freedom with the venue you choose and because the guest list is so small you have more freedom to set the events and schedule for the day, creating a truly different wedding day experience.

Now that you know you’re in the intimate wedding camp, you’re probably wondering how to plan one. Don’t worry! I’ve got some tips for you to help you navigate you and your family’s feelings and feel confident with planning the small wedding of your dreams! Now that you’ve decided a small wedding is perfect for you, it’s time to settle on your guest list.

couple who planned a small wedding hugging

Tips to plan a small wedding with a big family

The tips below are useful for everyone, but can be especially helpful if you our your future spouse come from a big family.

  • Set Expectations Early. I have not been quiet about the fact that one day we’re eloping, that way no one can be claiming to have hurt feelings when they didn’t get an invite to my wedding. You should be the same way about your intimate wedding. Once you make the decision to keep it small, start spreading the word so that everyone in your circle has an expectation of not being invited. That way if and when someone does get the invite they feel really special.
  • Be Intentional with Your Guest List. When you choose to have an intimate wedding, every guest should be someone that you cannot imagine having your wedding day without. Just because you really like Cousin Becky and have a great time when you get together doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a must-have guest at your wedding. It’s okay to reflect on these relationships and really consider who you absolutely want to have be there to witness one of the most significant and meaningful moments of your life in a very personal and vulnerable way. Julie Noelle Weddings has really great advice on creating a guest list.
  • Guest Intentions Part 2. What you do for one, you should do for all – and I say this not to be a rule, but to be more of a guide to avoid some hurt feeling among your friends and family. Because your guest list is so small, it will be very noticeable if one of you got to have a guest that “shouldn’t” have been there, so to speak. For example, if you and your partner decide that your guest list should be parents and siblings, but Partner A has two parents and one sibling while Partner B has two parents, two step parents, three blood siblings and 2 steps siblings, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should open the door for Partner A to start inviting a whole bunch of extra people just to even out the guest count.
  • Boundaries – Set Them and Hold Them. It’s an unfortunate truth that many couples who have a small wedding get push back or pressure to go bigger with their wedding. Maybe it’s from parents, maybe it’s from friends, and maybe it’s completely unintentional on the part of the source. But if this is something you experience, it’s important for you to set your boundaries with people about the fact that this is the wedding you’ve chosen and that you would appreciate their support over their criticism. And definitely don’t be afraid to call on your vendors (like me or your planner) for support and to help you articulate your feelings.
  • Kid Policy. I bet you really like your nieces and nephews, but maybe they aren’t your wedding guests. Or maybe they are? Kid policy is definitely something you need to discuss together and decide which children, if any, get to be on your small wedding’s VIP list of guests. Kids require babysitters, and that’s one way to lose a valuable guest if the kids aren’t allowed to come to the wedding. Or to ruin a relationship if your sister can’t bring her kids but your best friend can.
  • Consider How You Can Include The Un-Invited. There are many ways you can consider those that were not invited to your wedding and include them in your big day after the fact. Some people host backyard barbeque parties with those who would have been on a big wedding guest list. Others send very nice post-wedding announcements with a link to an online gallery of images so that people can still share in the day’s events through photos. Maybe you can livestream the ceremony, or record a video to share later. Or something else entirely – it’s up to you and what’s on your heart.
  • Some People Won’t Get It – And That’s Okay. If you encounter a family member or friend who keeps questioning why you won’t expand your guest list so they can get an invite, just stay firm with your boundaries and remind yourself that their persistence is about them and not you. If they keep wanting to know why they aren’t on the guest list, honesty is the best policy. Remind them that you’re trying to keep your wedding small and that means that not everyone can be invited and you would love to celebrate with them at another time.
offbeat couple who planned a small wedding

Tips for Choosing your Small Wedding Venue

Now that you know how many people you’ll be having at your wedding, it’s time to start shopping for a venue.

