I grew up in the 80s with a single working mother and Madonna as my role models. Instead of dreaming about being a princess bride, I fantasized about having my own house to dance around in.

So when my beloved boyfriend of two years got down on one knee—in front of a dozen of our closest friends—and asked if I'd be his baby forever, I was speechless. It wasn't the idea of marriage that terrified me: it was the wedding.

I adored the idea of taking vows publicly, ritualistically, in front of my dearest family and friends. But I felt a sickening dread when I considered the sheer volume of wasted money, resources, and energy that goes into most weddings. I had been to weddings where flowers worth more than my car were tossed out like trash, and read that the average American wedding costs 20,000 dollars, almost as much as my annual salary as a high school teacher.

I didn't want to kick off my marriage with an orgy of consumption. More importantly, we couldn't even afford to throw a wedding. That is, until we began redefining the very idea of what a wedding could be. Until we asked: what can we do ourselves?

By answering this question honestly, creatively, and with heavy doses of adrenaline, we managed to host a delightful wedding with sixty guests for under $5000. Because we orchestrated it all, from the compostable cutlery to the pinata, guests kept telling us how moved they were by the way our wedding reflected our values and indeed, our love.

Here are some tips on how to plan your own DIY wedding:

Mine your friends for talent

Let people's gifts to you be their contributions to your wedding. In this way, people give you something more meaningful than a check, and you get to save your hard-won money for a honeymoon instead of overpriced professionals.

Look hard enough and you'll find talent lurking in everyone you know. A friend of mine who used to work as a pastry chef made our cake, a vanilla butter-cream passion-fruit affair whose top tier we ate the next day. Another friend bought in-season flowers in bulk from a local discount warehouse and created gorgeous bouquets in mason jars we'd collected from thrift stores. Two photographer friends brought their best equipment and gave us the gift of captured moments. We even had a dear friend marry us!

A couple we're close to who are skilled carpenters an altar out of drift-wood we foraged from the beach one sunny day. We set it up next to the garden, adorned it with flowers, candles, and incense, and invited people to write wishes, jokes, prayers, and riddles for us to read in the days to come. And one of our students, a fifteen year-old with classically-trained piano chops, played Pachelbel's Canon on our living room piano as we walked down the aisle (we paid her fifty bucks).

Everyone has a type-A friend who loves to organize, make lists, and stay on task. Get this person to be your wedding coordinator! Together we constructed a time-table and an agenda, and then left it to her to make sure people knew when to quiet down for toasts or line up for cake.

Tap into your own creativity

Think about all the things you can make instead of buy. Instead of programs, we painted the day's agenda on a big smooth piece of wood, propped up on an easel. Instead of a full cocktail bar, Michael made a giant pitcherful of sugar-mint-lime mash the day before, and guests enjoyed the make-your-own-mojito station with instructions and ingredients. And instead of store-bought invitations, we designed and formatted our own, and printed them at a local copy business for under a hundred dollars.

In order to make our home wedding-ready, we had a few friends over the day before for a high-spirited decorating party. We gave them beer and snacks, and they helped us string ribbons on the porch railings, water the plants, create hand-painted signs for the bathroom and “bridal chamber,” turn an ice-chest full of flowers into gorgeous bouquets, and rig up a home-made PA system so that our vows could be heard loud and clear. We also printed and framed several photos from our recent summer trip to Cuba—an easy, inexpensive way to share our lives with our guests and enhance the wedding-day décor.

Finally, instead of store-bought wedding favors, we put our talents to use and created a personalized wedding CD featuring original recordings done by the musically talented groom, including one he wrote especially for the occasion. To save money, we designed the six-page booklet ourselves, and chose a photo of us for the cover. And guess who wrote the liner notes?

Think outside the winery

The greatest expense of most weddings is the rental cost of the place. There are loads of lovely (and free!) places to host a gathering. Consider schoolyards and public parks. One couple I know threw a commando wedding picnic in the middle of a gorgeous redwood forest. What about your own home? You don't have to live in a palace to have a wedding. We did it, and we don't even have a backyard.

Focus on what you do have. We have a big front porch that became a natural altar. Our front yard served as the seating area, and after the ceremony, the eating area. Our big living room, with its worn wood floors, was an ideal dance floor.

Another advantage of having it at your home is that you get to enhance your own living space in the name of your wedding. Since we both love to garden, we spent a few hundred dollars on flowers—dahlias, marigolds, petunias, begonias, and scores of other showy buds. Not only was our garden stunningly fragrant and colorful for the big day, but we got to enjoy the blooms long after the guests were gone. Half a year later, we're watching the perennials unfurl their brand new buds.

Exploit technology

In this iPod-saturated world, D.J.s are about as necessary as bow ties. Instead we asked people to request a song on their reply cards, which gave us an easy list of favorites (although we did veto the Phantom of the Opera). Friends created mixed CDs (play-lists would work just as well) and took turns playing D.J once the dance party really got started.

Something(s) borrowed

Think about all the things you can borrow instead of buy. People are likely going to be thrilled to let you borrow their microphones, table cloths, ruby earrings, or, in my case, wedding dress. With slight alterations done by a dear friend, we got rid of the painfully outdated puffed sleeves. My mother's 1972 union-made wedding dress found a new life as my very own stunning vintage gown.

Plan ahead

Remember: the only way to cover all the details of a DIY wedding is to be systematic in the planning. Consider every aspect of the event—ceremony, drinks, food, toasts, dancing, cake (and in our case, pinata-bashing and an “after-parents” party)—and make lists of all the items that are needed. By doing this, we were able to borrow some easily-overlooked essentials: two huge coolers for the drinks, and an amplifier for the guitar on which the groom played “Til There Was You” during the ceremony.

Lastly, don't be afraid to borrow ideas! The Internet is loaded with helpful, inspiring web-sites (my favorites are Offbeat Bride and DIY Wedding) that will make you wish you'd thought of candy bouquets or roller-skating bridesmaids yourself. But beware the temptation to compare and compete—you don't have to throw an ultra-hip steam-punk regatta on the beach to have a fantastic wedding. Gather ideas that appeal to you, and then make them your own.

Give yourself a break!

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as you ride the waves of DIY possibility is that you can not (and should not) do it all. It's essential to maintain perspective and not overwhelm yourself. Remember: a wedding is like sex—it should be fun! Originally, my talented and overly-ambitious fiancé planned on making pizzas for all the guests.

Luckily our friends told us we were crazy. Sanity struck and led us to compromise: we provided cookies (home-made by a friend), fruit (green apples sliced by my mother), and cheese and crackers as appetizers, and had the main meal catered by a cool local company that worked with our budget. Having this major area covered left us more time to write our own personalized vows and create a ceremony filled with music, poetry, and plenty of tears and laughter.

And since we hadn't incurred mountains of debt or worried ourselves exhausted, we were able to relax and enjoy every moment, even the surprising ones, like our tearful ring bearer and the cars that honked their excitement for us from the street. In fact, one of our most memorable moments was also completely un-choreographed. Hours into the celebration, as the sky darkened and the air turned cooler, my brand new husband (who had never danced with me before) took me for an impromptu spin to “Almost Paradise.” No amount of planning could have yielded a more beautiful first dance—the first, it turns out, of many.




Jessica Dur taught English to sweet misfits at Nonesuch high school in Sebastopol, California, for six years. She writes essays and reviews for the alternative weekly The North Bay Bohemian.

Things I share: Books, recipes, my feelings, laughs