Category Archives: Wedding on a Budget

Rules for Gifting Money at a Wedding

Geez, I never would have thought of the rules for writing checks to newlyweds! Important read for all wedding guests: rules of etiquette for gifting money.

Today’s couple is less likely to want consumer goods as wedding gifts. Millennials are getting married at an older age, and have often established households prior to the wedding–whether that be on their own as individuals, or as a couple.

That means as you attend weddings, you’re more likely to catch a hint that the couple is looking for something else in lieu of that department store registry. That “something else” is cash.

Gifting money for a wedding can be a touchy subject, though.

How much do you give?

Do you make the check out to her maiden or married name?

Wait, is she even taking her fiance(e)’s last name?

How much money should I give as a wedding gift?

Many couples today have cash registries. You may get a URL in your wedding invitation. Once your on the site, there will likely be cutsie things you can “pay” for like the honeymoon suite, airline miles or dinner at a nice restaurant.

These are things the couple has likely already paid for, but it’s a polite way of asking you for cash.

These registries give you an idea of what is appropriate to spend in the couple’s eyes.

What’s the etiquette if there is no registry?

The old rule of thumb was to pay for your plate. Consider the venue, price point, and how much the couple paid to entertain you at the reception.

Generally, though, $100 is a good gift if you’re a family member or close friend. If you are bringing a large immediate family to the reception and have the means, giving up to $200 would not be inappropriate.

Co-workers can probably get away with less, but don’t dip below $50 if at all possible.

If your finances are tight, don’t overspend just to impress. If this is a good friend or family member, they’ll be grateful for the gift and understand your situation. If not, they might not be as good of a friend as you imagined.

When your money’s tight, check out their department store or other registry if they have one. Often there are smaller ticket items on there that look better wrapped up than a small-ish check. Fifty dollars is still a good threshold, but again, do what you can afford.

How to Write a Check as a Wedding Gift

Writing checks to and from couples is an aspect of personal finance that can be pretty confusing. Nine times out of ten a bank clerk, in person or remote, will let errors slide. But if you catch that one ultra-scrupulous teller, your check is worthless.

Unless the bride and groom are incredibly close with you, it can be tremendously uncomfortable for them to ask you to rewrite the check, making your gift null and void. Here’s a list of to-dos and to-don’ts to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Writing Checks to Newlyweds


  • Write “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”  You need to use first names. You don’t need to write any titles such as Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.
  • Write “and.”  For example, you shouldn’t write: “Mary and John Smith.”  This is only appropriate if they have a joint bank account, and that’s most likely information you’re not privy to.
  • If it’s a check for a wedding, don’t write it out to the bride’s new name; she can’t change the name on her accounts until after the wedding, so this may delay or even prevent her from depositing the check. She may not even take her partners’ name at all.


  • Instead of writing “Mary and John Smith,” write “Mary or John Smith.” By writing “or,” either Mary or John can deposit it, regardless of whether they have joint or separate accounts.
  • Write checks out to the bride’s maiden name. You can include a note on the memo line to clarify the gift is for both of them if you feel it necessary.

Writing Checks from Couples

  • Print your name on the signature line.
  • Sign both your names on the signature line.  It’s unnecessary, and is likely to get the check turned down at the bank when they try to cash it.
  • Sign your name. In cursive. Even if it looks like a six-year-old did it.
  • Sign ONLY ONE of your names. It doesn’t matter if you share a bank account or not.  If you are trying to make it clear that the gift is from both of you, include a card with both your names on it.  If you really want to emphasize the point, put something like “From Brooke and Nina” on the memo line.

5 Engagement Rings Under $1,500

Need to show this to my man! 5 engagement rings under $1,500!

It’s here, everyone! We are now in the midst of the most wonderful time of the year to buy wedding jewelry. Deals abound. Hunnies are getting ready to propose over the holidays.

It’s the perfect storm of practicality meets savings.

