10 Things I Learned From Planning A Wedding Without A Planner

Photo: Michael Govea

After hosting a wedding last April without the help of an industry professional, I now realize that its success was ultimately based on the genre of party I wanted to throw. For those contemplating ditching an event planner for your big day, it’s important to think about the kind of event you want first and foremost. Do you envision four-course meals served on perfectly mismatched china? Or is there an endless supply of cold beverages on hand and access to all of your favorite songs?

If you love throwing a great house party, it’s a good bet to consider planning your own wedding. If you’re more into the decadence of an elaborate dinner party and the adventure of a bespoke cocktail list, you may prefer to hire a professional. On location at my family ranch in Texas, far from an Uber pickup zone, my wedding was dreamed up all while working remotely from Chicago, which meant that the genre was cool, come-as-you-are casual with the promise of no-rules pyrotechnics. Here, I share the ten things I learned along the way.

When Cody and I got engaged in July of 2016, we knew that we wanted to have the wedding at my dad’s ranch the coming spring, and we knew we wanted to make it feel like a Fourth of July party. That meant coolers of beer instead of bartenders, a buffet of barbecue instead of a tasting menu, and a playlist of our favorite songs blasting all night. Even with these simple requirements, the beastly task of planning an event in another state from the ground up became its own part-time job. Hosting at a space that didn’t require contracts, rental fees, and strict dates had obvious appeal, but with that came the added task of building out a functioning, celebratory outdoor party space that made out-of-town guests feel welcome and included.

Swapping out time-honored traditions, like forgoing paper Save The Dates and invitations for a website and personalized Paperless Posts, was something that made the process manageable in a way that couldn’t have been possible if I had to track RSVPs as they trickled in via snail mail. We built a wedding website on Square Space at the dinner table in one night, and it served as a clickable location for constant updates as we added hotel accommodations, rehearsal dinner information, and registry info. Having the ability to check RSVPs at the click of a button was crucial. Even as a stationery enthusiast, there isn’t a moment I wish I’d spent one extra second coordinating (and budgeting for) old-school paper invites. If you need something more tangible, commission an artist like Carly Martin of Clementine Studio or LouLou Baker of Peep’s Paper Products, to paint a customized portrait or botanical landscape that incorporates the necessary info, scan it for your e-vites, print a few for close family, then frame it while you kick back and watch the plus ones roll in online.

A wedding planner isn’t a must, but a team of friends that can help execute your vision when you can’t be available to do it yourself is paramount. Whether it was scouting transportation options for our guests or holding a clipboard of check points the day of with their cell phone in hand, friends were the absolute key to cracking the personal planning code. In the months leading up to the ceremony, I relied on my mom’s best friend Nancy Perryman to accept deliveries of party supplies at her office warehouse, which her team of workers then delivered to the site and helped set up closer to the date. For someone who doesn’t have access to that kind of manpower, perhaps a member on your team of friends can help coordinate TaskRabbit assistants, which can be booked in advance for every chore, from setup to bartending to cleanup. On the actual wedding day, a trusted family friend is a great point person. For me, Nancy’s daughter Skye helped on location with setting up tables, chairs, ice deliveries, and even greeting guests that arrived early—having someone to help delegate was priceless.

I am not a list person. I like to embrace the freedom of whatever happens to shake out naturally—but for this time in my life, spreadsheets and detailed to-do documents were unavoidable. A list of the rentals being delivered on the day of, like tables, chairs, linens, and a tent? Check. A timeline of the entire day’s events, plus every family member that must be captured by your photographers? Check. An RSVP section of our Paperless Post invites for shuttle service, followed by a spreadsheet listing out assigned pickup times to then email to each guest? Of course. What I wasn’t expecting was how much easier it was to take things off my plate once a list had been created. As soon as it was on paper, I was shocked at how quickly a friend could accept something as simple as “light candles for reception at 7:30 P.M.” and make that their new mission. For the day of, try to just plan to take care of yourself, have a nice time getting dressed with a couple of your most relaxing friends, and every other task can be doled out to a responsible, willing member of your family or friend circle.

