Use Google spreadsheets or other shared software. To stay organized, use this religiously. This also saves you stress knowing all your thoughts and open to-do's are in one place.
Use various online and offline resources. There are great reviews, forums and books. Consider hiring a wedding planner or day-of coordinator. The rest of this answer assumes you are doing most of the planning yourself. For all vendors, be sure to keep contact info, cell phone numbers handy and get everything in writing and follow-up regularly, especially the month before to re-confirm the details.
More important things to remember throughout the planning process:
- It is your wedding. The two of you should make the final calls.
- It is just one day (or at most a week celebration). You spend a lot of time planning for the big day, but what's more important is preparing for your marriage. Think of the issues which come up as preparation for far more serious life challenges in the future.
- Being engaged is a special, brief time. Don't forget to enjoy this period of your relationship. One day you won't be able to imagine what it's like not to be married.
I. First things first:
At its core, a wedding is an event (or series of events) with the end goal of celebrating you, your fiance and your decision to tie the knot. Basic event planning steps are where you should start:
- Size: Discuss with your fiance how large of a wedding you'd like. Consider other weddings you've attended. Less than 100 is fairly intimate and you're likely to get to talk to everyone at least once. More than 200 is large enough where you won't actually talk to everyone. Discuss any constraints you'd like to put (e.g. if your fiance hasn't already heard of the family friend today, the family friend is ineligible to be invited). Todo: Make a list of everyone you will definitely invite ("A list") and others you would like to invite if you have space ("B list"). Force your fiance and all of your parents to do the same. Do this on a shared Google spreadsheet or similar and give yourself time to let the old friends spring back into memory.
- Vision: Discuss the overall vision with your fiance. Even those who haven't planned their weddings since childhood have likes and dislikes when it comes to their own weddings. Figure out the structure (is it multiple days? a single day? local? at some faraway destination?) and each of you should choose 3 things you absolutely want to have done well (e.g. great food, perfect dress, open bar). It's a good idea to keep some document (tab in that Google spreadsheet) to capture other special ideas you guys have.
- Budget: Discuss what you can spend, who else is contributing to figure out your overall budget. Weddings can vary vastly in cost depending on city (coastal cities can be >50% more expensive than in middle of the US) and your taste.
II. Location & Date:
With your vision, guest count range (estimate your invitee to attendee ratio which can be anywhere from 50-95%) and budget, start to solidify the types of wedding venue you want. Questions to ask yourself:
- Local or destination: Local is easier to plan, destination is more interesting and a decent way to force your guest list to a smaller size.
- Single site or multiple: Do you want your ceremony and reception to be at the same place or not? Are there other events (e.g. tea ceremony) which you need to hold during the wedding day?
- Indoor or outdoor: Time of year and location obviously a factor.
- Over 250 people or under: At a certain size, your choices become limited to large venues like dedicated wedding/event centers, large hotels or convention centers. Under about 250, you can consider less typical event venues like local restaurants, wineries, zoos, museums, schools, gardens, etc.
- Anything special you're looking for: a view of the ocean, a place where all guests can equally see the dance floor, a city view, a place you can overhaul entirely, a place with special meaning in your lives, etc.
Do your research online, look at pictures of actual weddings from the place and then make appointments in blocks so you can spend a few days and hit a lot of places. If you're calling a non-traditional wedding venue, you should consider getting rental quotes on the phone without saying your are planning a wedding (call it a family reunion or other celebration) to avoid the wedding inflation. When you visit, bring a camera to take pictures to help you remember the sites.
- Once you have a short list, here are factors to consider when choosing and booking a location and date:
- Fees: Dig deep on the requirements. Some places require you use their coordinators. Others charge you a per person cake cutting fee. Many limit your choice of vendors.
- Size & layout: How many can be accommodated? Do you have buffer if your guest list balloons? Do you want a dance floor? Think through the things you'd want and what space requirements they'd have: e.g. slideshow (will it be dark enough in the room, is there room for screens large enough plus projection), a photo booth station, a 14-piece band, etc.? What would the layout of tables be and is it what you're looking for? Will the place photograph well?
- Date: What is available? Will these dates work for everyone (does it conflict with family members' graduations? other friends' weddings? any must-have vendors)? Note that Sunday weddings can be harder for traveling guests but can be cheaper; weekday weddings are even harder for guests and even cheaper for you.
