I have a confession: I was one of those women with a Pinterest board dedicated to my future wedding for years before I had any significant romantic relationship in sight. So when Justin, my then-boyfriend, proposed a few years ago, I was beyond stoked to dive in and start dreaming up the coolest wedding within our budget.
About nine months into our engagement, however, my then-employer lost a really big client and I knew that several people, including myself, were at risk of losing our jobs. Since I was primarily paying for the wedding myself (as the higher earner in our relationship), there was no possible way we would have been able to afford the wedding that we’d already sent out save-the-dates for in the event that I was laid off. I started considering our other options and started to get really attached to the idea of a kitschy Vegas wedding, complete with Elvis and those famous neon lights. At the end of the day, I didn’t wind up losing my job (and actually wound up getting a better one!) and my husband and I went on to have the $20,000 wedding we had originally planned.
However, I couldn’t shake the idea of that Vegas wedding, just me and my husband, running off to Sin City to pledge to love each other forever in a goofy white chapel. So on our first anniversary, we ran away to Vegas to get married again in a drive through wedding ceremony (in truth, it was technically a vow renewal, but we wanted the full-fledged experience, Elvis and all). So if you’re debating on whether to have a traditional wedding with all the bells and whistles or a devil-may-care elopmenet in Sin City, here’s our experience with both.
All photos from our traditional wedding are by Courtney Smith (based in St. Louis); all Las Vegas photos are taken by Tiego Pinheiro. Both of them are, first and foremost, wonderful people who will make you feel like a supermodel on your wedding day and extremely talented photographers.
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The Traditional Wedding
Our wedding was a colorful, taco-filled extravaganza in an organic brewery, complete with a liquid nitrogen ice cream bar, chihuahua flower girl, a human sized disco ball pinata, a temporary tattoo station, and caricaturist. So to say that it was “traditional” might be a stretch, but we included all the basic components: a ceremony with all of our friends and family; dinner; heartfelt toasts; and of course, a dance party. It was one of the best days of my life, but it, of course, came with its own stumbles and drawbacks.
The planning process:
My husband and I had a year and a half engagement and spent almost every weekend during that time doing wedding projects together, from dip dying tablecloths, to crafting paper airplane garlands, to creating a retro-inspired wedding altar. Both of us are crafty folks and we had so much fun with our weekly tradition, sharing a bottle of wine, watching funny movies, and cranking out crafts to make our wedding as “us” as possible.
This time spent together was one of the highlights of our “wedding season” and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. The end result was a wedding that basically looked like Pinterest exploded on it (in the best way possible, of course). Obviously, if a hot glue gun does not make your heart aflutter quite like mine, this aspect may not apply to you.
I am a girl that likes to shake her booty with a stiff drink in hand, and frankly, was most looking forward to the reception portion of our wedding. Little did I know that the ceremony would be hands-down my favorite part of our day. We wrote our ceremony together, including goofy things (the aforementioned flower chihuahua, at the altar selfies with friends) and sentimental bits (my mom read a passage from “The Velveteen Rabbit”, a book we practically memorized together when I was a little kid; a ring-warming ceremony where all of our friends and family passed around our wedding rings to fill them with love and positive vibes).
Our mutual friend, who we’ve went to countless concerts, breweries, and art festivals with, acted as our officiant and brought our written ceremony to life perfectly. A year and a half later, I’m not sure if I’ve experienced a more magical feeling than saying my vows to my husband in front of all our friends and family. I will savor every second of our ceremony for the rest of my life.
The benefit of a wedding at home versus any kind of destination wedding is that we could incorporate whatever elements we wanted into our day, because we had the logistical means to do so. For example, since we bought our flowers wholesale from Sam’s Club, my mom converted our house’s living and dining room into a makeshift flower workshop to pump out over sixty floral arrangements for our reception.
We were able transport our seven by ten foot wedding arch to our venue because we had the proper transportation and enough helping hands to do so. Had we not been at our homebase, we would have been much more limited in incorporating certain unique aspects into our wedding (do you think TSA would be cool if we tried to wrangle our 4 foot wide disco ball pinata through security for our Vegas wedding?).
