I will be shooting the weddings of five close friends and family members this year and as such, I've been a bit more involved in the planning of their big days. Along with that, I've found the same question keeps presenting itself in different ways:
"If I send my save the dates now, how long do I wait to send my official invites?"
"When should I expect people to RSVP by?"
"How early do I need to order..."
"When is the best time to..."
"At what point do I need to...."
"Is it too late to...."
Now, I'm certainly no expert here, and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND hiring a wedding coordinator to help you with these questions, but hopefully this will give you some ideas for what might work for you. Particularly as it relates to your photography. :)
Please do not feel like you need to follow this exaclty...or at all, but if you're just looking for a place to start, hopefully you'll find this helpful. I am basing it off of a 12 month timeline. If your big day is in 6 months, cut the times in half, 18 months, you have a little leeway etc...
- Start a binder to keep everything together (vendor info, price comparisons, receipts)
- Sit down with with your future spouse and any parents who might be helping with the cost and determine not only an overall budget but how much of it you'd like to designate to each area.
- Start a guest list, it will need to be adjusted as you go along (most likely cut due to costs) but go ahead and get a ballpark idea of how many you'd have there if everyone you loved came, this will help you choose your venue as some only hold a certain amount.
- Hire a planner. (In St. Augustine, I love Heidi) This will save you SOOOO much stress. They are naturally good at details (that's why they're planners) and they know a ton about the industry and what vendors and details will suit you best.
- Choose a season you'd like to be married in, and even a month, just don't set your heart on a specific date until you know your venue and other main vendors are available.
- Choose your Venue(s). Popular ceremony and reception venues book up sometimes two years in advance. Once you know your venue is available for the date you want, you'll be able to choose your other vendors accordingly and send out save the dates. Check to make sure they don't host multiple weddings in one day, that can make it stressful if you're trying to get in and out at very specific times.
- If you like, Throw an Engagement Party! We will always take ANY reason to celebrate with the people we love. Just don't feel like you have to... especially if you'd rather save your budget for better options on the wedding day.
- Determine which vendors are most important to you and secure them for the date asap in order of importance. This will also deplete the budget the fastest, so if you know you can't live without a specific DJ, book them first and you can get a second choice caterer if the budget gets tight. I personally think photography is most important because it's the only thing you get to keep after the big day besides your spouse, but definitely figure out what is most important to you and your future spouse.
- Register for gifts at various stores, most you can do online these days, Wedding Wire also helps streamline this process.
- Say yes to a dress. (or two for two brides both wearing dresses, double the fun!) It's fine if you're borrowing it, just know where it's coming from and whether or not it will need to be altered. This tends to take a couple months.
- Reserve a block of hotel rooms for out of town guests at 2-3 different hotels at different price points near the venue.
- Schedule your engagement session with your photographer. If you plan to use these photos for save the dates, you'll need to be closer to 11 months out, if not, I've shot them as late as the day before the wedding. :)
- Launch a wedding website if you'd like, through a free service such as Weddingwire.com. This will be helpful for guests needing info leading up to the big day. (It's also fun to put it together, and you can show off photos from your engagement session if you choose to have one)
- Choose your wedding party. If you know for sure that, say, siblings will be in the party, feel free to let them know asap. But we chose ours while still in college a year and a half before the big day with friends changing constantly and by the time our day rolled around we weren't even sure a couple of them would show up! ALSO, don't feel like it has to be all women or all men based on your gender. If you want your brother AND sister standing by your side, do it.
- If you're choosing specific dresses for any ladies in your party to wear, get them ordered now, it often takes as much as six months for them to arrive, then you need to consider alterations. It's also common practice today to just choose a color and length and allow the girls to choose their dress, this way price point and body type for each one can be considered.
- Start planning your honeymoon. Do you need passports or shots?
- Choose wedding shoes and begin your alterations, make sure to bring the shoes with you to each fitting. (It usually takes about 3 fittings)
- Meet with your officiant and decide if you'll want to do pre-marital counseling. I HIGHLY recommend this, regardless of your religious affiliation. Having a couple sessions to talk through some of the big things you can expect in your marriage will help you get through those tuff times so much better.
- Reserve your structural necessities. If an outdoor wedding, you might need a tent, portable toilets, extra chairs etc, it will depend on your venue, just make sure you check in with them.
- Florists can come a little later due to the fact that they can usually book multiple weddings in one day, but if you have your heart set on one, make sure you lean closer to 6 months.
- Arrange any transportation you might need for yourselves, your wedding party or the entire guest list if there will be heavy drinking at the reception. Consider trolleys, limos, busses and pre-paid uber passes.
- Finalize your menu with the caterer.
- Choose your cake or other desserts if your caterer does not provide them. Doughnuts, cupcakes, truffles and ice cream bars are all popular options as well.
