How I Paid For My $40,000 Wedding Without Debt – with Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez

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With many lending companies offering convenient (yet high interest) wedding loans these days, it can be tempting to borrow money to have your ideal wedding day. After all, the average cost for a wedding is around $35,000. That’s a lot of money.

The unfortunate thing with borrowing is that debt follows us into the first days of our marriages. And with money fights being one of the top reasons for divorce, starting off with 5-figures of wedding debt might not be an ideal starting place for this lifelong partnership. 

Today, I’ve invited someone on the show who’s not only experienced the emotional and financial hardships of debt, but she figured out how to combat it and eventually pay for her $40,000 wedding in cash. 

Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez is my guest today. Stefanie is a nationally recognized millennial money expert and author of the book, The Broke and Beautiful Life. Stefanie’s work & advice has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Oprah Magazine.

Stefanie lives in New York City with her brand new husband. 

Andy Hill: Why was it important for you to pay for your wedding without debt?

Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez: You know, I never even considered going into debt for my wedding. It didn’t even come into my brain as an option. That’s been true for me with debt by and large.

The debt I have accrued over my life has been generally because of medical issues, things I couldn’t avoid. But when it comes to things that are discretionary (and I consider a wedding a discretionary expense), I don’t even think of debt as an option. I think that was a really clear starting point for me that whatever we were going to do was going to have to happen within our existing means.

Was your husband on board with this debt-free wedding plan from the start?

My husband was always a bit more of a spender than I was, but he was never like crazy irresponsible. I think where our dynamic has helped each other is that I think he’s allowed me to see the value in actually spending my money in alignment with my values.

Because if you had told me I would’ve spent $40,000 on a wedding, I would have said you were crazy. Actually I have zero regrets about it, and part of that attitude comes from being with my husband. Vice versa, my husband has never really spent more than he’s made, but he hasn’t been very diligent about his finances. Like he would not pay off his credit card balance in full. I don’t know why. He could, but he didn’t.

In that regard, I think I’ve had a positive influence in that he automatically does that now. He automatically contributes to the 401k. And so, we’ve had this kind of influence on one another, and I think what’s more important, an open dialogue about our money since day one. That’s been really beneficial.

How did you save up $40,000 for your wedding?

Give Yourself Time To Save

I think one of the things that’s really important to understand is that my current husband and I have been dating for 7 years. When we first started dating, each of our incomes was a 1/3 of what it is today.

One of the things I tell people is that if you want to have a big wedding, that’s fine. And if you want it to be extravagant, that’s fine. What’s not fine is putting yourself in a bad financial situation to do it. If it’s a priority for you to do something that’s a big blowout, extend the engagement before you overextend the budget.

Now, we weren’t engaged for a long time, but we dated for a very long time. I was 32 when I got engaged. My husband was 32 when we got engaged. What that meant was that not only had we had a lot of time to really position ourselves in our careers where we were making significantly more money than when we met at 26, it also meant that we had had time to save.

Increase Your Income

The other piece of this is we live in New York, which is not very cost-effective on a day to day basis. However, living in New York also enables us to earn a lot more money. My husband is a stagehand, he makes six figures and doesn’t have a college degree. I work in media, so you know, my job is really contingent on New York. The cost of living in New York City has a net positive for us because we’re able to earn a lot of money.

Related Article: How I Took My Salary from 5-Figures to 6-Figures in 7 Steps

My point is because we live here, we have never really had a big expense. My husband did buy a car a few years ago, but even that was like $8,000. I’ve never owned a car. I don’t own a home. I haven’t had anything huge that’s really taken up a huge chunk of my money since I became a full-fledged, independent adult.

Partner up On a Savings Goal

Because of that, and because of the increase in my income, we were really able to build up savings really slowly and steadily for the six years we were together, so that by the time we were like, “Okay, we’re going to get married,” we each looked at each other and we’re like, “Okay, let’s see what we have in savings.” And we agreed that we’d each contribute $15,000 to our first joint savings account because we had it.

We already had it saved, and we didn’t know what it was for, but we knew eventually we would need that money. And we had gotten into the habit of setting money aside on a consistent basis so that when we did have a milestone goal, we’d be prepared to fund it.

Now, we did start this journey with $30,000 in the bank and that’s wonderful. However, during the process of planning our wedding, we also moved. And between moving costs, and getting a new apartment, and all of that, we used about $10,000 of that money to fund our moving costs. So now we’re about $20,000 shy of how much our wedding actually costs.

Space Out Your Vendor Payments

One of the other things that we really prioritized was trying to space out our vendor payments throughout the wedding planning process.

For example, we had to make a deposit on the venue about six months before the wedding. So we already had that money coming out of our savings. But then we went through moving and everything, and we had to rebuild our savings. Spacing out those vendor payments over time, over the six months between when we really started planning the wedding, gave us time to really aggressively rebuild our savings.

Pause on Other Spending or Savings Goals

We did some things that a financial planner might say, “Oh that’s not the best idea.” But we paused our retirement contributions for a month because that enabled us to use the money now in the moment.

Is it the most ideal situation? No.

But is it a trade-off we thought was worthwhile? Absolutely.

Did your parents or in-laws contribute to the wedding costs?

We did not want to take any money for our wedding, because you know how people feel ownership of things if they contribute to them.

That was kind of an emotional situation that we didn’t want to deal with, especially because my husband and I are not very traditional. We really like to do things our own way, and we knew that if we accepted money from our parents, for example, that we would be beholden to them in terms of the way they think we should do things.

That’s not to say that we don’t regard the values of our families in planning the process, but we really wanted this day to be about us and our values, and to express that. That’s why paying for our own wedding was a priority. That said, we did get a couple of surprises throughout the process.