Pleasing Friends and Family:
I’ve always been pretty a-ok marching to the beat of my own drum and since we were paying for our wedding ourselves, we had the freedom to pretty much design our day however we wanted. That being said, there were family members that were upset that we weren’t getting married in a church; since we exclusively served plant-based food to our guests, I had more than one person express concern about the menu; and a LOT of people, from work colleagues to Justin’s family, had plenty to say about the fact that I kept my own last name.
When you invite your friends and family to your wedding, you are also creating an open invitation for them to comment on the process and the experience of it all. Needless to say, however, when you’re hosting a multi-thousand dollar party that you’ve been planning for a year plus, the last thing you want to hear is that your efforts are not meeting your loved ones’ expectations.
To be honest, I was so nervous about feeding a bunch of hearty Midwesterners an all-vegan feast, I made our wedding into quite the circus to make sure that people enjoyed themselves- you could color on our table runners! There was a photo booth! A caricaturist! A liquid nitrogen ice cream bar! At the end of the day, the two things I wanted most from our wedding was to be married to Justin and a big ol’ dance party.
While we accomplished the former goal, we gave our guests SO many options of things to do as a means of “overcompensating” for any perceived culinary shortcomings that it was hard to get the dance floor a-going (which was beyond upsetting to me in the moment). I say all this to remind you that if your wedding is going to be just you and your boo, you’re not giving anyone else the chance to be offended by the moistness of your wedding cake.
I have not been quiet, in life or on the blog, about my frugality. I shop at discount grocery stores; I wait until Black Friday to sign up for an awesome sale on fitness memberships; there is little joy greater for me than feeling like I’ve gotten a good deal. So blowing a MASSIVE amount of money on one extravagant and ultimately superfluous event basically felt like a violation to every fiber of my being.
We started with a $20,000 budget for a 110 person event and wound up spending just shy of $21,000. We could’ve easily shaved off several grand if we had done away with some of the extra bells and whistles (liquid nitrogen ice cream bar, I’m looking at you), but again, at the time, it almost felt like a necessary expense.
This is a sentiment I’ve heard repeated from several other friends who planned their wedding- suddenly, your wedding NEEDS a photo booth or a fork with your new last name stamped on it or whatever goofy stuff Pinterest or Instagram shills to you. Once you’ve already spent such an absurd amount of money on a one-day event, it just gets easier and easier to say yes to a bunch of pointless extras that will wind up in the trash the day after.
All that being said, we had saved this money over the course of several years and given that we had already bought a house we loved and were otherwise in solid financial shape, it was a calculated and thought-out decision for us. Still, when I think of all the places we could’ve traveled with that money, my inner Carmen Sandiego dies just a little bit. For some other couples, however, it would be impossible to save up such a hefty chunk of cash, and doing something financially irresponsible, like taking out high interest loans or putting your wedding on your credit card that you can’t pay off, is just a really bad life decision.
No matter how much you like organizing and planning, the stress of a wedding can be pretty intense. When I was worried about losing my job, I became super anxious about the potential humiliation of having to cancel our wedding after we had already sent out save-the-dates. I actually wound up consulting a physician because I was struggling so bad with insomnia with all of the potential “what if’s” running through my head at hyperspeed every night.
Besides the financial stress of seemingly hemorrhaging thousands of dollars every week, there’s also the more minor stresses that can really add up over time: trying to organize a seating chart for two individuals in the same friend group who are locked in an ongoing feud; trying to find a gluten-free AND vegan dessert for guests with dietary restrictions; figuring out where to store our chihuahua after she did her ring-bearer duties.
It was so gratifying when all of the pieces of the puzzle came together on the day of, but man, if you are a Type A person prone to any kind of anxiety, planning a more traditional wedding may be rough for you.
The Vegas Wedding
On our one year anniversary, my husband and I ran off to “get hitched” at the famous Little White Chapel for a drive through wedding in a 1950s pink Cadillac. Our ceremony was swiftly followed by the two of us running around under the neon lights of Old Vegas, stuffing our faces with pizza and beer at hole in the wall bar, and going onstage at a zombie-themed burlesque show.
