“Picking your venue is the most important thing you can do early on,” says Anne Chertoff, trend expert at WeddingWire. “Once you book your venue, you’re booking your date and your time and that’s going to determine what food you’re going to serve. It’s going to determine the type of party you’re going to have. It’s going to determine what you wear.”
The average cost of a ceremony site is $2,197, and the average cost of the reception venue is $16,107, according to The Knot’s 2016 Real Weddings Study.
But you don’t have to spend over $18,000 on the location alone. If you’re looking for a cheaper solution, consider these affordable wedding venues.
The courthouse has long been a go-to choice for affordable ceremonies — and for a good reason. Civil ceremonies held at city halls or county clerks’ offices cost only a small fee in most cities — usually less than $100 — and are free in some areas, such as Washington, D.C. Courthouses often limit attendance to about five or 10 guests, which can cut other costs associated with the big day.
Have a low-cost or potentially free ceremony and reception by hosting the events at your residence or that of a friend, family member or neighbor. A house, backyard, barn or elsewhere on the property can get the job done. However, you’ll need to consider the cost of tables, chairs, dinnerware, decorations and other items if you don’t already have them or know someone who will lend them to you.
“Be sure to outline every single item you’d need to transform the spot into a reception space,” says Brit Bertino, owner of the wedding planning service Simply Weddings Las Vegas and a member of the Wedding International Professionals Association board of directors. “Oftentimes, the numbers will demonstrate that you’re spending the same, if not more, with this scenario.”
If your home can’t accommodate the wedding, a short-term rental home or hotel suite might. These venues offer privacy and space for the wedding party to get ready, plus a place to crash after the long, exhausting day.
For example, you can reserve cabins, ranches, beach houses, entire estates and other spots on Airbnb. Filter your search by locations that are “suitable for events.” We spotted a castle-style home in San Luis Obispo, California, starting at $350 per night and a lighthouse on the Massachusetts coast from $500 per night. Note that prices may vary based on the day of the week or time of year, and events might cost extra. Be aware of check-in, checkout and minimum-stay requirements as well.
Have a smaller guest list and want to celebrate in style? An in-suite ceremony or reception at a hotel or resort in places like Las Vegas and Hawaii typically cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per night.
Many national, state and city parks, including beaches and gardens, serve as scenic, low-cost venues. In most cases, you’ll need an event permit to reserve the space without running into legal issues. While some public locations are free, most cost about a couple hundred dollars. For example, permit application fees for Grand Canyon wedding locations range from $135 to $420.
Prices may fluctuate depending on the specific area, number of guests, presence of food or alcohol, length of event, insurance fees and other factors. Check with the site’s local government for details.
» MORE: How much does a wedding cost?
Consider a block party for your nuptials. Chertoff says that for a few hundred dollars or less, some special event permits allow you to close off a city street, like the one you live on. You can have a barbecue, hire food trucks or make it a potluck. But you may be required to get additional permits or licenses to serve food and alcohol. Visit your local government website or city hall for information.
Kick off your marriage surrounded by books, art or artifacts. Libraries and museums, particularly smaller or less sought-after ones, may have reasonable price tags. For example, event fees at the Detroit Historical Museum begin at $400.
Aquariums and zoos provide animal lovers with exotic settings and close proximity to wildlife, often at an affordable price. As a bonus, some use a portion of the event proceeds to aid conservation and education efforts. Couples can wed at the Jaguar Cove in Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo for $600, plus a minimum $1,500 catering fee.
Renting out a private dining room at a coffee shop, bar or eatery — or possibly the whole facility — can be a budget-friendly option, depending on the guest list size and type of establishment. A full-service place will have food, tables, chairs, dishes and utensils in-house, which can save money compared with hiring outside vendors.
Rent a boat for nautical nuptials on a lake, river or ocean. Skyline Princess Cruises in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut offers yacht wedding packages for as low as $69 per person. Or save money by combining the wedding and honeymoon; some cruise lines offer packages for weddings at sea.
Having the ceremony or reception at your alma mater or a picturesque campus can be an effective money-saving strategy. Some high schools and colleges rent out their sports fields, amphitheaters, dining halls or other event spaces at competitive rates. For example, event fees at Ohio University start at $100 and wedding packages at the University of California, Berkeley’s botanical garden start at $1,200.
With stunning architecture and romantic lighting, a historic movie or performing arts theater can set the scene for a charming wedding. Couples can have a ceremony for $600 or a ceremony and reception for $1,600 at the Michigan Theatre in Jackson, Michigan.
More wedding tips from NerdWallet
Lauren Schwahn is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lauren_schwahn.