Congratulations! You’re engaged – or planning to get engaged. Now, it’s time to learn what’s next on the How to Get Married journey.
Step-by-step, this wedding planning guide will lead you down the aisle as you check all the major wedding planning items off your list:
- Get a marriage license (so you get married legally)
- Choose the date
- Create a wedding budget
- Find a venue that fits your wedding budget
- Set up the wedding website
- Send out the invites (preceded by save the dates, if you so choose)
- Choose a wedding dress (and/or tux/suit) that flatters both you and your budget
- Keep sane on the wedding day
We’ve also included a bonus section on making sure you’ve found The Right One, since that’s a pretty important factor when it comes to marital success. And, what’s the point of getting married if you’re not planning on seeing it through to the final sunset, right?
How to Get Married Step One: Getting a Marriage License – Make Your Marriage Legal
If you’re getting married in the United States, a marriage license is an absolute must if you want your wedding to be legal. When it comes right down to it, this legally binding document – which is signed by the officiant, yourself, your new spouse and one adult witness (who must be 18-years or older) – will be filed by the court in your county.
Marriage license regulations vary by state, county and city
The tricky thing is that the requirements to obtain a marriage license vary by state, county and even by city in some cases. Therefore, we recommend searching “how to obtain a marriage license in [Your City]” for specific instructions.
We’ve provided information on how to apply for a marriage license in the following, major U.S. cities:
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Los Angeles, California
- New York City, New York
- San Francisco, CA
While we update those pages regularly, it’s always best to visit the city court website in your city of choice ahead of time, or to give the recorder’s office a call, to verify the information is current and correct.
In almost all cases you will need:
- To be physically present to apply – that includes both parties
- Have current, legal photo IDs (driver’s license, passport, military ID, current and valid state or government ID, etc.)
- To pay the administrative fees which typically range from $25 to $100+, depending on the type of license/wedding you need
- Pre-marital blood test (blood tests, testing for venereal diseases and rubella) used to be a standard test but are largely falling by the wayside. Currently, states requiring a blood tests before issuing a marriage license include Washington D.C., Mississippi and Montana (female only). New York state requires those of African or Latin American descent get tested for sickle cell anemia.
Wait times between application and issuance of a marriage license also vary so plan your wedding accordingly.
Get married before your marriage license expires – and don’t forget to file it!
Marriage licenses have a shelf life. In most cases, you must get married within 30- to 90-days after the marriage license is issued. Failure to do so renders the license invalid and you’ll be required to apply for a new one.
Similarly, you only have a short window to file your completed marriage license with the county clerk or recorder after the legal ceremony. This can be as little as 10 days after the ceremony so make sure you read the accompanying information and follow through.
Does your state legally uphold same sex marriages?
If you are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and plan to marry someone who shares the same sex as you, it’s still wise to check that your county city or court house is cooperative in providing same sex marriage licenses. While the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states in Obergefell v. Hodges, some ultra-conservative public offices have continued to make things complicated for their same-sex clients.
Research ahead of time and apply for a marriage license in a city or county that you know to be cooperative to forgo any traumatic or negative emotional impacts. You deserve to positively celebrate your love and commitment to one another without any obstacles in the way.
Now that your marriage license is in hand, it’s time to move forward with choosing a wedding date.
How to Get Married Step 2: Choose a Wedding Date that Works (more or less…)
As Meg Keene, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of apracticalwedding.com (our favorite kind) writes:
Here is this wild thing that happens the second you announce your engagement (and before you’re even close to when you can pick your wedding date). People (apparently hearing only static in their brains) look at your brand new ring, and ask you, “So when is the big day?” I’m never sure if they think you might have planned a wedding before you decided you were getting married… or if they think you pulled together the whole thing during the half hour car ride to your mom’s house to show off your ring(s).
That’s no joke. Don’t let it stress you out, though. All you have to do is create this boilerplate response and repeat it over and over again, “we’re not sure yet because it depends on our family and the venue. We’ll let you know as soon as we can.” Then look them directly in the eye and silently dare them to press you any further.
Here’s the reality about the best way to pick a wedding date: the wedding date you want may not matter depending on the venue’s availability.
Select your wedding date wisely
Here are some of the things to think about at you choose your wedding date:
- How long should your engagement be? If you want to tie the knot sooner, rather than later, potential wedding dates will be more straightforward. If you’re planning a longer engagement, you have more flexibility.
- Are you getting married at a city hall or courthouse? If you choose to get married in a city hall, odds are you’ll have to get married on a weekday, which makes Friday a very popular choice so out-of-towners can get the day off and attend. Keep that in mind as you plan and make your appointment as soon as you can. Also, make sure to check with the courthouse or city hall to see what the maximum occupancy is so you don’t inadvertently invite guests who can’t fit, making for awkward “who’s in and who’s out” decisions to be made right before the ceremony.