If you’re shopping for an engagement ring on a budget, here are five beautiful picks under $1,500 from my favorite online retailer: James Allen. I like buying rings online because it saves you money and helps you get more bang for your buck. I like James Allen because they go above and beyond to help you view rings and diamonds at 360 degrees and they throw in all kinds of freebies like engraving, shipping and 30-day, no-questions-asked returns.

Vintage Infinity Engagement Ring


Displayed here in 14K white gold, you can also get this band and setting in rose gold or yellow gold. The infinity symbol that encircles the band serves as a reminder that your love and promises are eternal. Paired here with a .70 carat, princess-cut diamond, the final price comes to $1,450.

View this band.
View this diamond.

Presentation Solitaire Engagement Ring


Don’t underestimate the elegance of simplicity. This 14k gold band, also available in all three shades of gold, comes in under budget so that you can splurge on the .71 carat oval diamond with super high clarity. Total price is $1,460.

View this band.
View this diamond.

Engraved Vintage Solitaire Engagement Ring


This one is my favorite. As a woman, I would gladly take the smaller .53 carat size in exchange for the excellent cut, color and clarity, but the real deal breaker is the gorgeous band. It’s beautiful in all colors, but personally, I’m crushing on the 14k rose gold displayed above. Total price is $1,430.

View this band.
View this diamond.

Rope Solitaire Engagement Ring


If engraving isn’t her thing, but she does want a unique aspect to her band, check out the Rope Solitaire Engagement Ring. It’s subtly different, but still simple. This one is also displayed with a high quality .53 carat diamond. Total price is $1,500 on the nose.

View this band.
View this diamond.

2mm Comfort Fit Solitaire Engagement Ring


Comfort Fit rings are beveled around the edges so they won’t cut into your fingers at all. This one is 2mm thick, and perfect for displaying the unique marquis cut diamond which is .70 carat. Total price is $1,440.

View this band.
View this diamond.

Which engagement ring would you pick?

I’m interested to see which way you guys lean. My favorite is the third option, but they’re all pretty dang beautiful—especially for those prices! If you’re already married, how low did you manage to keep your budget?

How to Get a Non-Clergy Wedding in California

Over two years ago, I wrote an article about self-uniting marriage. Saving on clergy fees? What kind of frugal bride wouldn’t be interested?

The response to it has been huge, and has inspired many readers to successfully petition against their county clerks to get married without an officiant based on our Constitutional right to freedom of religion.

A couple of months ago, I started talking to a reader in California who wanted to get a “non-clergy” marriage in their state. (“Non-clergy” is the same thing as self-uniting—just different choice of words.) We bounced ideas off of each other, and the couple did the hard work that led to successfully obtaining the type of marriage license they wanted so they could dedicate themselves to each other in the way that best celebrated their understanding of God (or lack thereof) and Love.

As far we know, this is the first instance of a successful secular, non-clergy marriage in the state of California. The reader has been kind enough to share their experiences with us today. All involved hope that this story paves the way for other couples.

Photo via Thunderchild7 under CC by 2.0

Photo via Thunderchild7 under CC by 2.0

By way of background, the Pilgrims had scarcely arrived and established their fundamentalist, theocratic colony when they started persecuting anyone who didn’t worship the same God in the same way. The first people hanged for heresy in Massachusetts were Quakers. There’s a statue of one of them, Mary Dyer, in in front of the State House facing Boston Common.

But over the years, Quakers and their quirks — including not having clergy — have come to be accepted as “respectably” religious.

“Most states make some kind of special allowance for legalizing a Quaker wedding when there is no pastor to ‘officiate,'” according to the Friends General Conference, the main network of clergy-less Quakers in the USA.

Since the Constitution prohibits disparate treatment for different religions, or for religious and non-religious beliefs, that should mean that it is possible for any couple in any of these states to marry without clergy, as Quakers do.

Easier said than done, as I found out in California.