  • Think outside of conventional venue norms. Most traditional wedding venues have a minimum guest count in order to hold your wedding there. So instead, start looking around at inns, bed & breakfast places, upscale restaurants, or even on VRBO or AirBnB.
  • Decide on the vibe you want for your day. By this I mean think about what activities you want to include on your small wedding day. The couple above hosted their small wedding at a local ski resort so that they could enjoy their shared passion (mountain biking) on their wedding day.
  • Is there someplace that is special to you? Many of my intimate wedding couples choose locations based on the significance they have in their lives. Maybe you choose the inn where your family vacations every year; maybe it’s a place that you and your future spouse visit all the time; or maybe it’s your own backyard.
  • Think about what the venue includes or doesn’t include. Planning a small wedding in your backyard is a wonderful option, but that does mean that there’s a lot more other details you have to plan and account for. If you choose to have your wedding at a country inn, things like the food, tables and chairs will already be accounted for.
  • Don’t forget about the weather! Booking a venue or choosing a location based on it’s outdoor setting and scenery is probably important to you. But one can’t predict the weather months in advance. Consider that it could be raining on your wedding day and verify an indoor ceremony space option with your venue or be sure to have a back-up rain option (like a tent) if you’re planning your backyard wedding.
how to plan a small wedding in your backyard

Tips for choosing small wedding vendors

Not all vendors are a good fit for your small wedding. Here are some tips to consider for each kind of vendor you might use for your wedding day.

  • Wedding Planner: To some it may seem like a frivolous expense for a small wedding, but a good planner is worth it for how much money, time and stress they can save you. Look for planners who have lots of backyard weddings or small weddings in their portfolio since they are more likely to understand your wedding vision during the planning process. BONUS: I offer a package that is planning + photography for intimate weddings.
  • Wedding Photographer: Choose a photographer whose portfolio exemplifies the vibe you’re setting for your wedding day and whose personality you really get on with. Your photographer is with you for most of your wedding day, so you need to make sure that you enjoy their company and that they really understand and value the wedding experience that you’re putting together.
  • Catering: If your venue already has restaurant service, hooray! But if not, consider the following – similar to venues, some caterers will have a minimum head count on their services. Catering is also a place where you can get creative and decide to do more of a family style buffet or dinner, hire a food truck or go with catering that is atypical for weddings, like a barbeque buffet.
  • Entertainment: for large weddings there is usually a DJ, and you may decide that you still want one for your small wedding. But if you don’t anticipate having a reception with dancing, another great option is to hire live musicians to provide ambiance music for your reception and ceremony. Lawn games are also a great entertainment option to include for your cocktail hour and/or reception activities.
  • Florist: Choose a florist who can really see the vision for your wedding and who will work with you on your small wedding floral design needs. Maybe you won’t be having bridesmaids that need bouquets and instead you would rather invest that money into a floral installation. Some florists have a minimum investment amount and can custom create what you want within that budget.
  • Officiant: this is another person that you want to make sure you get on with personality-wise and who really understands the gravity of your small wedding. You could choose to hire a Justice of the Peace or someone ordained to be your officiant, or you could choose a close friend or family member to be your officiant via online ordainment.
  • Glam Squad: I totally recommend that brides have a professional hair and makeup artist (HMUA) create their look for the wedding day. It’s your opportunity to be pampered. However, I have also had brides and bridesmaids do their own hair and makeup for a small wedding day and they look just as beautiful. It’s all about the look and experience you want. As a heads up, DIY hair and makeup can take longer than you anticipate for your wedding, whether you’re doing it yourself or asking a friend to do it for you. HMUAs are professionally trained to be able to nail the look you want in an efficient way.
  • Where to Stay: It’s your wedding day and you should be able to rest your head somewhere that you know will be relaxing. Maybe that’s your own home at a backyard wedding, maybe that’s the wedding suite at your country inn venue, or maybe it’s somewhere completely different regardless of where your wedding is held. If you’re opting for a wedding experience that’s off the beaten path, figuring out where to stay can be a bit more of a challenge. Country inns can still be a great solution here, but AirBnB or VRBO can also be a great solution to accommodate you and your select wedding guests.

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