Today marks one year since Xav and I concluded our international wedding celebrations. Recently, I’ve heard and read various reports on the ever-growing wedding cost, and the trend of newlyweds going into debt from weddings. This motivated me to share our approach of planning a unique four-part around-the-world wedding celebration for under $8k.
Disclaimer: This post aims to share what we had done, and it certainly wouldn’t make sense for everyone. Please kindly take what applies to you and leave the rest!
- I travel hacked and hoarded a bunch of miles and points to cover flight and hotel costs. I recognize this is a privilege unique to Americans.
- A few friends contributed their talent as wedding gifts. Otherwise, we received mostly cash gifts because our family and friends know we are aspiring minimalists and don’t want stuff. This helped offset the final out-of-pocket cost.
Growing up, I was never the kind of girl who dreamt about a future wedding. After three years of dating, Xav and I decided to finally make it official for the very un-romantic reason that I wanted to quit my job, and needed us to be officially bound together to continue our lives abroad without visa troubles. Discussion on spending our lives together had been on-going, but needed a pragmatic reason to actually put the gears in motion.
The idea to get married took place rather quickly. The Frenchie wanted a romantic engagement, so I let him plan that. But I wanted no element of surprise on my ring. If I have to wear this thing for the rest of my life, I want to make sure I LOVE it. I also think putting the pressure on a guy to pick a forever ring is rather stressful and unfair.
After spending a few weeks on Pinterest and Etsy, I decided on a beautiful nature-inspired moissanite ring from Lil Petite Jeweler in Canada. We went with moissanite to bypass that whole conflict-mineral/blood diamond controversy.
The price is also a fraction of a diamond. I don’t normally wear much jewelry, and didn’t want the liability of wearing something expensive every day. The stone is beautiful and sustainable. I love the idea of supporting a small jeweler rather than a corporation. I chose a wedding set where the bands are shaped like a tree-branch, a reminder to keep our marriage down-to-earth.
Tip: Diamond isn’t the only way. Research alternative stones to create an affordable ring that you love. And no, contrary to the insane marketing stunt, a ring does NOT need to cost three-months salary.
Determine Your Top Priorities
The wedding industry is incredibly effective at selling the “only once in a lifetime” story. It is therefore imperative that we sit back and decide elements that are most important before beginning the planning process. Otherwise, it is a never-ending, money-sucking rabbit hole.
For us, we wanted to use our wedding as an excuse to get close friends and family together; people whom we love but don’t often see due to living abroad. Great food and drinks was top priority. A good photographer was also key because those photos and the memories they represent are the only thing we want to keep. That’s it. Everything else was nice to have. Having these top priorities defined allowed us to freely slash various nice-to-haves when they get a bit pricey.
Four-Part International Wedding Celebration
When marriage first came into discussion, I didn’t really want to fuss with a wedding. I don’t love being in the center of attention. Perhaps it’s my Chinese upbringing, but the idea of exchanging personal vows in front of people makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
I am also not Western enough to fully internalize the concept of a bridal party. Picking favors among all of my awesome friends seems like a really tough choice. Besides, I absolutely would not subject my dad to a father-daughter dance in front of people. As for Xav? He happily adopted the “whatever the bride wants” approach, and saved himself from most of the planning.
So how did we end up with four celebrations? Well, a friend had said to me, “don’t think of it as a wedding, just say you are having brunch somewhere, and we’ll come. Doesn’t matter if it’s across the world. I’ll come brunch.” I am still not entirely sure if she was serious, but I took that idea and ran with it.
Part I: Brunch in Shanghai
Xav and I love hosting brunches. That was our main social event in Shanghai, organizing many a brunch to entertain our great group of friends that had become family. The most natural first step was
After narrowing the guest list to 50, we began searching for a venue. Multiple restaurant visits left us frustrated before finally deciding on a Mexican restaurant, Maya, located within our residential compound.
Most restaurants we met with wanted a minimum spend of some crazy amount, plus charging us for bringing our own alcohol and cake. But Maya was more than happy to offer a private back room, with a great menu that included free-flow sangria, made no fuss about us bringing in our own sparkling wine and serving Xav’s signature chocolate cakes. The answer was literally at our front door!
