You’re engaged, and probably have 100 wedding planning questions (at minimum) swirling in your mind. Here…Marsha VanArk, Lead Wedding Planner at Distinctly Yours Wedding & Events, llc provides you with some expert advice on solutions for the most frequently asked wedding planning questions.

When should I start my wedding planning?

First of all don’t panic, if your timeline is shorter than what I am about to say.  I have pulled together some very beautiful weddings in 3 months and even less.  As a planner, I prefer to start at the one year mark.  I have given guidance before that but it really depends on the availability of your ceremony & reception venues. If they require more than a year then that is where you start.  

How do I know what to do next?

When working with a planner, rely on their experience to help guide you through this process. They will help you outline the decisions that need to be made, and in what order. If you do not have a planner to guide you, there are many resources and lists online that will help you to know which steps to tackle next. With an overall “next step” timeline, as well as a budget, to help guide your decisions, you can walk confidently through the process!

How much does a wedding cost?

Every wedding and couple is different! No two weddings are alike, just as no two couples are alike, nor are two wedding budgets alike. I encourage my clients to come up with an amount they feel is reasonable to spend on their wedding – a place where their comfort zone, financially, remains intact. I work from that number to develop and design a wedding that is right for you.  Also, I encourage couples to sit down and identify what are those areas that are “non-negotiables’ in the wedding budget.  For example you want your guest dance until midnight.  Then, a great DJ or Band will be an investment on the top of the list.  If you do not care about the kind of dessert you serve for dinner and you are perfectly fine having your cousin (who offered) to bake your cake for you.  Go for it.  Also, I do need to add that if you have family investing in your wedding day.  Then, it would be wise to see what are some of those things that are important to them.  If it is important to them to have beautiful centerpieces, a fully stocked bar, or event that has an abundance of food or something as simple a printed programs for the ceremony.  Then, those things need to become part of your planning budget, too.

Bride & Groom doing their First Look planned by Distinctly Yours Wedding & Events

How do I navigate through all the information that is out there?

The moment your are engaged, you may find yourself surrounded by well-meaning friends and family who are suddenly experts in wedding traditions and etiquette. Many of my couples can feel overwhelmed by all of the (sometimes, contradictory) advice and find that some of it may conflict with their own ideas of how they envisioned their wedding day and details. While I am all for tradition, and especially etiquette, I remind my couples to stay true to themselves. Wedding guests know you, either as individuals or as a couple, and as long as the wedding reflects who you are, it will brim with love and lots of charm.

Do I need to include a dress code in my invitations?

It is always helpful for guests to have an idea of the attire expectations. But use clear, common sense language. People generally understand ‘cocktail attire’ but won’t necessarily know the rules of a ‘barn chic’ dress code.

Do we need to invite “Plus Ones”?

Certainly not. However, if your budget and seating capacity allow for it, it is a nice gesture. Celebrating your love and union can be even more enjoyable if guests have the ones they love by their sides.

Bride & Groom during their outdoor wedding ceremony planned by Distinctly Yours Wedding & Events

Do I need to do “Welcome Bags” for my out-of-town guests?

This is completely optional. If you aren’t going to create bags that are thoughtful and useful for your guests, then it’s better to save that money and put it towards another bottle of champagne or upgrade those centerpieces you wanted. Remember if you do a welcome bag, it doesn’t have to be two bottles of water and snacks — for example— it could be a beautiful guide book for the city you are in.

Should we have a “First Look”?

A first look might not be the right fit for traditional clients, who may not want to see one another before the ceremony. Time constraints and the desire to have lots of beautiful pictures make it a hard decision. I can say that I’ve never had a client regret organizing a first look, but I have had clients after the wedding say, ‘I wish we had done a first look and had more time for pictures and with our guests.’ If you’re on the fence about it, come up with ways to make your first look really special. And remember, there is no moment like the one when the doors open and everyone sees you standing there; a first look will never take that magical moment away, I promise.

Do we have to do bride’s side/groom’s side at the ceremony?

Traditionally in Christian ceremonies, the bride stands on the left side and the groom on the right.  For a Jewish ceremony, she is traditionally on the right side and he on the left. These days, people are ditching designated sides in favor of everyone feeling united and sitting where they like. Communicate your seating preference to your guests with fun signage or ceremony markers, or give your ushers clear directions & instructions to avoid awkward maneuvering once guests have already taken their seats.

How do I handle the use of social media at our wedding?

Often it’s about asking people to not use their phones during the ceremony. You don’t want to be walking down the aisle to a sea of smartphones instead of your guests’ smiling faces.  If you’re set on keeping tech interruptions to a minimum, the approach is simple. Let guests know through as many ways as possible ahead of time. Tell them with a message on the program, a sign when they enter the ceremony area, and an announcement, like ‘The couple requests that you please keep all cameras and smartphones away during the ceremony’.  Ask for what you want specifically, but ask nicely. Then, leave it alone. You do not want to spend your entire reception being the iPhone police.

Wedding Party relaxing after the wedding ceremony

What is the best way to greet our guests if we don’t want to do a receiving line?

