Ready, set, go! Our no-nonsense guide will help you learn how to plan your wedding like a pro.
Photography: Patricia Lyons Photography
Ready to start putting your wedding together? We've pared down our tried-and-true approach to wedding planning, from 12 months out to day-of, to serve as your checklist. Ahead, a step-by-step timeline for every important task, from booking a reception site to distributing a wedding-day schedule to your vendors. We've included all our means and methods, along with expert tips from event designers and wedding planners across the country. Consider it a countdown to your new life together, and prepare for wedding planning to be a breeze!
12+ Months: Draft a Guest List
If deciding who's coming (and who isn't) threatens to either bankrupt you or start a war with your families, many wedding planners recommend scaling back and homing in on the people who really matter. "Look at extending invitations not as a social obligation, but as being surrounded by those you love and who love you," says Todd Fiscus of Todd Events. When couples are on the fence about someone, he suggests imagining you're hiring a car to take friends to dinner at a great restaurant followed by a night out dancing. Ask yourself whom you would most like to spend that kind of evening with instead of including "all the people you work with and everyone at your church."
Photography: Bryan Gardner2 of 34
12+ Months: Set a Budget
Before you begin any sort of planning, it's crucial to determine how much you're willing to spend. While tradition deems the bride's parents responsible for wedding costs, modern day celebrations rarely stick to that rule. Instead, sit both your parents and your groom's parents down and politely decide if they'll be contributing, and if so, how much and for what.
Photography: Brklyn View Photography3 of 34
12+ Months: Find and Secure Your Venues
"Draw up your guest list before booking your venue," says contributing editor David Stark, of David Stark Design and Production in Brooklyn. "There's nothing worse than falling in love with a locale and wanting way more guests than it can accommodate."
Every wedding venue has its pluses and minuses, so find a spot that's convenient, exciting, and cost-effective.
Also take into account its existing décor. "If you want a red, black, and chrome modern-art-inspired wedding, don't pick a plantation home and waste money trying to reinvent it," says Calder Clark, of Calder Clark in Charleston, South Carolina.
Once you love a venue, set a wedding date. Avoid holiday weekends, Stark says. "Travel is more expensive for guests, and you'll pay staffers overtime for working a holiday."
Throwing an outdoor fête? Make sure you love your rain plan as much as your alfresco vision, and you won't spend your engagement stalking meteorologists. Bicoastal planner Lyndsey Hamilton, of Lyndsey Hamilton Events, suggests booking a tent six months ahead so you won't be scrambling last minute. You can always cancel it if the weather looks good; you'll lose your deposit but will have gained peace of mind.
A wedding planner can help find and negotiate with the other vendors you'll want to start hiring now as well.
Ask people who love and support you to be attendants. You don't need an even number of groomsmen and bridesmaids. Loved ones don't come in matched sets; your wedding party doesn't have to, either.
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People will send gifts starting with the first party thrown for you, be it an engagement celebration or a shower. Set up your wish list (ideally, at two national stores and one local) to make their lives easier.
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It can take up to nine months for a gown you've ordered to be made; if you select one early, you'll avoid rush fees. Very short engagement? Don't panic. Purchase a sample from a bridal shop, or buy off the rack from a store or resale website.
Photography: Steve Steinhardt8 of 34
9+ Months: Book the Caterer, Photographer, and Band or DJ
If the venue doesn't provide food, you'll want to start looking into catering companies now. When hiring a photographer or videographer, ask to see an entire wedding he or she has shot, not just the highlights. Also secure the band or DJ for your big day.
Photography: Echard Wheeler Photography9 of 34
9+ Months: Help Your Guests
Consider booking a block of hotel rooms for out-of-towners to stay in. And while you're at it, begin to build your wedding website, where guests can find travel information and even RSVP.
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The first hint guests will have of your wedding's style is your invitations. Make sure they represent it well. Sending something too cutesy is confusing if you're having an elegant formal wedding, warns Clark. "If the stationery is discordant, you might accidentally prepare people to dress inappropriately." If you are using a calligrapher, now would also be the time to book his or her services.
Likewise, send out save-the-dates if you feel your wedding requires them. They're best for destination weddings or any other celebration that requires extra guest planning or travel booking.
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6-9 Months: Book the Florist
Do you want a florist who just deals in blooms, or an event designer who handles flowers, lighting, and décor? Naturally, you'll want a bouquet and centerpieces (which should either be shorter than 14 inches or raised more than 24 to allow for conversation). But will you use flowers in other ways, such as for a cake topper or favors, or to decorate a chuppah?
Either way, choose blooms that are in season. If specific flowers are a big part of your dreams, plan your wedding around when they're available. "You're not going to get peonies in September," notes Jeannie Savage, of Details, Details in Los Angeles, unless you're willing to pay to have the late-spring buds imported.
It's helpful to bring your florist images of arrangements you love and lists of your favorite flowers and those that hold sentimental value to you (maybe you want to echo the ones your grandmother carried in her bouquet). If there are blooms you want that are hard to find or expensive, use them sparingly in arrangements, or save them for your bouquet. Also be open to other suggestions or ponder floral alternatives like succulents, potted topiaries and trees, fruits and berries, ferns, foliage, branches, or millinery details. These last longer than flowers and can be more affordable.
