If you’re a lady of a certain age—read, in your 20s or 30s—chances are your weekends are filled with weddings and their festive cousins…bridal showers and bachelorette parties.
Being asked to be a bridesmaid is an honor, of course, but one that can come with a hefty price tag. When you have several weddings on your plate that you’re directly involved with, it’s easy to lose sight of where your hard-earned money is going.
There’s also a certain pay-it-forward assumption many women make: Namely, if they’re generous today, they’ll get it all back when they get married. However, life doesn’t always work that way.
Case in point: If your friends get married at 28, and you get married at 33, a lot can happen in those five years, like children and mortgages. They may feel less able to spring for a pricey crystal candelabra, or destination wedding in the Caribbean—when your turn comes around.
That’s why your best course of action is to always stay wed to your budget in the here and now. With these nine tips, you can be a good friend and a frugal bridesmaid at the same time.
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1. Book Travel Once You Know Important Dates
The second you get the invite for the shower or the Save-the-Date for the wedding, mark it on your calendar and figure out how you’re going to get there.
We all know that the earlier you book travel, the less expensive it is, and this is true for airlines as well as trains and buses. If you live on the East Coast, companies like Bolt Bus offer tickets as low as $1 if you book your seat far enough in advance. Booking early also gives you your pick of what time you leave, so there’s less of a chance for delays. If you’re flying, here are six secrets to saving on summer airfare, and the best times to buy airline tickets throughout the year.
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2. Don’t Overvolunteer
Don’t kid yourself: Being a bridesmaid is a big investment—of time, of love, and often of dough. And once your bride’s been engaged a while, you’ll probably hear about plans for a shower.
Usually it’s organized by another family member, but if no one steps forward, and this isn’t your best friend/a bride who’s also an orphan, don’t volunteer to organize an event you’ll later resent.
Remember: This isn’t your career, and doing more, more, more won’t lead you to a big promotion. Even Emily Post says that while anyone can host a shower, bridesmaids are not obligated to do so. Do what you’re willing to honestly do for your friend, then politely sit on your hands.
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3. Set a Budget for Gifts
Attending a wedding is like having a friend who celebrates three birthdays in one month, especially if you decide to buy gifts for the shower and bachelorette party too. Multiply that by three weddings in one summer, and suddenly your budget will be seriously in the red.
First, decide what you’re realistically able to afford—not what you think your bride-friends will expect. Sure, we all want to give the gift of fine crystal, but if you have rent and student loans to pay, salad bowls may work just as well. And never underestimate the power of a thoughtful, personal, D.I.Y. gift.
5 of 10Henry Leutwyler
4. Get Into the Registry Early
In order to stick to your budget, it’s best to begin browsing straightaway. After all, you want to get something your friend will truly like, and nothing is worse than being three days away from a bridal shower and having to choose between a $300 vase or a rolling pin, because that’s all that’s left.
True story: One summer I had a bunch of weddings to go to, and there was a corner of my apartment that was nothing but gift bags, each labeled for a bride. It looked like something out of a romantic comedy, but it made getting out the door—and still being able to pay my rent—so much easier.
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5. Go in With Other Bridesmaids
Another cost-saving strategy? Registries often feature big-ticket items, such as rotisseries, wine refrigerators or even furniture. If splitting such a gift among all bridesmaids is reasonable, see if the other girls are into it.
Paying for a portion of a big-ticket item a bride truly wants—instead of floating a whole gift on your own—can be a way to make what you give seem bigger than its toll on your bottom line. Bonus: If it’s that large, you probably won’t have to lug it to the shower.
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6. Don’t Alter Your Dress at the Dress Shop
Another wedding truth: Bridesmaids dresses, generally speaking, aren’t the most flattering item you’ve ever owned. And since you’re trying to make one dress, or a variation thereof, fit a half-dozen body types, said dress usually requires alterations.
The bridal shop will likely try to convince you that you also need extra features, like boning or loops and hooks to hold your bra. (You don’t.) You are going to wear this dress once—and for all of about six hours—so take it to your neighborhood tailor who can hem and tweak it at a reasonable price to make it look great.
8 of 10Photos: Steve Giralt; Styling: Heather Levine
7. Buy Outfits and Accessories in Bulk
Granted, you want to look great at your friend’s wedding, but shelling out for a special occasion—especially if you wait until the weekend before to shop—can make for expensive emergency purchases.
When a bunch of my friends were getting married one summer, I hit stores like Filene’s Basement and Nordstrom Rack and bought fistfuls of cute dresses for a discount. Then when a wedding event rolled around—shower, bachelorette, etc.—I was prepared. No impulse buys necessary.
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8. Do Good With Those Ugly Dresses
Rather than let all those mint-colored monstrosities take up valuable closet space, you can donate them to charity and save on your taxes.
Or donate them to NewlyMaid, a site which lets you buy a little black dress, and will, in turn, upcycle a bridesmaid dress you no longer need. Their LBDs tend to run around $60 or $70—making this a good way to get a wardrobe staple at a deep discount, while discarding something you don’t want and doing some good. Triple threat!
NewlyMaid, in turn, recycles the dress or donates it in your name to charity.
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9. Begin Any Money Talk With This Phrase …
Years ago I was in a wedding and one of the bride’s oldest friends made herself point person for the shower and bachelorette plans. Even though we all had jobs, I loved the way she began any conversation about costs with, “I know we’re all on a budget….”
This simple and elegant phrase eliminated the pressure to automatically say yes to every request out of obligation and opened the floor for fair questions like, “How much would two nights in Atlantic City cost?” As far as I’m concerned, these seven words might be the best gift a bridesmaid could ever receive.