Written by Abigail Davidson
Photos: Jenn Manor
The day after my now-husband, Keith, popped the question, I was all over Pinterest like every other freshly engaged woman. My stomach filled with butterflies, I pinned away, getting color ideas and decoration inspiration, dreaming about what my “perfect day” would be like.
And then… we sat down and did the budget. Though we were so thankful for some help from our friends and family for helping us financially toward the end of our planning season, we knew that for the most part, we’d be paying for our wedding ourselves. We were in debt, didn’t have a wedding savings, and just started a new business. Add in the fact that I wanted to do things as ethically as possible, which often means spending even more money, and the financial reality began to set in… along with the stress.
I always imagined a huge wedding for myself. I wanted to invite all of my friends - from my work places, the churches and ministry I’d been involved with, and the friends from high school and college I’d stayed in touch with. Plus, my husband and I both have relatively large extended families. Our first guest list had over 400 people on it.
And with a large number like that comes a huge budget. Bigger location, more food and drinks, more tables and chairs to rent… it all adds up QUICKLY! I soon realized the wedding I had envisioned for myself was probably not realistic.
SO WE PRIORITIZED, DOWNSIZED, AND GOT CREATIVE.
I started asking myself what was actually important. Yes, this should be a special day. But did I really need to spend $20,000 on a wedding? (Actually, $20K is still cheap; the average cost of a wedding in America in 2015 was $32,000.) Would what I had envisioned for my “Big Day” really be the most special way to do it for me and my husband? Yes, I wanted to have a great celebration. But at the same time, that money could be used in so many other ways: to pay off debt, to travel the world, to put into our businesses, or to donate to hungry people who actually need it.
So, I got off Pinterest and Instagram, and started thinking outside the box. We chose a location we could actually afford. It was small, but beautiful. We cut our guestlist down to 80 people. It was difficult, as we had to omit a lot of people I would have enjoyed celebrating with. But it also forced us to prioritize and spend that day with our closest friends and family. Honestly, if I would have had a huge wedding like I imagined, I would have been so overwhelmed and probably wouldn’t have had that much fun anyway!
I had SO much fun on our wedding day, and in the end, I was really happy that we prioritized what was truly important, didn’t spend a fortune, and still managed to do it in a pretty socially conscious way.
THE DILEMMA OF A SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS WEDDING
Throwing a 100% socially conscious wedding is quite the challenge. I knew that I wanted to do things as ethically as possible, and here again, we had to prioritize. Not everything about our wedding was done completely consciously when it came to sourcing everything we needed. At times, we sacrificed sustainability for budget. But we did what we could, and that’s what living a conscious lifestyle is all about: taking baby steps, doing what you can until you can do more.
Here are the details:
More and more brides are stepping outside the box and choosing a less traditional wedding dress. I took my sister to try on dresses in my city’s bridal district, but something didn’t seem right. I didn’t feel beautiful in any of them, and even cheap wedding dresses are expensive. What was the point in spending thousands of dollars on a dress that I didn’t love and was made in a sweatshop anyway?!
So again, we got creative.
TOP: Style Saint ($88)
The top of my dress I ordered from Style Saint. Style Saint’s clothing is all 100% sweatshop free. When you purchase an item from them, you receive a piece of paper that tells you how many hours of fair wage labor it took to make that item, how many gallons of water were saved throughout the production process, and how many yards of sustainable fabric were used.
SKIRT: Made with love by my mom!
I’m lucky enough to have a master seamstress as a mother. We spent months going back and forth to the fabric store and her house, looking for the right patterns and fabrics that would go perfectly with my top, creating a dress that was fancy enough to get married in, but reflected my personality more than a traditional gown. I’m so glad to have worn something that was made by hand just for me!
MOH DRESS: my mom, again.
Since we decided to have a smaller ceremony, I didn’t have a full bridal party. Instead, my sister and my husband’s best friend we the only ones who stood beside us as our Matron of Honor and Best Man.
After again doing some shopping around and not being able to find anything we liked, my mom made my sister’s dress as well! This was so fun because we were able to make it compliment my dress perfectly.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a sewing machine for a mom, check out my friend Alden’s post about how to find a sustainable wedding dress from a designer. The point is, don’t be afraid to think outside the box!
Instead of a tux, Keith wore a plain black suit he already had!
Purchasing a diamond that was mined ethically was very important to me. The diamond industry is wrought with injustices like human trafficking and child labor, and diamonds and other precious stones and metals are often used to fuel civil wars and other types of violence in certain parts of the world. I knew that if I’m going to wear this ring for the rest of my life, I didn’t want to look at it every day wondering if this stone which is meant to symbolize selfless love and commitment was dug out by a seven year old being forced to do back-breaking labor for thirteen hours a day.