- Check the available wedding dates with VIPs. Discuss the date with the VIPs – the people you can’t live without – on the day you plan to say “I do!” and work from there. OR. If you’re choosing a highly-popular venue, you might start with the venue first and then check their available dates with the inner-circle.
- Investigate the availability of your first-choice venue. Once you’ve consulted with beloved family members as well as the soul-family/friend list, it’s time to check in with your first-choice venue. Also check with second- and third-choice spots in case the first venue’s dates are a no-go.
- Are there special wedding dates you want to commemorate? Some couples intentionally choose dates such as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, or a seasonal solstice/equinox. Others like the romantic idea of sharing a wedding anniversary with grandparents or loved ones who had long and successful marriages. This can be a sentimental way to make your sacred day even more special.
- Choose a wedding officiant and make sure they’re legal. Your officiant must be legally authorized to facilitate the wedding ceremony and sign the marriage license. If you want a non-clergy or non-official person to be your wedding officiant, you can easily make them a legal wedding officiant online.
If there is a must-have vendor on your wedding planning list, you’ll need to run dates by them as well. However, don’t get too crazy along these lines. You can always find another wonderful caterer, you can’t find another wonderful grandmother…
How to Get Married Step 3: Create a Wedding Budget That’s Reasonable
For some brides, a reasonable wedding budget is $100,000, for others a $5000 wedding would be a stretch. The key is to establish what your wedding budget is:
- Are you paying for it?
- Is your mom/dad paying for it?
- Is his/her mom/dad contributing?
Rule #1 when creating a wedding budget: never assume anything
Make sure to have a specific conversation (in person, if possible) with anyone you feel may be contributing to the wedding costs. Too many brides make assumptions about who’s paying and how much they’re able to – which is a recipe for wedding over-planning disaster.
Be bold, be honest and be clear – then be grateful and accepting of any financial contributions towards your wedding costs. Once you’ve had your finance meeting(s) and know exactly how much is available for the wedding budget – stick to that amount and don’t waver.
Rule #2 Get clear that bigger budgets don’t make happier marriages
We know firsthand that stunning weddings commence at every price-point, even in some of the most expensive locations – such as weddings in Los Angeles. We especially love to mention the fact that the less you spend on your wedding, the happier your marriage will be.
That is a statistical fact, according to recent research from Emory University economics professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon. After reviewing 3000 different couples across the socioeconomic spectrum, the two found that, “…across income levels, the more you dish out on the big day the shorter your marriage will be.” In fact the absolute happiest marriages were those in which couples spent $1000 or less on their weddings.
We’re all for throwing friends and family and rockin’ good time for your wedding, but our advice is to keep it as real as possible because it’s really all about your love and commitment.
Rule #3 Study examples of real life weddings and their cost breakdowns
That being said, you can get an idea of wedding budgets from $1000 to $20,000, shared by the celebrated website, the budgetsavvybride.com. If you’re planning to spend more than $20,000 on your wedding, budget probably isn’t used as much in your wedding planning vocabulary.
Rule #4 Use all the wedding budget tricks to keep on task
Helpful tools when creating your dream wedding budget include:
- Knowing your wedding budget is directly proportional to the guest list because receptions account for about 48% to 50% of the wedding costs
- Establishing and prioritizing personal wedding essentials so you know those are covered
- Creating a 5% emergency fund for overages
- Using a wedding budget spreadsheet
- Creating a separate bank account for your wedding to better track (and regulate) spending
How to Get Married Step 4: Find a Wedding Venue that Fits Your Budget
If you do need to stick to a budget, plan your wedding budget first and seek the venue from there. Otherwise, the process can become disappointing as you learn all your favorite destinations are over your budget’s head.
In most cases, public venues – like city halls or courthouses, state or county parks, churches, and beautiful spaces owned by non-profits (like historical buildings) are the most affordable. Public spaces may require special permitting by the city, county or governing agency, so look into that ahead of time. Country Clubs and special events centers will cost a bit more.
Are You Planning a City Hall or Courthouse Wedding?
If you’re interested in a simple, affordable and efficient wedding experience, we recommend planning a City Hall or Courthouse wedding. In some cases, these wedding ceremonies can be performed immediately after applying for your marriage license, but not always.
City Hall and Courthouse weddings are very affordable with minimal fees required. They can take place in small chambers or huge halls, which will dictate the number of guests who can be present at the wedding. Some city halls or courts allow on-site receptions while others do not.
