After our initial wedding plans went up in smoke, I was — oddly enough — relieved. Relieved because I had been up in Maine the weekend before it all went south, and I was really sad that we weren’t getting married in Maine. Cancelling the country club down here forced me to realize just how much I wanted to get married on my native soil. Plus, I mean, how hard could it be to plan an inexpensive wedding for about 70 people in rural Maine????
Apparently, it’s a lot harder than I thought. (This story alone gave me fits — note number of attendees!)
The “average” Maine wedding runs around $30,000 (see here, for example). I’m pretty bad at math but even I know that “average” is not the right benchmark to use for these things, because if you have 9 people who spend $10,000 and one person who spends $100,000 the average is going to skew high. What you really want is the MEDIAN cost, which this article in Slate explains nicely. I have no idea what the median cost for a Maine wedding is, but I’m guessing it’s probably more like $12,000 – $15,000. The problem is two-fold: one, the wedding industry wants you to believe you have to spend more, and two, there are plenty of people with money “from away” who can come to Maine as a destination wedding and drop oodles of money, driving up the prices. A lot of the places we looked into are clearly catering to this demographic and not to people who, you know, ACTUALLY LIVE IN MAINE.
(Technically I’m now from away, but as long as my birth certificate says “born in Maine”, I’m still a Mainer. And I have a Mainer budget!)
After several weeks we came up with what one might think were some pretty reasonable parameters:
- We need to be able to afford it (more on that in a bit)
- We have to have real bathrooms, not portapotties (to quote Erik, “for $4,000 I want porcelain”)
- It needs to be located in the state of Maine, ideally within an hour or two of my parents home
- It needs to be reasonably private – ie, we wanted our wedding to be the only event going on at the time and in a relatively quiet location
- It needs to be outdoorsy or historic or interesting in some other way
Not a deal-breaker, but we also really want a Saturday wedding since so many people will be travelling up from other states. You can get substantial discounts by getting married on other days of the weeks, but you have to weigh that against your guest list and calculate how many people are actually likely to show up.
The affordability thing. Every wedding magazine will tell you that the way to lower your wedding cost is to invite less people. To some extent that’s true, but paying $50 for a few more dinners isn’t really going to matter when you are paying thousands of dollars in venue fees. No, rule #1 is FIND SOMEPLACE CHEAP. We are finding that most venue charges start around $3,000 — and that includes the old barns you find so quaint and charming. In fact, the more rundown and quaint, the more expensive it will be. Most barn rentals are starting around $4,000, up to as much as $12,000.
The other thing we quickly discovered is that it is quite common for B&B’s and small inns that do weddings to require you to rent all the guest rooms out for the weekend (ie, two-night minimums). So in addition to venue fees, you have to pay for guest rooms. Some places let your guests register and pay for themselves, but most required it as part of the wedding package and said we’d just have to get people to pay us directly for the rooms. Neither one of us felt comfortable doing that, plus we would be on the hook for any rooms not used. If we had the budget I would love to be able to provide rooms for our out-of-town guests, but in most cases this would have added another $5,000+ to our costs. Not happening.
In about 75% of the places we looked at, you were also required to rent a tent which would add another $1,000 – $2,000 on to the costs.
So, while a $3,000 venue fee doesn’t sound so bad, by the time you are done tacking on room rentals and a tent rental you can easily spend $8,000+ before you have even looked at a menu, hired a DJ, or booked a photographer.
Also, about a third of the places we talked to required you to rent tables, chairs, linens, and/or dinnerware (plates, glasses, silverware). Depending on the size of your wedding that could run another $250-$1,000. (One vendor I talked to told me a lot of their brides buy wedding linens off Craigslist and then resell them, rather than renting them.)
Enter the portapotty problem. Most places we have considered thus far either have portapotties or require you to rent them. I’m guessing this is because most of the venues are on private septic systems that just can’t handle thousands of flushes over the course of a wedding season. Surprisingly enough I wasn’t that bothered, but it was one of the few things Erik vetoed. This ruled out a wide range of places, more than you might think.
The other complication we are running into is attendance minimums. Many places require a minimum of 80 people – some required up to 150, particularly for a Saturday in June. We decided early on that we wanted a smaller wedding – not just because of the budget, but because we’re older and neither of us wanted a circus. Initially we were just going to invite 35 of our immediate family and close friends, but it felt weird to me to not have my aunts and uncles there so we upped it. Even with our increased wedding size, the required minimums have eliminated a number of places. Also, sometimes the required attendee minimums (say, 100 people) don’t always match up to the dollar amount minimums…so for example, a minimum of 80 people for a $100 per person food package might be $8,000, but the venue could have a $10,000 food minimum meaning that you have to purchase additional appetizers or a dessert package. Or, you have to bump up to the $150 per person food package which blows your budget.
Finally, the “administrative fees” and taxes. Maine has 8% sales tax, which on average seems to be adding about $500 to the bottom line. Well fine, I love Maine, I’m happy to pay the state a little something. (I’d be happier with a different governor but that’s another tirade for another day.) But most places also tack on an administrative charge ranging from 18% up to 25%. I can’t tell you how many packages seemed affordable until I read the fine print and did the math.
Here’s the good news: if you can spend more than $20,000 on your reception, you can have a REALLY nice reception in Maine. A serious bargain for people grappling with Boston, NYC or other urban area pricing. If you can spend $15,000-$20,000 on your reception, you also have a lot of nice options, in some cases even providing at least some of your guests with accommodations. You can even find some “weekend wedding experience” packages in this range, which are very common and give you the ability to have a venue from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon — a great idea if you can afford it.
The bad news is, if your budget is under $10,000 and you don’t want to hold your reception at a VFW hall or the fairgrounds, it’s pretty challenging. I think it can be done – at least, I’m trying to PROVE it can be done. Stay tuned and see what happens….