Book the place(s) with the required deposit. Be sure to actually read the rental agreement before you sign (and ask for edits and changes based on any special needs) and keep copies of it, contact info of the person at the venue and copies of your deposit receipt handy. Remember that your wedding, as special as it will be, is one of potentially hundreds of events the site is handling in a year. You (or your wedding planner) need to be responsible for following-up and keeping the site and your other vendors on point.
III. Wedding Dress:
For better or worse, the wedding dress industry is not nice to consumers. Brides are not that cost sensitive and unfamiliar with brands -- so they are a gold mine. Often dresses are not made until you and a bunch of others around the world order them, so that's why you hear about the notoriously long lead times and "rush orders" for dresses needed in less than 6 months. Factors to consider:
- Budget: You will wear this dress for maybe 12 hours or so, but it will be in a lot of photographs. Decide how much you are willing to spend and don't forget all the pieces you'll need to put the look together including the dress, alterations, shoes, undergarments, veil, other hair pieces, wraps/shawls, make-up, hair updo, cleaning the dress afterwards, etc.
- Styles: Get the bridal magazines, look online. When you go to stores, try on styles you weren't considering, you will likely be surprised as you most likely haven't ever seen a wedding dress on. Don't be surprised if most places require appointments and an assistant who suggests dresses versus let you browse. Often stores cut out brand labels and dress model numbers so you can't compare prices easily (evil, I know). Bring friends, relatives who will be helpful only. Take pictures if the stores let you.
- Timing: Check on the rush order timing, and as excited as you might be about your wedding date, I recommend you tell them your wedding date is 4 weeks earlier than it actually is to ensure on-time delivery.
- Alterations: See if the store requires in-store alterations. Wedding gowns aren't easy to alter well given the materials and complexity of some dresses, especially strapless dresses. Budget time for alterations as well as hundreds of dollars.
- Accessories: As you will know by now, all things "wedding" related cost more. Consider looking for accessories outside a bridal salon or borrow from friends if you don't want to spend hundreds on a veil.
- Cleaning: Depending what you do with your dress afterwards, you can have it dry cleaned and/or packaged in an archival box.
- Make-up & hair: Research make-up and hair options. Some people hire professionals to come to wherever they are getting ready; others go to a beauty salon. Consider whether bridesmaids and mothers will need professional services too. Some make-up artists stay with you during the day to help do touch-ups or hairdo changes.
IV. Bridal party apparel:
- Bridesmaids dresses require some lead-time too, but usually not as much. Typically bridesmaids pay for their own dresses, but you can cover the expense if you wish. Work with your bridesmaids or have your maid of honor lead the coordination. Make the final call yourself in case of conflicts. Several stores have gotten into creating wedding apparel, e.g. J.Crew. Stores like rkbridal.com in New York offer online/fax orders and price matching.
- For men, tuxedo rentals are fairly flexible and many nationwide chains make it easy to get measurements taken. Do take special care to have folks pick up their tuxes at least a day in advance and they must try the tux on in the store in the fairly likely case there are sizing issues. (To be convinced, read my review of Men's Warehouse at http://www.yelp.com/list/my-wedd...)
- Food: Decide what type of food and banquet style you want. You could serve lunch or dinner, or just have cocktail hour or a light brunch. Buffets are not any cheaper than plated food, but require fewer servers, yield hotter/fresher food and require space on your floor layout. Plated meals can feel more formal and be easier for guests. Food stations are good for lighter receptions but can be sufficiently heavy and interestingly diverse compared to a more tranditional meal. Do a tasting if you can.
- Fees: Caterers have lots of hidden fees, most notably the service fee which usually starts at 18%. Investigate staffing fees, rentals for tables, chairs, chair covers, linens, flatware, dinnerware, glassware, etc.
- Some caterers or locations (e.g. hotels) can provide your cake. Definitely do a cake tasting though often with cakes of height, the density required as well as how long they have to be left out can make them taste bad. This is definitely not a rule as I was happy to find my wedding cake at a regular bakery which does delicious wedding cakes, though they book up fast. As a cost-saving measure, you can have extra sheet cake of the same type of cake made. The cake, once cut up, looks pretty unrecognizable, so the sheet cake might even look better. Watch out for the cake cutting fee on top.
- Florists range from those who provide you with specific arrangements to people who are more event designers who can help you build out the decoration and look & feel of your ceremony and banquet tables. There's been some recent trends to get more creative than flowers for reception centerpieces -- rocks, potted arrangements, fruit, your favorite memorabilia or photos and other ideas can also be used.