Befriend the Quakers

In the District of Columbia and Colorado, any couple can elect to “officiate” their own marriage, without being asked about their religion.

To see a full list of states that allows this practice, check out our list of states that allow self-uniting marriage.

In other states, the procedures for “Quaker marriage” vary. You will either need to read the law, or ask Quakers in your state. Don’t expect local officials to have a clue, especially in areas with few Quakers.

Even if you aren’t a Quaker, you could start by contacting a local meeting of the “Society of Friends” (Quakers).  Ask nicely, and they will probably be happy to help. Explain that you aren’t a Quaker, but want to marry without an officiant, as Quakers do, and ask them how Quakers register their marriages in your state. Is there a special form or procedure?

Get to Know the Law and Get Some Help

Once you find out the procedure Quakers use in your state, your next task is to get local officials to allow you to follow that procedure, even though you aren’t a Quaker. In some states, such as Pennsylvania, there have already been lawsuits over this. In other states, you may be the first person to ask. Start by asking nicely.

You might have to get a lawyer involved. But don’t assume that local officials will be hostile. They may just not understand: many people can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to pay some stranger to “officiate” over your own wedding.

Being the first in your state, county or city will take more work, may take more time and might require you to face publicity and/or postpone your wedding. But it will set a precedent that will help the next couple.

If local officials refuse to let you follow the same procedure as is followed by Quakers, you could ask civil rights groups that have been involved in this and similar issues, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the ACLU chapter in your state.

Femme’s note: It took about a month to hear back from them, but a reader in Pennsylvania who ran into problems with her county clerk managed to get a self-uniting marriage license in Berks County with the help of the ACLU.

We asked all three. For each, we filled out a form on their website, and an intake lawyer called us back 1-2 weeks later to get more information. All these groups get more worthy people asking for help than they can handle, so don’t be surprised if they decide not to take your case. Specialized groups such as FFRF and AU may be more likely to take on a case like this than a group with a wider focus like the ACLU.

In our case, AU offered to have one of their staff lawyers write a letter to the county clerk explaining why we should be allowed to have a “non-clergy wedding” (the term used in California law, Family Code section 307) if we state that our “religious denomination” is “atheist”.

Want to see the language included in this letter? Download it here.

That letter persuaded the San Francisco City and County Clerk to allow us to have a “non-clergy marriage” with 2 witnesses and no officiant, which is what Quakers do in California.  If you are in another county in California, and the clerk balks at allowing an atheist “non-clergy wedding,” see if AU will send a similar letter to your County Clerk.

Confidential Marriages in California

We had a second round of even more arcane argument, however, because we wanted our marriage to be “confidential” rather than “public”.  California is unusual (maybe unique among the states) in having two different ways that marriages can be recorded: public or confidential.

A public marriage is just that: Anyone can buy a CD for $10 with all the public marriages in
California for a given year, including parents’ birth names, dates and places of birth, etc. Who would want their mother’s maiden name and other information invaluable to identity thieves in such a public database?

A confidential California marriage is like a sealed court record: it is kept in the county clerk’s office and available only to the married couple. You can get a certified copy you can show to anyone who needs to see it, e.g. to show eligibility for health insurance as a spouse. Anyone else needs a court order to get a copy of a confidential marriage record.

So in California there are two ways to “solemnize” a marriage (by an officiant or “non-clergy”) and two ways to record a marriage (public or confidential.) That makes four possible combinations.

But the state of California, in its infinite wisdom, has prepared only three marriage license forms. Apparently they developed the forms for confidential marriage and non-clergy marriage separately, and never thought about the possibility of someone who wanted non-clergy solemnization and confidential recording. We were being foiled by poor forms design!

This is pretty cool---have a non-clergy marriage in California and you don't have to pay for an officiant!

San Francisco Recognizes the Inconsistencies in Marriage Law

Everyone we talked to agreed that the law allows this, but they kept saying “no” because they couldn’t figure out which forms to use. We were treated politely and pleasantly throughout. I’m not sure how it would have gone in other California counties.