Photography: Thayer Gowdy12 of 34
6-9 Months: Hire the Officiant
If you're getting married in your church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, you likely know the clergyperson who will be performing your service. When a ceremony combines religions and cultures, a unitarian minister is a good option. A judge or justice of the peace will serve if making it legal is what counts. And if you would like to be wed by a friend or relative, he or she can become ordained online (try themonastery.org). Whatever route you choose, call the city or county clerk's office where you'll be marrying to see if you need any extra documentation or a blood test.
Photography: Shannen Natasha Weddings13 of 34
6-9 Months: Order Bridesmaid Dresses
Your day-of dress isn't the only thing to worry about. Now's the time to choose what your bridesmaids will be wearing, from color (Solids or prints?) to style (Will dresses be uniform or mismatched?) to length (Long, short, or something in between?). Make sure each 'maid has her dress ordered within this timeframe as well.
Photography: Jillian Mitchell Photography14 of 34
4-6 Months: Factor in Food and Music
Not all receptions need to involve a five-course dinner and dancing. Yours could be brunch, a cocktail affair, or an intimate family-style gathering. The few musts: The food, the cake, and the music ought to reflect you as a couple, work with the other elements of your celebration (a string quartet doesn't jibe with a barbecue picnic), and delight guests. So order your cake, determine your menu (and hold a tasting two weeks out), and discuss your music options between these months.
Also consider how guests will be served: A series of stations is ideal for a cocktail reception, while plated service is appropriate for a black-tie one. (And it's always fun to use a family recipe and share the story behind it.) Then, be sure to feed your vendors, and ask for some food to be boxed up for later when you're starving. This is also a good time to hire a lighting designer, if using. If not, as your venue about options for illuminating the band, DJ, or dance floor.
Photography: Lisa O'Dwyer Photography15 of 34
4-6 Months: Devise a Reception Timeline
Copy ours below, or create your own play-by-play to keep things moving smoothly.
00 Cocktail hour starts.
1:00 The couple enter and have their first dance.
1:30 At a sit-down dinner, the first course is served. The host and best man offer toasts.
2:30 The main course is served.
3:00 The newlyweds dance with their folks; guests join in.
3:50 The cake is cut.
4:00 Cake and dessert are served.
4:45 The bouquet is tossed.
5:00 The bride and groom depart.
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Photography: Laura Murray Photography16 of 34
4-6 Months: Book Rentals
We're talking tents, tables, linens, you name it.
When it comes to tables, you can mix both square and round shapes at your reception. The only caveat: If you're going for rectangular tables, separate them every 50 people (25 per side), suggests Stark. Any longer and guests may have to walk around to get to the dance floor or restroom. Staffers will have to do the same to serve, delaying dinner.
If you're having a seated dinner, guests feel awkward when they don't know where to sit. Designate their table or a specific spot with a place card. Organize escort cards by alphabetizing last names (instead of listing guests by table number) so people can find theirs quickly, says Kathryn Kalabokes, of Dream A Little Dream in San Francisco. Otherwise, "it takes them much longer to figure out where to go."
Also make time to book any needed transportation, including limos or party buses for the day of.
Photography: Trent Bailey Photography17 of 34
4-6 Months: Begin Dress Fittings
Now that the dress is ordered, you'll need a few extra appointments to ensure it fits like a glove. Start now, so you have plenty of time for alterations.
Photography: Millie Holloman18 of 34
4-6 Months: Plan Your Rehearsal
Book any spaces and make dinner reservations for day-before prep.
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All invites should be sent at least six weeks ahead, allowing your guests adequate time to respond and ensuring that you will get a reliable head count a week or two before the event. For destination or holiday-weekend weddings, the earlier they're sent, the better.
Photography: Max Wanger20 of 34
2-6 Months: Plan the Service
When it comes to walking down (and back up) the aisle, you can stick to the standard order. The groom waits at the altar as the wedding party enters, then the ring bearer and flower girl, then the bride escorted by her father or parents. Or, mix it up. You might ask a person of mutual importance to escort both of you, one on each arm; walk one behind the other with your respective parents; or proceed down the aisle together hand in hand.
Do keep guests comfortable and provide seating, even if the ceremony is 10 minutes or less. Don't make Grandma stand or torture Uncle Rick with his bad knee. Also offer shelter from rain (umbrellas or a tent) or sun (parasols). And set up a water or lemonade station if it's a hot day or cocoa if it's chilly. "As simple as this sounds, it can be overlooked," notes Savage.
Traditionally, the bride's guests sit to the left of the aisle and the groom's to the right (or the reverse for a Jewish wedding). Reserve the first rows for family, then have ushers escort guests to a spot on the groom's or bride's side of the aisle, or let attendees know it's open seating with a sign that says, "Have a seat—anywhere!"
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Photography: Rylee Hitchner21 of 34
Customize your service by choosing songs and readings, or by writing your vows. Look to poetry, literature, song lyrics, and even your own love letters for inspiration. Feel free to "think outside the Canon-in-D processional, and pick songs that really speak to you," says Kalabokes. For her own wedding, she chose "I've Got You Babe" for everyone to walk in to, and Queen's "You're My Best Friend" for the recessional.