- Schedule hair and/or make up artists and decide if you'll also be providing them for your girls/moms/sisters etc... It's a great idea to have them do your trial run the day of your engagement or bridal session so you'll know what to expect on the big day and whether or not you like the way you look in photos.
- Order favors for guests if you so desire, or welcome baskets for out of town guests. You can also plan gifts for those who helped out, like parents and wedding party etc.
- Purchase the wedding bands now in case you need any resizing.
- Nail down your guest list and send invitations. Feel free to get fancy with a calligrapher or keep it super simple with social media, either way, make sure everyone you want to be there has it in their calendar. RSVP cutoff is usually about 2-3 weeks prior to the wedding so you can inform your caterer of exact food amounts.
- If you're choosing to have a bridal session, now is the time to get it done if you'd like to have any images printed to canvas and displayed at the reception. Keep in mind you will also need to bump up the time your wedding gown is completed. (If you don't plan to have prints at the reception you can just make sure to set aside enough time for your photographer to take bridal portraits on the morning of the big day)
- Rent or buy the attire for the groom (or grooms) as well as any men in the wedding party (or ladies wearing suits).
- Create a day-of timeline. This is best done WITH your coordinator and photographer to make sure you're on the same page with how long certain pieces take. They have experienced hundreds of weddings and can guide you. It is also good to send this to your other vendors to make sure they don't see any red flags. (If you accidentally only planned 5 minutes to hand deliver 300 plated meals, your caterer will catch that)
- Book rehearsal dinner, day after brunch and any other venues for special meals before and after the big day for out of town and special guests.
- Make sure your DJ or band know what music you want played and more importantly, what you don't. Guests will inevitably make requests, if there's something specific you don't want to hear on your happy day, make sure they know to kindly tell your guests, "no."
- Make sure you inform those you'd like to make a toast well in advance so they have time to prepare. Some will still "shoot from the hip" on the day of, but others appreciate having lots of time to write the perfect speech.
- Sometimes it's easier on planning to hold bachelor and bachelorette parties a month or two in advance, especially if you plan to travel somewhere like Vegas, but if all your friends are from out of town, it can be easiest to schedule it the night BEFORE the rehearsal so you have time to recover. :)
- Finalize the ceremony timeline as well as any readings, songs, or special moments. Make sure you are on the same page with the officiant and anyone else you'd like to participate. Marriage licenses take about a week, so give yourselves some leeway.
- Confirm arrival times for all vendors and make sure you've exchanged answers to any final questions.
- Send out as many final vendor payments as you can so you do not have to worry about it at the reception while you're trying to dance.
- If any guests have not RSVPd by the cut off, it's a good idea to call them or check in via social media one last time to make sure.
- If you will be assigning seating for the reception, do this after your final RSVP date so you know exactly what you're working with. It can also be a good idea to plan a "did not rsvp" table if your caterer allows the flexibility. It's also wise to consider your vendors here, do you want your photographer, officiant or band sitting with the guests and a plated meal, or will you ask the caterer to provide a vendor meal in the back.
- Write your vows if necessary, or letters to exchange with each other on the morning of.
- Delegate small tasks like bustling the dress, paying and tipping vendors, giving out party gifts, bringing snacks to the getting ready suites, creating a getting ready playlist or anything else you don't want to have to fret about on the morning of.
- Send a timeline to the wedding party and answer any questions.
- Pick up your dress(es) and tux(es)
- If you're doing a mani or pedi make sure it's booked for the morning of the rehearsal, or even the day before. A stress-relieving couple's massage is always a good idea as well. It will help you both destress.
- Pack for the honeymoon.
- At rehearsal confirm any readings, answer any questions for the family and wedding party and make sure everyone know where they need to be and when. (It's a good idea to tell them 30-60 minutes earlier than necessary if they tend to run late)
- Pass out any gifts for the party or parents (especially if you expect them to wear them the next day).
- Bring anything to the ceremony site that you're allowed to leave (candles, programs etc)
- Give marriage license to the officiant
- Have all items you want photographed delivered to one of your getting ready suites so that your photographer can capture it all together (before you give the rings to the best man etc...)
- Just take it all in. It will go by SO fast. Things are not going to go quite as planned and that is JUST FINE. As long as you both say, "I do" all the other details will work themselves out. Relax and enjoy watching all your hard work play out before your eyes. You're almost MARRIED!
Please do NOT feel like this is comprehensive or that you need to follow all or any of it. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to not stress about the big day but enjoy the process and love each other through all the decisions.
No matter what decisions you make, who's opinions you heed to or kindly turn down - the way you treat your future spouse and all those trying to help you make good decisions will FAR outweigh what final decisions were actually made. No one will care that you had the most beautiful flowers if you yelled at them for not holding them the right way, they won't care how good you looked in your gown if you yelled at them for stepping on the train, they won't remember that your food was amazing if you told them their ideas for food were terrible.
Treat your people with kindness above all and everyone will remember what an incredible couple you both are and how you had the most beautiful wedding they've ever seen.