For example, when I went to the liquor store, I went with my parents because they have a minivan. We were buying all of our own liquor for the wedding, and I was like, “Okay, great. I’m going to use the minivan, and you guys can help me carry it.” Come check out, I think we had a pretty hefty bill around like $1,800, and my dad wound up paying for it.

That was a really wonderful surprise. We way overbought liquor guys, you don’t need to buy that much liquor for your wedding. My parents now have like a three year supply of liquor.

But I think that was a really great way to accept money for us, because one, we weren’t anticipating it, and then two, it was really relegated to that one thing. I think if you are going to accept assistance from your family members, if you can say, “Oh, you know, you guys can pay for the band or you guys can pay for the food,” then it kind of can help try to contain their input and opinions to that one singular expense rather than your entire wedding.

Related Interview: How We Eliminated $27,000 of Newlywed Credit Card Debt

What were your favorite wedding budget line items?

Food

One of the things we spent a lot on was food, which is not surprising. But in addition to the wedding meal itself, we wound up serving and catering a meal on Friday evening before the wedding, Saturday morning, Saturday lunch before the wedding, Saturday evening after the wedding, and Sunday brunch following the wedding.

Venue

One of the reasons we did that was because we got married in New York City. It’s a little bit tricky because a lot of our friends and family live in the area, and we really wanted to create a community feeling in a big city. That was a priority for us.

We’ve been to a lot of weddings that were a weekend away somewhere in the country, and everyone spends time together, and people fly in, and you really get a sense of the families coming together, the communities being built-in, and the relationship being built. We know that within a 5-hour window of a formal wedding that wasn’t going to be able to happen.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez Instagram
Check out more photos of Stefanie’s Wedding on her Instagram page

So we wanted to create an atmosphere by serving many, many meals, and by booking this penthouse suite at this hotel with a private terrace, which was also very expensive, where everyone could come and aggregate before the wedding, after the wedding, and all weekend long to create that community feeling.

That was a priority for us, and it was expensive to feed and basically house everyone, but it was so worthwhile because that was the biggest value for us of the wedding.

What were some typical wedding budget line items you left out?

No Bridesmaids

I would say in terms of what people maybe typically spend money on that we didn’t spend any money on, I did not have any bridesmaids. That really saved a lot in terms of not just costs for me of paying for friends to get their hair and makeup done, but also for them of having to maybe buy a dress or anything specific.

I still spent the day with my girlfriends. We took photos together, we had a wonderful time. I just didn’t think that was an extra necessary cost. I saved a lot of them flowers.

Save Money on Flowers

Speaking of flowers, I went to the New York City flower district the day before the wedding, picked up about $300 worth of wholesale flowers, and we put some bouquets together. I know people spend thousands of dollars on flowers. We had almost no decor. We were in a beautiful venue that in and of itself, you know, overlooked Central Park on one side, overlooked the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the other side. We didn’t really feel there was a need to add anything to it.

No Favors

We didn’t have any favors. Our favor was like six meals. It was just a lot of weighing, you know, what you said, what’s a priority for us versus what isn’t.

No Engagement Ring

We spent $0 on an engagement.

Yeah, well actually my fiance did give me an engagement ring. But as soon as he proposed, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll marry you. But how do you feel about me wearing this ring?”

The reason I did that was that:

  1. I’m not big on jewelry, to begin with. It’s not really a value of mine in a way that I guess food is, or spending time with my friends and family.
  2. An engagement ring is redundant. I do have a wedding ring. I figured if I’m going to get a ring in a year when we get married, I don’t think it’s really necessary that he spent all this money on an engagement ring. I asked him how he would feel if we returned it, and then used that money to fund our wedding, and whatever other goals that we have as a couple as we’re moving forward into this marriage.

That was something that my fiance at the time (now husband) was totally on board with. One of the really interesting things we did during that conversation was I, in my typical personal finance nerd fashion, was like “So, you know, what are all your goals for the next five years?”

Because the thing people do when they get married is, especially when it comes to money, it’s like all roads lead to the wedding. As if the wedding is the final destination rather than what it really is, which is the start of your marriage. And so, I really wanted to start thinking about what our wedding and engagement meant within the context of the rest of our lives rather than as a destination.

And if we’re going to spend a lot of money right now, whether it’s on a ring or on our wedding, I understood that that would mean less money for things we might want to do in a year, or two years, or three years. So before we made any money decisions, I really wanted to think about what we wanted to do in the next five or so years that would otherwise make demands on our money.

Let’s say buying a house … if we wanted to buy a house right away, we might not want to spend $40,000 on a wedding. Had that been a priority in either of our five-year time frames, then yeah, we probably would have spent less.

5 Ways to Save Thousands When Buying a New Home

But because we went through that exercise of mapping out exactly some of the things we wanted to do in the next few years, we were much better able to prioritize our wedding, and engagement, and all that finances within the context of the rest of our marriage.

What advice would you have for someone looking to plan their dream wedding without debt?

I would really recommend the 5-year exercise of really not just thinking about what you want your wedding to look like, but what you want the next 5 or 10 years of your marriage to look like. And have your wedding be part of that.

Then once you see your wedding within the context of all the other goals you have with your spouse, then you can better decide how to allocate resources for it.


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Author: Andy Hill

Andy Hill is the host of the Marriage, Kids and Money Podcast which focuses on helping young families build wealth. This 5-star rated podcast was nominated as "Best New Personal Finance Podcast" by Plutus. Andy's advice and personal finance experience have been featured in major media outlets like Business Insider, MarketWatch and NBC News.

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