VIII.Invitations & Collateral:
- There are numerous online resources for creating invitations, programs, placecards, table cards and anything else you need printed for your wedding. A friend found artists on Etsy.com who would do custom designs for you and send you the files you need to get their logos, special fonts printed elsewhere. You can also use offline stationary, greeting card (e.g. Paper Source, Papyrus) or crafts stores (e.g. Michael's) to get invitations created.
Tips: Personally, I think having consistent design throughout all your printed materials brings cohesion and polish to your wedding. That includes color choices, fonts, graphical elements, paper choice, etc. FedEx Kinkos can cut a stack of paper for around $1 per cut, so please do not waste time cutting your own invitations if you just need basic straight lines. Use a Google form or other form to collect updated mailing addresses; consider doing RSVPs online or save-the-dates online to save paper. If you mail RSVP cards, consider writing in light pencil a unique # that corresponds with each invitee in case someone doesn't properly fill out their name and you can't associate the RSVP card to the recipient. Obviously maintain a spreadsheet of RSVPs and make sure your RSVP cards include all the fields you need to provide the caterers with the info you need to give them (e.g. a couple wants chicken and fish, do you need to know which the wife wants vs which the husband wants for their placecards?).
I'll call out wedding favors here since it fits as one of the things you will be physically handing out. If you have a theme, brainstorm what would be fun and creative. For the sake of the environment, before you buy 200 trinkets, think about what guests would actually want, use and keep.
IX. Photographer & Videographer:
- After a wedding, besides your fond memories and funny stories, the photos and videos are what are lasting. Having an edited small set of photos and/or videos which highlight the day is priceless, both for the two of you as a couple, your parents, and also to your future children. Browse these vendors' online portfolios, ask friends to see their wedding albums and videos and find someone whose style you like. Note that even cheap ($1-3K) photographers may be terrible and no better than your amateur SLR-lugging photographer friends. So make sure you see some images which make you feel an emotion, awe you or otherwise make some good lasting impression on you. Consider hiring photographers and videographers who have worked with each other so they are used to each other and don't get in each other's way.
Tip: Formal wedding albums are very expensive (many hundreds of dollars) given the archival quality of the book and binding. Unless you definitely want one, consider going with a photographer which doesn't force a package deal with it upfront. You may find after the wedding that you weren't sure what you were thinking spending all the money you did for the wedding; plus you realize you'd have to require white gloves for people to actually view your album. Instead, if you can get the digital copies, make a cheaper flip book for your coffee table.
- This can be your friend with a great iTunes playlist and nice speaker system to a DJ or a live band or two (perhaps different for your ceremony, cocktail hour and post-dinner dancing). Be wary of using house speakers for sound unless you've tested it out while the room is filled with talking guests. Often these systems are weak and made for background elevator music. Consider who will be your emcee -- a friend, the DJ or lead singer of your band. Provide clear instructions on the style you want (e.g. funny, raucous, stand-up comedian, etc.) and how self-promotional they should be. If they are doing your introductions, be sure to provide pronunciation guides for your wedding party.
For your ceremony, do be sure people will be able to hear the officiant, you, your fiance and any musicians or speakers. You may be a little shy, but it isn't that fun to watch a wedding where you can't hear anything. Similarly think through the seating plan if that within your control to ensure people can see well.
- Map out all the relevant locations for your wedding day -- from where you, your fiance, parents, wedding party members will stay the night before, where everyone will get ready, where everyone will meet, when folks need to arrive for photos, the ceremony, in-between photos, the reception, etc. Figure out who is transporting themselves and whose transportation you care about and decide whether you will hire limos, shuttles or other transportation, or work with friends to chauffeur you around.
If you have an engagement ring, look for a wedding band which will complement it. Men's bands tend to be thicker and thicker bands need to be slightly larger that thinner bands for comfort. Consider engraving something special inside your bands. Allow for time for re-sizing when ordering.
XIII. Personal details:
Having been involved in many wedding and attended countless others, I strongly recommend you continually consider how to make your wedding day yours. Not for the goal of outshining other weddings, but to make sure it's a day that is about you, not what a typical wedding has to be since you are the ones shelling out the time and money. I've seen some nice personal touches, e.g. game lovers had guests do various brain teasers in a table competition. It's hard to think of these personalized details, so keep that running list of brainstormed ideas and ask your closest friends for thoughts on what makes the two of you unique.