Tip: Search for venues that appreciate the fact you are bringing in 50 guests to their establishment, and won’t charge extra fees. Also, observe how eager they are to show you the space and discuss menu options. If they aren’t helpful at selling the space, then chances are they wouldn’t be helpful come the big day.
My friend Christina really likes to craft, and when I asked her to join me at the flower market to order flower arrangements, she happily obliged. We got a few reasonable quotes. But then she asked, “Can I make these for you? It would be cheaper!” Um, yeah! How could I say no to that offer?! The day before brunch, she went to the wholesale flower market, and made 10 beautiful arrangements at our apartment!
Tip: Turn to your crafty friends for help. I was fully ready to pay Christina, but she gifted the flowers for us as wedding gift. Help from friends and family add a special touch to the event.
DIY the Small Details
The brunch was great fun! I found a white dress at a boutique for $60. Did my own hair, make-up, and nail; bought some inexpensive
For other details, I bought a place card and menu template off Etsy for $15 and had it printed at a local print shop. I ordered some cute little boxes and bulk order Ferro Rocher and honey jars as favors. Invited some crafty friends over for dinner to assemble them.
Great excuse to get together and DIY on wedding stuff. As for invitation and thank you cards – I also bought a template on Etsy for a few bucks and sent them digitally for free. I enjoyed working on these small details to make the day
Tip: Etsy can be a great friend that provides inexpensive templates to DIY or a foe that offers
Cost Breakdown for 50 guests:
Cash gifts received: $2,490
Total out-of-pocket cost: $910
Part II: Double Wedding in Taiwan
The Chinese tradition to weddings goes like this: when you get married, you invite (more or less) everyone you know to the wedding. Guests give money in a red-envelope (hong-bao) that helps offset the wedding cost. The amount each guest gives is recorded in a booklet.
Later, when one of your guests gets married, you look into that booklet and see how much to give back (plus inflation). It’s basically a community loan program to help pay for weddings, but very disadvantageous if you never get married.
My parents had kids relatively late. They’ve been to many weddings and gave out many hong-baos to friends and families’ kids. It’s time to reclaim that loan. My sister and I happened to marry within a year of each other, so we decided to have a two-in-one deal for guests, and had a double-wedding to please our parents.
Tip: Double weddings aren’t common, but if you are close to your sibling, it’s fun and cost effective to share a wedding day. We had a blast! Also good karma for the World Cup? The summer after our wedding, France and Croatia played each other in the World Cup Final, causing slight internal strife for my parents!
My sister and I had attempted to plan this wedding, but the effort became too much. So we unleashed total control over to our mother. We picked a hotel in our Taichung hometown. Then we let her worked out everything else with the wedding coordinator assigned by the hotel, including the insane 10-course meal menu.
Sherry and I were only responsible to get a dress, book a photographer, get ourselves and our husbands’ immediate family to the event. We did put together a slideshow and another Spotify playlist. All in all, very little efforts from our part.
Tip: All-inclusive venues can actually be less expensive than trying to DIY everything, especially if you go the hotel route. We didn’t customize much, which saved a lot of hassle and money. We also went with the lunch option, cheaper and most guests could return home in the evening without bearing hotel costs.
Our husbands’ families took the opportunity to travel and discover Taiwan. It was great for our parents to meet and to share our Taiwanese culture. On the day of the wedding, relatives I haven’t seen in over a decade showed up. It was a wonderful family affair, and I truly felt that weddings aren’t necessarily only for the bride and groom, they could matter just as much, if not more, for our family.
Certainly, since we were not involved in the planning, some details were absolutely not what I would have chosen. But the benefit of having multiple wedding celebrations is that it’s not once in a life time. I happily let go of control, and all was well.
Cost Breakdown for 100 guests:
Dresses: I went to the wholesale wedding mall in Suzhou and bought two dresses for $200 total. A big poofy princess dress and a traditional Chinese dress. The quality wasn’t the best, but they looked great in photos.
Photographer: We hired a newbie photographer since we mostly needed group photos for the family. Our portion was $150.
Everything else: Since mom planned everything else, I don’t have the price breakdown. The total came to around $6,500, and I was informed that the hong-baos more than covered the cost.