Many of the “conflict-free” rings you’ll find in traditional jewelry stores are still far from ethically-sourced. In order to qualify as “conflict-free,” the stone must not be used to “finance rebel movements against recognized governments.” However, this leaves out a huge number of diamonds that are contaminated by violence, child labor, unfair working conditions, and environmental harm. In other words, it’s very possible for a diamond to qualify as “conflict-free,” yet was still obtained through extremely unjust measures.
So, my ring was purchased from Brilliant Earth. Brilliant Earth goes “beyond conflict-free” by ensuring that each of their carefully selected suppliers adhere to strict labor and environmental standards. They use only recycled metals and each ring comes with a “birth certificate” which shows you exactly where your stone came from. The team at Brilliant Earth is also passionate about advocating for awareness and education about the corruption and injustice in the jewelry industry and gives back 5% of its profits to communities harmed by the industry.
I wanted a super simple and delicate band to match my ring. I originally ordered a matching band from Brilliant Earth, but returned it because I didn’t like the shape. I decided instead to go with a local artisan jewelry maker, a friend of a friend. Old Hills Design Company created a perfectly dainty rose gold band for a really affordable price. Vanessa, owner and Chief Ring Maker, is super nice, flexible, quick, and cares about using eco-friendly metals and other materials in her jewelry. I highly recommend her!
My husband got his ring for like $15 off of ebay and I have no idea where it came from. Hey, you can’t win them all, right?!
I am craaaazy about how my flowers turned out! Here again, we took the DIY route in order to save money. I’m lucky enough to have an artist as a best friend, who has dabbled in floral design for fun (although she could make a career out of it if she wanted). I essentially gave Jackie the reigns when it came to the flowers, and she was able to gather local, sustainably-sourced flowers from several different places and arrange them herself.
For my bouquet, my sister’s bouquet, small bouquets for the moms and grandma, and boutonnieres for my husband, best man, dads, and grandpas, I spent a total of $100 on these babies (yes, we were very resourceful and tactful, but I’m pretty sure we also got lucky with this price). Jackie, my sister, and I had a flower-arranging party a couple days before the wedding and had a lot of fun putting the bouquets together!
Flowers sourced from:
Finding the right location was quite difficult. Location is often one of the most expensive parts of a wedding, and it often comes with rules and stipulations about food and drinks which can increase your budget even more.
We landed at The Frock, a small studio and event space in Covington, Kentucky that is run by a florist, a photographer, and an event planning company. The ladies of The Frock are amazing and so helpful. Usually the space is used for events like showers, business meetings, launch parties and the like; this was the first wedding that was held there. We had both the ceremony and the reception there, which made for a different feel than a traditional wedding. Guests arrived, got drinks, and mingled for about 20 minutes. We rolled out a rose colored walkway for my dad and I, then had a short ceremony and everyone except parents and grandparents just stood to watch. We didn’t want a bunch of time in between the ceremony and reception, so we just combined it into one big party! We set up a DIY photo booth and brought out chairs for people to sit and eat following the ceremony. It was out of the box, but so intimate; I'm really glad we decided to use this space!
THE HAIR, MAKEUP, & NAILS
I got my hair and makeup done by my friends Holly and Amy, who are pros at making people look and feel beautiful. Salons charge SO much money for wedding hair, partly because you usually have to go to two appointments for a trial run, and partly because they know they can charge you that much. I decided that was not a priority for me, and was so happy to enjoy that time with my friends anyway!
We got our nails done at Spruce Natural Nail Shop in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati. Most typical nail salons are filled with chemicals that are not only harmful for you, but have found to cause problems like infertility among the workers after being exposed to them day after day. Not only that, but nail salons are a hotspots for human trafficking, abuse, underpayment, and other unethical practices. Spruce Nail Shop not only treats its employees well, but all of their products are natural, eco-friendly, vegan, and cruelty-free. Plus, their shop is SO cute and comfortable!
The Frock didn’t need much decorating, as it was already so beautiful and elegant! We hung a “Best Day Ever” balloon, some twinkle lights, and a few vases with gold paper flowers, but kept the decorations minimal.
THE FOOD & DRINKS
This was the one area where we sacrificed sustainability for budget. We catered a taco bar from a local joint and one of Hamilton Ohio’s best kept secrets, Allen’s Market, which came highly recommended by our brother-in-law. We purchased our beer and wine in bulk from a local liquor store and paid a couple really awesome friends of a friend to be our bartenders for the evening. We used regular old paper plates, cups, and utensils.
My Dad owns Maggie Moo’s Ice Cream in Centerville, Ohio. I looooove ice cream, and neither my husband nor I are big fans of cake, so we decided to just have an ice cream bar instead! It was so fun, and our friends and family loved it.