For what it’s worth, the San Francisco County Clerk, San Francisco City and County Attorney, County Clerks elsewhere in the state they consulted, and the state vital records office all said they had never heard of anyone asking for an atheist non-clergy marriage or a confidential non-clergy marriage. But they all agreed that the law is unconstitutional as written, so that some accommodation needs to be made. They also agreed that the state and local websites need to explain these options better – many counties don’t mention the non-clergy option, or don’t explain it properly– and that the forms and maybe the law itself needs to be clarified.

Success! And how you can get a non-clergy marriage in California, too.

After a month of negotiation, and less than two hours before our appointment at City Hall with an officiant we didn’t want and didn’t want to pay for, state and county officials finally worked out a way to use the existing forms for non-clergy, confidential, atheist marriage.

If you have trouble with this in another California county, tell them there is a procedure that has been used for this in San Francisco. They could check with either the San Francisco County Clerk’s office or, perhaps better, the office in Sacramento that was involved.

California Department of Public Health – Vital Records
Birth and Marriage Registration Section
(916) 445-2236

Interested in a personal contact? Shoot Femme an email if you’re facing this problem as a Californian and she’ll get you connected to the appropriate people.

In the end, everything went smoothly. We filled out the application form at the County Clerk’s office at City Hall, and were given a non-clergy marriage license. We filled that out with our two witnesses — at a time and place of our convenience — and brought it back to the clerk’s office. (We could have filed it on the spot if we had brought our two witnesses with us to City Hall.)

We entered “atheist” in the box for religious denomination. Nobody could dispute that atheists don’t have clergy!

It took a day for our marriage to be recorded. The day after we turned in the signed form, we came back and paid for a couple of certified copies of the marriage certificate: one to keep at home and use for all the paperwork for changing our status with insurers, etc., and one to put in our safe deposit box. These copies were provided on the spot.

The First Atheist Marriage in California

We were told, and it seems plausible, that ours was the first officially atheist marriage in California, the first non-clergy atheist marriage, and the first confidential non-clergy marriage.

We went through a lot of hassle, but hopefully it will now be easier for others in San Francisco and maybe elsewhere in California.

Congratulations to our couple on their marriage! So much thanks for sharing their story, and for fighting the good fight to pave the way for others who want to get married in accordance with their theistic OR nontheistic beliefs.

Eloping in DC: the East Coast’s Vegas

Eloping in DC looks way easier (and cheaper!) than making a trip to Vegas! Who knew?

When you think of eloping, odds are your brain will conjure up images of an Elvis impersonator in a white chapel surrounded by casinos and desert. In other words, you’re picturing Las Vegas.

Getting married in Vegas is easy. But for those of us on the East coast, it’s quite a haul, and we do have other options much closer to us.

The best option?

Eloping in DC.

There are quite a few reasons our nation’s capital is the perfect place to say, “I do,” without blowing your budget. Here are a few of them:

The turnaround is quick on marriage licenses.

As long as you bring all the necessary paperwork, documentation and money to pay appropriate fees, you can get your marriage license the same day you apply. Let’s say you left Pittsburgh at eight in the morning. You’d get to Washington, DC sometime between noon and 1P, fill out and submit your paperwork, and have a proper license potentially before 2P. Depending on the type of marriage you opt for, you could be legally bound minutes later.

Wondering how?

Self-uniting marriages are permitted.

Essentially, a self-uniting marriage is one where you don’t have an officiant. That means that not only do you not have to pay clergy fees, but you can also literally marry yourself, taking whatever vows to whatever God (or no god) that you prefer.

Want to learn more? Check out the US states that allow self-uniting marriages.

While many states that allow self-uniting marriage require the participation and signatures of witnesses, DC has no such mandate. It can literally be just the two of you. You can get your license, sign it and be done in minutes. (Just be sure to check the ‘Self’ box on your application.)

It makes for beautiful wedding photos.