Only so much could be accomplished on paper ahead of the date, so we scheduled the week before the ceremony as time to be on site, prepping the location ourselves. We took time off of work, flew to Texas, and showed up every morning to shovel hay out of the barn to make room for buffet tables, mow through overgrown grass, and string thousands of twinkling lights into dreamy party canopies. Everyone was on deck—Cody’s dad power washed our cement dance floor while I chased down the port-o-potty delivery van to create a rustic powder room. Cody rented an enormous sound system complete with a microphone, which he set up with his wedding party to make sure that everything was ready to perform for father-daughter dances and meaningful speeches. For cleanup, my brother Bret sat out of all preparation duties and instead showed up the day after the wedding, while we slept soundly in our honeymoon tent, to haul off the wine bottles and stray cans that had been tucked into giant iced troughs for the taking.

For arrangements, I had my wedding party pick and tie together their own bouquets (which just as easily could have been a farmers market run) as well as mine when they arrived at the ranch for pictures. For the rest of the outdoor space, we left it as is—the whole point was to experience a moment in nature under the Texas stars! For a venue that lacks the ranch’s wildflowers, rows of lush potted plants could create a pretty effect and double as gifts for guests to take with them. Music was hugely important, and for the ceremony, my childhood friend Eric Echols set our favorite songs to strings on his violin. Rather than leaving the dance party up to a DJ, we again relied on technology. We asked our friends to be responsible for pressing PLAY on a few playlists we put together on Spotify titled “First Dance,” “Father-Daughter Dance,” “Mother-Son Dance,” and a seven-hour “Reception Collection.” They emceed between speeches and dances, everything went off without a hitch, and we spent the entire time enjoying our actual favorite songs.

For our particularly authentic setup, guests needed to know that the attire would be casual, much like the entire affair, so boots and denim were encouraged. We wanted to make sure that everyone, before booking a ticket, understood that the property was a real, working ranch, not a show pony wedding venue. Cody’s party wore denim-on-denim and bolos, and I asked my girls (and one guy) to pick any pastel look that spoke to them and felt comfy for a day outdoors. Not being responsible for dressing anyone other than myself was ideal, from my perspective. For my dress, I wanted something I could move and dance in that didn’t require a million fittings, which Sandra Mansour kindly provided in the form of a floaty mini with gauzy details that hovered off of the floor. I loved it too much to consider a costume change.

Photo: Michael Govea

There are certain things you’ll need to let yourself have. For me, a fireworks show was a must, which came together thanks to the help of my maid-of-honor’s dad, who purchased dozens of sparklers and colorful explosives at a warehouse and stockpiled them for us until the big day. He even built launch pads for artillery shells, and my maid-of-honor took breaks throughout the night to set them off herself. The big dreams were able to stand out because countless other ideas needed to fall off of the list of to-dos, like an intricate collage of family photos on display, hand-painted programs shaped like fans, customized BIC lighters for sparkler ignition . . . simplifying down to what really mattered was the only way to stay clearheaded and not get caught up in the razzle dazzle. If it doesn’t really matter to you, you’ll have the best time not thinking about it at all.

I opted to have my wedding party fly in a couple of nights before so that we could all meet up in Austin at The Hotel Saint Cecilia to spend a day drinking pink champagne by the pool. As soon as we were all together, the stress of a week of constant prep and months of planning lifted and gave me a chance to breathe and don my party mood. Cody planned the same trip with his guys, and we all met up at the end of the night to toast and lounge at Cheer Up Charlies before driving to my hometown for the official festivities the next morning. At the welcome dinner the night before the wedding, Cody and I were still little balls of nerves, but it was perfect to have an open space to chat everyone up and spend time having real conversations—in turn, it gave us more time to hang out together at the reception without being pulled in a million directions.

The morning of the wedding, Cody and I agreed before heading to the ceremony that the most important thing was having fun together. If we weren’t having the time of our lives, no one could. And that was all it took! Just saying it out loud as a reminder. When the judge forgot our ring exchange during the ceremony, we laughed hysterically and welcomed the opportunity to kiss for a second time. When we forgot to cut the wedding cake, nobody cared because we were all too busy dancing to our songs. Every special detail that played out, from lighting the bonfire inferno to jumping around under fireworks while The Cure played in the background felt like the best house party we could ever throw. And now, when someone requests the reception playlist or inquires about a much-anticipated anniversary reunion, we don’t even try to hide our proud faces.

—Arden Fanning Andrews