What Buying My Wedding Dress Taught Me About Living Within My Means

Casey Hynes – Up Close and Personal Finance

Buying your wedding dress is supposed to be many things—momentous, memorable, fairytale-like. A profound lesson in living within your means? That’s a little less conventional. But when I set out to spend less on my perfect white dress, that’s exactly what I found.

In addition to living a contented, fulfilled life with one another, my fiancé and I share another goal: to achieve financial freedom. We’ve spent the past five years encouraging each other to pay off our debts and be mindful of our spending, and we’ve steadily accumulated successes. But getting engaged presented us with our biggest financial challenge to date: planning and paying for our wedding.

In 2017, the average U.S. wedding cost $33,000, according to The Knot , a number we’re not comfortable spending for our big day. Instead, we promised each other we would get married in a way that felt true for us, which means not taking on debt for the wedding. We’d apply our hard-earned lessons about impulsive and emotional spending, and we’d plan a wedding that is beautiful, sacred, and that does not cost more than a down payment on a house.

To honor those shared values early on, I decided one thing about dress shopping: I would find a gown that made me feel like a beautiful, blushing bride without spending thousands and going into debt. I also wanted to share the occasion with my mom, sister, and sister-in-law, so online shopping was out of the question. I scheduled an appointment for when we would all be together at Christmas.

It would be the first wedding-related purchase, and the first opportunity to put this budget-mindful mentality into practice. WeddingWire reports that most brides in the U.S. spend $1,050 on their dresses; The Knot puts the average at $1,509 including alterations. When setting the budget for my dress, I put my hard limit at $500 for the dress only. (I’m 5’1,” so it almost goes without saying I’ll need alterations.) And I’d have three trusted family members on deck to keep me in check.

Why half the average? That number felt extravagant enough to find something amazing, but reasonable enough to not keep me up at night. Besides, more money doesn’t always equal more satisfaction–a painful lesson I had learned buying prom gowns in the early aughts.

For my 2002 junior prom, I begged my mom to buy me an enormous, multilayered $360 purple ballgown. To our shared regret, she agreed, and we spent the ensuing months arguing about who should have to pay for the additional $300 in alterations. When prom night came, I was so uncomfortable in the corseted undergarment needed to keep the dress in place, my girlfriends had to covertly help me loosen it just so I could eat dinner and breathe.

The following year, both my mom and I were wiser. She helped me find a two-piece get-up with a body-skimming black skirt and nude top with black lace overlay. It was about as far a cry from the purple gown as you could get, and I couldn’t have felt more confident. The total cost was $100, and I rocked that chic two-piece for years afterward, busting it out for nearly every formal event.

The last time I wore the purple ballgown? In 2004, when my then-6-year-old sister and I played dress-up and ate ice cream in my parents’ living room while watching the Oscars.

Now, I don’t anticipate wearing my wedding gown for multiple occasions, so I wasn’t buying for utility. But I knew I could find something beautiful in my price range and be just as happy with it as I would be with a $2,000 dress. Rather than book an appointment at a high-end boutique, I opted for David’s Bridal, knowing they’d have more options in my price range with less pressure.

Admittedly, the temptation to ignore my hard number was real once I got in the store and saw the pricier designer dresses in person. Until recently, I was an impulsive spender, especially when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime events. Had my fiancé and I gotten engaged five years ago, I would have given into the giddiness of trying on designer gowns and spared no expense. I’d have justified the years of payments and accruing interest by insisting, “You only get to buy your wedding dress once!”

But my family, and the special day we had, kept me grounded. My sister-in-law and I both live about eight hours from my parents and sister, in opposite directions. The odds we’d all be together again for wedding dress shopping were slim. If I wanted to share the moment with them, I needed to try on dresses I could afford so that I could wholeheartedly say yes to the dress.

To my delight, that’s exactly what happened. I tried on four dresses before finding the one. But then my sister buttoned me into the dress. The dress fit so well it felt like coming home. When the attendant put on my cathedral-length veil and handed me a faux bouquet, I started crying. So did my squad. It was clear the search was over.

The attendant announced the dress was $450. I was under budget. I hugged my family, we took a bunch of goofy pictures in the store’s photo booth, and then we went out to celebrate with Champagne and cheesecake.

We would have done those things (especially the Champagne and cheesecake) regardless of what I spent on my dress, and that’s what stayed with me. I’ll treasure that experience forever, and it will never be marred by night-sweats over not being able to pay off my dress or an argument with my fiancé about spending exorbitantly on one single element of our wedding. I set a limit for myself and stuck to it, and that allowed me the freedom to revel in my finding my gown and sharing that once-in-a-lifetime moment with women I love.

Later that night, I told my fiancé I wanted my dress to be a microcosm of the rest of our wedding planning and the rest of our lives. If we plan within our means and stick to what feels comfortable for us, we’ll be deeply content on our upcoming wedding day. We’ll find the right venue and the right menu in the right season on the right date because we’ll be guided not just by the numbers, but by our shared goals and our values.