I was so excited to have a La Terza Coffee espresso bar at our wedding. La Terza Coffee not only roasts the best coffee in Cincinnati, but they care deeply about social enterprise. All of their coffee farmers are paid and treated fairly, and David Gaines, La Terza’s primary owner, is one of Seven Seeds’ Co-Founders! Feel free to let him know if you’d like more information on getting a full-service coffee and espresso bar at your wedding or event (email@example.com).
Our guests loved the way we did our food, and I got a lot of comments about how they preferred the taco bar, ice cream, and espresso bar over the traditional sit down dinner with some food that was probably much more expensive and didn’t taste as good. Again, don’t be afraid to step outside the box and forget about tradition!
After speaking with lots of brides who had gone before me, this was the one thing that almost all of them said to prioritize. “You’re not going to be able to save your dinner, dessert, or decorations. Your photos you will keep forever,” they said. Or: “If I could go back, I would have spent more money on a photographer, and less on a cake.” I took their advice and wanted to make sure to capture this day as beautifully as I could.
I had worked with Jenn Manor once before on a spread about the conscious scene in Cincinnati for Conscious Magazine Issue 04, and she did a wonderful job. I loved her style and felt it would fit well with my own.
To save money, I asked my closest friends to gift me with money to contribute to my photographer instead of getting me a physical gift, since these photos were much more meaningful to me than new kitchen towels.
Keith and I debated a lot about whether or not we even wanted a registry. Though there were definitely things we needed for our home, we are somewhat of minimalists, and the last thing we wanted was a bunch of new STUFF we didn’t need! However, I know most people (myself included) really enjoy getting gifts for others, so I created a couple registries anyway.
I recommend using Thankful Registry. Thankful is based on the concept of gratitude over greed, and values individuality, thoughtfulness, and equality. They make it really easy for you to create your own beautiful registry website and add products from any website on the Internet. So you can shop around and add products from all of your favorite ethical brands, as well as add a Honeymoon Fund where guests can give money through PayPal. Thankful has a free trial and costs $30/year after that.
THE PARTY GIFTS
We decided against giving party favors to all of our guests, mostly because it just seemed wasteful to spend a thousand dollars on some little trinket that would most likely get thrown out. I did a lot of research to find something that would be actually practical and wouldn’t use a bunch of plastic packing material, but didn’t come up with anything that would be worth it. I’m pretty sure no one cared.
As for gifts for our parents, officiant, MOH and best man, we carefully picked out and purchased very personalized gifts, most of them from Etsy. They were almost entirely handmade, from an initial charm bracelet for my mother-in-law, to a hammer engraved with my handwriting for my dad. For my good friend who did my makeup, we got a bracelet from The Shine Project, a brand that employs first generation college students. And for Jackie, who did my flowers (and like a ton of other stuff), a giftcard to Continuum, a favorite women’s clothing and accessory boutique in Cincinnati where everything is produced ethically and sustainably.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
I am so, so happy with how our wedding day turned out. We celebrated with the people we love, we didn’t spend a ton of money, and I could feel good about what I was wearing. I was really happy to give up the comparing game of the Brides of the Internet and do things simply instead.
Throwing an affordable, conscious wedding is a challenge. In the end, my advice to you is this:
Prioritize and be realistic.
What is truly most important to you? Is it to have the most beautiful wedding of all of your friends? Is it to make all of Instagram envy your decorating skills? For me, it was about joining together with the people we love to celebrate a new life together. Although I most definitely wanted to throw a party, I had to be realistic with myself about budget and realize there are other things that are more important than a “perfect” wedding day. And I was so glad I did.
So, be yourself! Wedding “rules” are so outdated, so do things the way you want! If you don’t want a white dress, don’t wear a white dress. If you don’t want to have it in a traditional venue, then don’t. If people want to judge you, that’s their problem, and they can do things the way they want on their wedding day!
If you can’t afford to source everything 100% ethically, then do what you can. Choose a few things, and fight to find vendors, artisans, and brands that care about social justice and giving back to the community.
Set proper expectations.
Remember: it’s a special day, but it’s still just a day. Chances are, not everything is going to go your way. That’s okay! Part of living a conscious lifestyle is learning how to choose your battles and decide what is important to stand up for. So, be kind. Don’t be a Bridezilla. Go with the flow. Remember what this day is about.
Use your resources!
Perhaps the best piece of advice I can give you is: let people help you. Did you notice a trend in this post? My friends and family did practically everything! From my dress, to my flowers, to my hair and makeup, I called on my talented people and asked if they would contribute in one way or another. Of course the people who love you are going to be happy to do so. Not only does this cut down on costs (a lot!), but it also makes the day so much more special!