Total out-of-pocket cost: $350
Part III: Paperwork Official in Hong Kong
This portion of the international wedding is likely unique for our situation. As it turned out, a Taiwanese-born American getting married to a French man in Mainland China was extremely complicated paperwork-wise. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say, the solution we came up with was paying an agent in Hong Kong to manage our paperwork, and we made a trip out of it to celebrate privately.
You might notice the chronological order is a bit off. Yes, we were not officially married during the first two celebrations. Semantics. I was initially quite stressed about it, but realized it’s just paperwork, and no one cares.
In the end, I loved this excuse for us to spend quality time together. I used Starwood points to cash in for a few nights at Mira Moon Hotel, a lovely boutique. I made a note in our reservation that we are celebrating our wedding, and discovered a bottle of bubbly waiting for us upon arrival!
Tip: Always make a note on hotel reservations when you are celebrating a special occasion. We’ve been surprised by the thoughtful touches that hotels have provided to make the experience the next level.
Since we didn’t have a ceremony in any of our other celebrations, this trip was important for us to connect privately. It’s as if we eloped. Sort of. Besides City Hall, we also did a hike to pay tribute to the Lovers’ Rock, just in case.
Costs: Paperwork nightmare cost us $1,000. We used airline miles and hotel points to pay for the travel. I re-wore the dress and shoes from the brunch in Shanghai.
Part IV: Picnic Brunch in French Countryside
I quit my job soon after I got married, and we planned an epic Trans-Siberian rail journey to get to France for our final wedding celebration. Xav has a huge family, and to this day, they hold family reunions at a community center in his grandmother’s village.
For nostalgic purposes, we went with this venue. The space was
Tip: Most of the time, you don’t want to labor your friends with tasks as massive as taking photographs. But Michelle didn’t know anyone else at the wedding, and she was happy to be the photographer to strike up conversation with people. I paid for her flight and housing, and she gifted her fees. Win-win.
Trust Your Wedding Planner
I found Pauline, a part-time wedding planner in the village, via Google. Once I sent her a Pinterest board with ideas, I let her manage. I ordered some decorations from Alibaba and Amazon since it was cheaper than buying in France, and had some photos printed. Otherwise, I trusted her to manage various details that ranged from caterers to flowers, to sound system, menus, picnic tables, pallets, and even game rentals.
I didn’t know what anything would look like until the day of the wedding. It requires some faith, but the overall low-stress was worthwhile. Since she’s relatively new, her fees were very reasonable. Having an on-the-ground coordinator to contact various vendors was a huge time and energy saving.
Tip: When hosting a wedding at a venue where everything needs to be brought in, the DIY can get out of control. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to hire an up-and-coming wedding planner to coordinate logistics. Have faith, and let it go. You don’t want to be stressed out of your mind in the days leading up to your wedding day.
Plan time with guests after the wedding
To maximize time with friends and family, we rented a chalet in the village for the week after the wedding. This way, people who traveled in from afar could enjoy more time together with us. It was fun to stay together in a house rather than hotels. People happily chipped in on some of the cost and we picked up the rest. We explored Les Vosges region in typical French summer fashion, and had a marvelous time together.
Tip: Wedding day goes by in a flash, and planning days after the wedding allows for stress-free quality time together with guests. In our case, we had so much food leftover from the wedding that we fed a house full of 10 people for nearly the entire week. The celebration was a week-long affair that allowed us to really connect with our loved ones.
Cost Breakdown for 50 guests:
Wedding coordinator & catering: $4,500
Chalet rental: $2,800
Photographer flight: $920
Community center: $625
Dress & shoes: $120 (Zara’s summer white collection)
Everything else: $635
Cash gifts received: $4,000
Total out-of-pocket cost: $5,600
Wedding marks the beginning of a lifelong partnership. There isn’t a right way to celebrate your day, and each couple has to determine what works best for their situation.
As with all things in life, it’s important to approach wedding planning with intention and be mindful of each cost and the purpose it serves. The process is a constant trade-off to decide if a certain expense would be better serve toward a trip, a home project, or investment for the future. The balancing act is made all the more difficult by industry and societal pressure.
Remember that in the grand scheme of things, the wedding celebration is only a few days, but marriage is a lifetime. Be creative. Enjoy the process. And most importantly, savor the big day that kicks off a new season of life!
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