I want to point out that I am only writing from my experience in a Vegas wedding chapel, as there’s a million ways to get married there- you can have a more traditional wedding at one of the gorgeous hotels, complete with bridesmaids, flowers galore, and five hundred of your closest friends; you can get your best friend to officiate and marry you and your betrothed in the middle of the stunningly beautiful desert; or you can go the route we chose, fully embracing the fabulous retro kitsch that is Vegas.
You know how I said we spent $21,000 on our one day shindig? Our Vegas elopement, including our photographer, my hair and makeup, the ceremony itself, both of our outfits (including accessories), our dinner, tickets to the zombie burlesque show, etc. (i.e. EVERYTHING involved with our actual ceremony and make-shift “reception”) cost under $600. If you want to include our plane tickets, car rental, and Airbnb in the costs, it would still be under a grand.
I really had my heart set on getting married by Elvis, which can quite shockingly jack up the price of wedding packages (for ours, it would have been an additional $250!). While we ultimately opted to forego the King as part of our ceremony, there are an endless amount of ways to customize your Vegas wedding within your budget, from getting married in a White Castle to a KISS-themed mini golf course.
Freedom from Friends and Family’s Judgement:
We didn’t tell that many people about our plans to do the Vegas wedding and even when it came up in conversation, people were WAY less interested to talk about it as compared to our traditional wedding.
While I’m sure a significant part of this phenomenon had to do with the fact that it was, for all intents and purposes, a vow renewal and not our full blown wedding, I’m 100% sure it also had to do with the fact that no one else was invited to participate in the event besides Justin and me.
I was able to wear a scandalously sexy dress without having to worry about my grandma thinking I’m a harlot; we got to nom down on greasy vegan pizza and beer at an Evel Knievel-themed dive bar (read more about that gem here) and relish in our marital bliss shortly after our ceremony without feeling anxious about pleasing our omnivorous aunts and gluten-free friends; and no one said a word to us about not getting married in a church (but I guess… ironically , we did get married in a chapel).
The most stressful part of our wedding weekend was figuring out how to get my bouquet into my tiny backpack for our budget airline flight to Vegas without smushing it. So all in all, a virtually stress-free experience.
Perhaps the best thing about getting married in Vegas is that you have a short ceremony and then, boom, you’re free to celebrate, however you want.
Want to know why Vegas is one of the most popular destination for bachelorette or bachelor parties (see my guide to the most epic Vegas bachelorette parties here)? Because it’s basically Disneyland for adults! You want to drive a race car in your wedding dress? You totally can. You want to celebrate by watching the high rollers play poker at the Bellagio (or you know, maybe you can be a high roller with all of that cash money you just saved on the wedding)? Go for it!
Once the wedding ceremony is done, Vegas is designed to be pretty much the best place imaginable to celebrate your newfound nuptials with your partner.
Being one bride or groom of a million:
Before our ceremony at the Little White Chapel, we had to wait in a small holding room that reeked of cigarettes and looked like it hadn’t been updated (or cleaned) since the 1970s. In the room with us were probably five or six other couples and some of their family members waiting for their very own wedding.
The wedding industry has trained us to believe that we are very special and unique snowflakes who deserve to be treated like kings and queens on our big day. However, it’s hard to feel special and unique when you’re surrounded by several other women wearing lavish white dresses, while their husbands-to-be nervously pace around the room in ill-fitting suits. Again, part of this has to do with where and how we chose to do our Vegas wedding, but even when we checked into our post-ceremony burlesque show in full marital ceremony regalia, the person taking our tickets seemed incredibly uninterested in the fact that we clearly just got married.
We had the complete opposite experience when we walked around taking pictures for our traditional wedding, where we were essentially treated like grand marshals of the town for the day. Thus, if feeling like a fairy tale princess or prince is on your list of must-haves for your wedding day, this may not be the best option for you.
On the flip side of the same coin, we met a ton of newly married and adorable couples everywhere we went; it was like being a part of an exclusive special club. We generally love meeting new people, and hearing each couple’s love and wedding story was a really incredible experience.