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2-6 Months: Book the Hairstylist and Makeup Artist
Schedule hair appointments for three hours before and makeup appointments at least an hour before; you won't be harried and attendees won't be kept waiting. Also test-run a few different options beforehand. No bride wants an ugly surprise the day of!
Photography: Our Labor of Love23 of 34
2-6 Months: Place Some Orders
By this time, flowers should be decided on, favors should be bought, and groomsmen outfits should be ordered.
Photography: Christina Holmes24 of 34
2 Months: Get Buying (And Asking)
Order gifts for your wedding party, as well as any extras for the wedding day. These include everything from cake knives and toasting glasses to guest books and unity candles.
And while you're treating them, let them treat you, by asking your closest guests if they'd be willing to deliver a toast.
Photography: Belathée Photography25 of 34
6 Weeks: More Essentials
Are you doing a garter toss? Buy the garter. Have your rings been bought? Get them now. Want a signature cocktail at the reception? Start concocting.
And make sure your venue has it's loose ends tied as well. Power, for example, is a huge thing to check on. Is there enough for your performers and decor? Where are the outlets?
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Photography: Weddings by Sasha26 of 34
4 Weeks: Chart, Schedule, Sign, and Plan
By now, your ceremony should be finalized, but small details still need to be taken care of. Arrange seating charts, confirm who'll be reading and toasting, write your vows, and print your programs. Also shoot your vendors a day-of schedule, so that they're on the same page as you are.
If rehearsal dinner invitations haven't been mailed, send them now. Then, research your state laws and secure your marriage license. You won't be official without it!
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2 Weeks: Confirm Details
Make sure your photographer knows the shot list and your band or DJ knows the playlist. Whoever's decorating the reception site should be well informed, and transportation leaders should be assigned if lots of site-to-site guest travel is involved.
Also run the final head count by your caterer. There's nothing worse than too little food!
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2 Weeks: Break in Those Shoes
Wear your wedding heels around the house—your feet will thank you later.
Photography: Jen Fariello Photography29 of 34
Job permitting, "Take a few days off before the wedding," says Karen Kaforey, of Signature Events Nashville. "You need the time to wrap up details, greet traveling friends and family, go to appointments, and to breathe!"
Details to Wrap Up
- Picking up your dress and the rings
- Putting together favors and welcome bags
- Confirming delivery and arrival times with vendors, hairstylist, and makeup artist
Tasks to Assign
- A guest-gatherer for photos on wedding day
- A day-of point person for guest questions and concerns
- Someone to take wedding gifts home post-reception
Photography: Jennifer Emerling30 of 34
Week-Of: Start Packing
Think like a Boy Scout, and be prepared. You'll need all the following gear on the big day.
You Should Bring
- Your dress, shoes, undergarments, and jewelry
- The groom's and attendants' gifts (if you didn't give these tokens of appreciation the night before)
- Your vows, if self-penned, and the wedding bands to hand off to the best man
Your MOH Should Bring
- Bobby pins
- A sewing kit
- Earring backs
- Krazy glue
- Baby powder
- Stain remover
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Day Before: Final Arrangements
Day-before tasks include everything from arranging tip envelopes (for certain vendors and waitstaff) to preparing snacks for the getting-ready rooms (unless they've been pre-ordered through your caterer).
To look your best on your special day, invest in a mani and pedi (you'll need the break, we promise!), and after confirming times and addresses with your transportation (limo, etc.) service, head over to your rehearsal dinner and practice, practice, practice.
Photography: Nancy Ray Photography32 of 34
Day-Of: Take Care
Naturally, you'll have butterflies in your stomach. But these tactics will keep you smiling and glowing.
Hydrate: "It's not just an important day, it's one of the most 'talky' days of your life," says Savage. Sip water regularly as your wedding day approaches, and take it easy on the alcohol. And while a massage sounds relaxing, don't have one just before the wedding; it can be dehydrating.
Eat: Breakfast has never been more vital. Be a blushing—not fainting—bride.
Don't Rush: You can take your time, within reason. Allow up to 15 minutes for stragglers to find seats, but don't annoy guests with excessive primping.
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Charge your phone (just in case!) and gather family and guests for pre-ceremony photos.
Weather looking dicey for your walk? Check the Dark Sky app for minute-by-minute predictions. For the best natural light, plan portraits using the Sun Seeker app. Get guests to share photos with the Wedding Party app. (All available through iTunes.)
Photography: Charlotte Jenks Lewis34 of 34
Day-Of: Enjoy It!
Your monumental day will go by so fast. Take care to stay in the moment.
First, stay close to your new spouse. "Try to stick together the entire reception," says Kaforey. "Having shared moments of your wedding is so important to set off on your life as a couple."
Also, don't forget dad. If you have a good relationship with your father, build a memory by having a moment with him after you're dressed, Savage suggests. "It gets forgotten in the first look with the fiancé." The same reasoning goes for mom, your sibling, or a grandparent.