Visit City Hall Wedding to learn more about what’s involved when planning a wedding at a city hall or courthouse venue in the city of your choice.
Bonus tip: re-think the idea of a gourmet meal
While the idea of a sit-down, multi-course meal might sound impressive, they often lead to overpriced, forgettable meals for your guests. Keep that in mind when choosing caterers (common wedding budget breakers).
You may find going with a local BBQ company or a popular food truck will cost significantly less and provide a delicious meal that guests talk about for years. We have a staffer who went the BBQ route (even though her outdoor wedding was rather formal), and to this day she still has wedding guests who comment, “The BBQ at your wedding was the best wedding food I’ve ever had…” and it cost her and the groom less than $11 per head.
Review theknot.com’s Wedding Budget 101 post to learn more about wedding budget breakdowns, and the nitty-gritty specifics about how to create a realistic wedding budget and stick to it.
How to Get Married Step 5: Create & Share a Wedding Website
You’ll do your wedding guests – and yourself – a big favor by taking advantage of a free wedding website builder. These sites offer a one-stop-spot for you to post information and important wedding details, and for guests to access them without blowing up your phone, text and social media on a regular basis. Plus, all of these sites act as fabulous resources for wedding planning and wedding-related stuff.
There are some fee-based wedding planning websites available. However, when all is said and done, they don’t offer anything all that much more exciting than the free sites. Our recommendations for free wedding websites that are easy to use and navigate are:
Visit them all, see what they have to offer and notice which one strikes your fancy. You might even want to start accounts on two or three to establish which one’s easiest to navigate before settling on a favorite.
How to Get Married Step 6: Send Save-the-Dates and Wedding Invites
Now that you’ve chosen the best wedding date for all partied involved, and nailed down the venue (or are close to it), it’s time to think about save-the-dates and wedding invitations.
A word about Save-the-Dates
In today’s busy world, it makes sense to send save-the-dates. However, it doesn’t make sense to blow the wedding budget on them because the physical versions most often end up in the round file (aka, the trash).
If you are planning an affordable wedding, or an eco-friendly version – opt for digital save-the-dates. These are probably available through your wedding website platform. If you have a little extra in the budget, consider sending paper versions to immediate family members and the wedding party for formality’s sake.
Go digital or paper for your wedding invitations
For the “real” invites, you can go digital or paper. The millennial crowd is all about digital everything, but let’s be honest – parents, grandparents and more senior members of the VIP wedding guest list crowd still prefer paper versions.
Read, Wedding Invitations Guide: What to do, what not to do, and how to make them better, for professional guidance in how to design and send your wedding invites.
How to Get Married Step 7: Decide What to Wear For Your Wedding
Unless you have a pretty steep wedding budget, it makes no sense to spend more than $1000 on your wedding attire. It’s even better if you opt to purchase a gently-used dress (or tux, or suit) that is stunning enough to wear on your wedding day but can possibly be worn again for other formal occasions.
Wedding dress recommendations for the bride (or groom)
DO take yourself somewhere fancy to try things on, and learn what looks good and what doesn’t, what suits your figure and what doesn’t, and what’s comfortable to move in and what isn’t. Then, use your favorite styles as a guide when you look elsewhere for second-hand or more affordable versions.
Some of our favorite gently-used wedding dress and attire vendors are:
In addition to finding designer gowns for a fraction of their original price, you can also find antique or vintage style and cuts that aren’t available from contemporary bridal shops but are much more unique and may flatter your form in a way modern dresses might not.
Tuxedo, suit or dress recommendations for the groom (or bride)
Similarly, when it comes to men or women who prefer tuxes or suits, we say skip the tux and go suit wild. Unless you play in an orchestra, sing opera, or attend black tie events on a regular basis – it makes no sense to spend top dollar on a designer tux rental when you can purchase a suit or dressy clothes you’ll wear again for the same price.
Tuxedos are stiff and uncomfortable and don’t lend themselves to having a great time at your wedding without whipping off the bow tie and unbuttoning the top button or two. Why not choose wedding attire that lets you do that from the get-go?
How to Get Married Step 8: Stay Calm (sane) and Present on Your Wedding Day
How many times have you heard friends or family say, “our wedding day is like one big blur…” What a shame that is. That indicates they were unable to be present for what should be one of the most grounded and present moments of their lives.
Don’t let that happen to you.