Having a deeply impersonal and disconnected wedding:
Since we had already spent a significant chunk of cash on our traditional wedding, we wanted to spend as little money as possible for the Vegas wedding and chose the cheapest package, the aforementioned wedding in a 1950s pink Cadillac (which, for the record, is permanently parked outside the Little White Chapel in their “Tunnel of Love” and is not, indeed, “drive through”, much to the chagrin of many TripAdvisor reviewers).
This decision was made, in part, because of the price and also partly because our photographer (who was not affiliated with the Little White Chapel) could shoot there without incurring extra charges (most wedding chapels in Vegas will allow outside photographers inside the chapel, but generally only with really steep fees). This caused our first major issue during our ceremony- the Little White Chapel is set up so that people exiting the facility have to walk through the Tunnel of Love, meaning that strangers were constantly streaming in and out, rudely taking selfies with the Cadillac, etc. DURING our wedding ceremony. Since we were fully embracing the goofy kitsch factor of a Vegas wedding, it definitely increased the humorous quotient- but romance? Not so much.
Our second big issue was our officiant, who we met about 30 seconds before our ceremony and could not have known LESS about us as a couple- like, for example, our names. The juxtaposition of our two officiants was crazy: our traditional wedding officiant, who we’ve hung out with a million times; who have met our families; who we’ve had adventures with; as compared to our Vegas officiant who, halfway through the ceremony, had to ask us (1) how long we had been together and (2) if the Lord had blessed us with children yet.
Justin and I do eventually plan on having kids, but I can’t imagine how uncomfortable, awkward, or even painful the latter question may be for people who have decided against having children, or worse, who have had trouble conceiving or lost children. The concept that our lives are being joined together eternally by a stranger, who literally knew nothing about us, was just beyond bizarre.
To make the thoughtlessness of our ceremony worse, the minister skipped over asking us to read our vows (even though we had expressly indicated that we wanted to do so before the ceremony started). Since we had already read incredibly heartfelt vows to each other just a year beforehand in front of over a hundred of our friends and family, it wasn’t a huge deal, but if it had been our first and only wedding, I would’ve been completely crushed by this oversight.
The totality of our ceremony was that being pronounced husband and wife was perhaps the most anti-climatic experience of my life. While all the hiccups and missteps made for a funny vow renewal, I would have been heartbroken if it had been our actual wedding. Getting legally bound to another human for the rest of your life is kind of a big deal and the individual marrying you should treat it as such.
So if you’re getting married in one of Vegas’s famous wedding chapels, I would (1) make sure the venue is private or otherwise secluded and (2) give your officiant a very explicit written list of facts about you as a couple (i.e. how long you’ve been together, whether you have or want kids, what you guys like to do together), as well as what you’re looking for from the ceremony itself (a prayer? vows? a handfasting ceremony?). That way, your ceremony shouldn’t be derailed by the minister having to double check what your name is.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
A traditional wedding can be an absolutely wonderful experience to share with your partner, drawn out over the course of several months with all of the planning and preparing and organizing involved. It can also be a financial and logistical nightmare, that can make it challenging to remember that, at the end of the day, the ONLY important thing is that you’re marrying your best friend. Despite these hurdles, if you dream of having a wedding with lots of intricate details or you’ve always wanted to be in the spotlight on your wedding day, this is probably the right choice for you.
A Vegas wedding is fun and carefree and low-stress as a wedding could possibly be. It can also feel a bit cold and impersonal, which is generally the opposite of how a wedding should feel. If you’re a no-frills bride or groom (is this your second wedding? Are you guys trying to get married on a pretty short timeframe, like for a visa or for health insurance purposes? Or maybe, do you just not want to spend $20,000 on a giant party?), then a Vegas wedding may just be perfect.
Either way, you’ll wind up married to the person of your dreams- and who knows? If you have a rad experience the first go-around (which, c’mon, either way, you totally will), maybe you’ll be like us and have both types of wedding. Who says you can’t have your (wedding) cake and eat it too.
Are you in the midst of a planning a wedding? Have any comments or questions about the process? Let me know in the comment section below!
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