I get it—you don’t want to stand around after the ceremony in an assembly line. Instead, greet your guests during the reception by going from table to table during the first course. Just make sure you have time to eat too! Also, make a short speech thanking guests for coming and give a shout-out to vendors and parents (or anyone else who helped pay for your wedding!). While this moment with the mic shouldn’t take the place of personal interaction with guests, it can be a great forum to let them know how much their support means to you.

Do we have to do favors?

Absolutely not, you are already throwing a fabulous party with a beautiful venue, delicious food and awesome music. But if you are doing favors, most people are pretty big fans of something tasty.

Should we have an open bar?

You know your guests the best, and if they are not much of a drinking group, then it is understandable that you may be hesitant to invest in an open bar. However, even people who don’t drink on a normal basis are apt to want to enjoy a glass of wine or champagne at a wedding, and it’s a generous gesture. If budget is an issue, consider an open bar for the cocktail reception only, or assign a dollar amount that you are comfortable with on a hosted bar. Once that number is reached, guests can start picking up their tabs.  Whatever you choose to do, please make sure you communicate this clearly to your guests.  There is nothing more awkward and uncomfortable for a guest who has been enjoy their choice beverage and then to suddenly receive word from the bartender that they have to now pay. I would recommend a bar menu that clearly states time and the of list of hosted items. 

How can I predict how many guests will RSVP “YES”?

There is always the tried—and mostly true—’two-thirds of the invited guests will attend’ rule, but I have quickly learned that this theory can be very wrong. When planning your list, feel free to use this as guidance, but ALWAYS be prepared to host a full guest list, just in case. If you are unable to host the full list for some reason, you may want to re-evaluate your numbers!

When my caterer or other vendor requests a final guest count two weeks or so before the wedding, can I just give them a guesstimate amount?

Would you be comfortable with your caterer or other vendor ignoring your guest count and just bringing a “guesstimate” amount of goods for your guests? Not likely. To avoid running out of food, place settings, chairs, and so on, give your wedding professionals as accurate a number of expected guests as you can – and make sure you do this by their specified date. Your wedding professionals need time to plan and obtain the products they’ll need for your big day, after all. They also understand that this number isn’t always the number that attends, and they’ll be able to accommodate small adjustments in the number actually at your wedding…but they may not be prepared to handle very large adjustments.

Bride & Groom walk along the lake side after the wedding ceremony
Bride and Groom kissing after their wedding ceremony.

How do I master the art of being a bride and a great hostess.

Even if you’re not paying for your own wedding, you still need to greet and welcome every single guest. That’s maybe the single most important job the couple has besides actually getting married.  You need to think, ‘How do I share my wedding with all of these guests?’ ‘How do I make them feel special?’ My answer is that it’s all about carving out the time to rotate around tables or through the reception, offering smiles and greetings. It’s one of the single most important thing that happens on the day.

Why should I hire a wedding planner?

Planning for a wedding is an incredibly exciting time; however there are an innumerable amount of details that go into making a once-in-a-lifetime event run smoothly. With a busy career and personal life, it can be difficult for couples to find the time and resources needed for such a task. A wedding planner has the knowledge and know-how needed to locate the most reputable vendors, negotiate prices and contracts, handle the countless details, and greatly reduce stress throughout the planning process. Most couples advise that hiring a wedding planner was the best wedding-related investment they ever made.

What exactly does a wedding planner do?

I am the middle person.  I worry about vendors showing up, centerpieces arriving on time, directing guests, and setting up so you don’t have to.

I am the secretary.  I type out and organize timelines, budgets, VIP photo and song lists; I keep track of vendors and their contact information; and I even help with contract language.  

I see the bigger picture.  When planning a wedding, it is so easy to become overwhelmed with the tiny details, that sometimes the bigger picture can get overlooked.  I are here to help you take a step back and focus on the details AS WELL AS the bigger picture. 

Every couple should be able to relax and enjoy their wedding day, and especially be able to enjoy one another.  It’s much harder to do that when you have a million people running up to you with questions and mini disasters when all you want to do is soak up the happiness and enjoy yourselves.  my job is to handle the questions and mini disasters for you, and make sure you have as many happy moments as possible.

I keep your best interests in mind.  Did the rainy weather ruin your beautiful outdoor setting?  I arrange it indoors, equally as beautiful, in no time flat.  Did a bridesmaid’s hem come loose? I pin it into place. Did you forget to buy a knife and server set? I’ve got your back.

My best piece of advice is to take a second (or a minute, or weeks, or a month, depending on your timeline), to soak up being engaged. That was the best piece of advice I was given and cherish it to this day.  

Alex and Ryan’s wedding was this past August in the beautiful Rothschild Pavilion near Wausau, Wisconsin! With both of them residing in Stevens Point, a Central Wisconsin location was a no-brainer location for them to bring their closest friends and family, from all across the state, to celebrate their marriage! 

The First Dance captures the joy and celebration of the wedding day. It should represent you in whatever way you wish (even if that means not having one at all or having everyone involved) and that’s what I love about the planning with couples:  making their day filled with those personal touches!  

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