7 tips for staying calm on your wedding day
- Plan your wedding day well. The more you plan, the more organized you’ll be. Plan well, write detailed instructions, and then trust that all will unfold as it was meant to (remember that the more simple your plans are, the less there is to go wrong…)
- Practice moving and walking. If you didn’t heed our advice above about finding comfortable and moveable wedding attire, you’re in for a shocker on your wedding day. Wear the dress and those new shoes (or the tux/suit and the new shoes) around the house a few times. Have a solo dance party and make sure everything stays where it’s supposed to when you grove, jump, jive and wail. If things don’t stay in place, seek appropriate altering or go back to square one on the wedding attire shopping.
- Identify your go-to person. If you’re mom or maid of honor is a high-stress individual, deliberately choose someone who calms you and ask if they’ll be your “stress-relieving point person.” When they see you get agitated (or see that your mom/sister/cousin is making you nutso) your go-to calmer should step in and take care of business.
- Make sure everyone (including yourself) hydrates and eats something. America’s Funniest Videos made a killing on brides and grooms who passed out during their weddings. Don’t let that be you…or your bride/groom…or a member of the wedding party. Prevent wedding fainters by keeping bottles of water and easy snacks handy on the wedding day so everyone is hydrated and fed.
- Hire or consult with a wedding planner. If you have the money for a wedding planner in your budget, great. Otherwise, contact wedding planners in your area and see if they’ll do a single consultation or two. This can save hundreds, or thousands, of dollars but can ensure you’ve thought about all the important details. The planner will also help you organize notes, plans and instructions.
- Keep relaxing essential oils on hand. Lavender essential oils are the most popular for keeping calm, but so are rose, ylang ylang or chamomile. Put a few drops on a cotton ball (so it doesn’t interfere with the perfume/scent you normally wear) and keep it handy. If you’re feeling stressed, pull out the cotton ball and take deep breaths. Deep breathing – combined with the calming effects of the oil – will help you de-stress before and during the wedding day.
- Choose a mantra. Create a one-line mantra that helps you ground and calm – like, “Everything will be just fine,” “This too shall pass” or “I choose love” and repeat it as much as you need to.
Bonus tip: Don’t forget to stay connected to your fiancée
Wedding plans can get so out of control, but keeping the love of your life at the center of it all will remind you of what’s really important. Keep in touch and connected during the wedding planning phase. Then, you can sit back in the eye of the storm and appreciate – or even smile – at the craziness that’s in motion, knowing the two of you get to be together at the end of it all.
Step 9: Make Sure You’re Marrying the Right Person
We promised you a bonus section and here it is. The wedding means nothing if you’re marrying the wrong person. You should never get married because you think the clock is ticking, a parent is guilt-tripping you or forcing your hand or you’ve been given an ultimatum by your significant other. You should get married because you know that this person is your spiritual partner, your best friend, the one you’re choosing to love, live with, learn from and grow with for the rest of your life.
Things to think about:
Life partnership isn’t about romance or sex – it’s about partnership and friendship
Romance and sex ebb and flow throughout lifetime partnership so the foundation of your relationship must be built from more solid stuff. Your partner should make you feel confident and supported. You should be 100% comfortable being vulnerable in your partner’s presence – and vice versa. Compassionate communication, trust and honesty should be a given. If any of these things are in question, it might be time to have a conversation about what you want from marriage to make sure you’re on the same page.
Pre-marital counseling is always a good idea before tying the knot
Scheduling at least three to four pre-marital counseling sessions with a licensed and reputable MFT or therapist in your area is always a good idea. If you go to church, the priest or minister often makes pre-marital consultations a prerequisite for their services. However, if you’ve grown up in the church, you might find it more difficult to be completely honest with him/her. An objective, licensed professional without an agenda can tease out some of the finer points in the relationship that may need work, counsel, illumination and/or healing to make your marriage the very best it can be.
Never ignore red flags or gut instincts before your wedding
It’s a rare couple who gets divorced and says, “I simply had no idea that (insert name) was like that…” In almost all cases, either party can look back on the pre-marital relationship and admit that they ignored red flags that became deal breakers further down the road. Why wait that long to honor your gut instincts? Bring those red flags into the light – preferably with the aforementioned therapy. The work you do to acknowledge and investigate those might save you from the biggest mistake of your life, or lead to interpersonal work that supports a lifetime of loving, marital partnership.
If you want a marriage that lasts from day-to-day, year-to-year and decade-to-decade, it requires a tremendous willingness to “do the good work.” Dr. Roni Beth Tower says it best in her post on Psychology Today:
As we come to know and accept ourselves in all our complexities of needs, dreams, wants, limitations and resources, we become able to see another as the unique person he or she is, endowed with a separate and unique destiny… we can recognize the blessing of walking alongside another during this journey that is our life.
That’s the kind of rich and full life we wish for all who read How to Get Married 101. Your special day is the very first step in a series of steps, leading to the journey of a lifetime.