Even if you’re eloping at the last second and don’t have a fancy white dress or tux, you’re likely still going to want photos to remember your big day. There’s only one spot in the courthouse where you’re allowed to take them (and I hear it’s not that great of a backdrop,) but luckily, there are a myriad of places in the district that present memorable scenery. Think national monuments and the various parks and green spaces.

Also, you don’t HAVE to get married in the courthouse. You can take your self-uniting license and get married wherever, or meet your officiant at the location of your choice.

Eloping in DC doesn’t require a plane ticket for East coast-ers.

DC is a pretty central location for almost all the states on the East coast. While it’s true that it’s a further drive from Bangor than it is from Philly, it’s still a lot more doable of a drive than heading across the country.

Because today more people are eloping for time and convenience’s sake rather than to escape the family, it also means that your guest list won’t be as limited by airfare if you do indeed want other people there. Just arrange a carpool!


This post idea was submitted by a Femme Frugality reader. Have a topic you want to see on the blog? Share in the comments below!

Why I’m Not Buying My Wedding Dress From China

I didn't know about all the hidden costs when buying your wedding dress from China!

There’s been a rise in the last few years of websites and companies based in China selling wedding dresses to those of us in the Western world.  It seems like every dress I like on Pinterest comes from one of them.  The apparent great thing about them is that they’re far cheaper than buying from most bridal boutiques, even though a lot of their dresses are made in China, too.

I imagine the reason behind this is that you’re not paying the middle man—boutiques have to pay to get dresses shipped to them, a storefront to display them to the public, and commissions to sales associates.  Websites don’t have to do any of that.

Despite the cost difference, I don’t plan on ordering my dress from one of these companies.  Here’s why:

1.  I want to make sure I look good in it before I buy it.  Call me crazy, but I’d like to try something on before I drop hundreds of dollars on it.  I’ve heard horror stories of dresses not fitting, and then being really hard to return because of…

2.  …poor customer service.  If the dress arrives in the right color, the right size, and at the right time, ordering from these businesses would be amazing for my pocketbook.  But I understand that a lot of these companies are very hard to get in touch with if you need to return the garment, or, heaven forbid, you need a refund because they don’t get it to you in time.

If you’re determined to buy online, I’d check out The Dessy Group’s selection.  They have a great return/exchange policy and great customer service.  Plus they’re an American company originating in New York.  They’re offering 10% off and free shipping on orders over $100 now through December 31, 2016 when you use code Newdg15.

3.  They have different holidays than we do.  My friend ordered her dress from one of these online vendors.  She actually still highly recommends the website.  But there was also a hold up in dress production because of Spring Festivals or something like that.  (Please forgive my lack of knowledge about the specific holiday.)  I guess it would be akin to most people having abbreviated work schedules in the US around Christmas and New Years.  But I don’t know what other holidays they have and what weight they hold as far as worker or postal vacation days.

4.  You still have to pay for shipping.  And shipping from China isn’t cheap.  The price difference starts to become more neutralized when you take this into account.

5.  Sometimes dresses get held up in customs.  Because the dress is getting shipped from across the world, it makes many stops along the way.  I read one story in particular of a bride-to-be’s gown getting held up in Ireland, where they wanted hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get it to pass through customs.  The bride didn’t have hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  She tried to get in touch with customer service.  For the rest of the story, refer to reason number 2.

What I’ll Do Instead

1.  I won’t turn my nose up at “as-is” racks.  I don’t have to have a custom ordered dress.  If I can find one that fits and I fall in love with that’s a former display model or has a minor defect, I won’t be too proud to take it home with me at those marked-down prices.

2.  I’ll get it tailored.  If it doesn’t fit right off the rack, I’ll just get it tailored.  I’d probably have to do that if I ordered from China, anyways.

3.  I plan to go shopping in the winter.  Because December-January tends to be the cheapest time of year to purchase.

4.  I’ll only go into boutiques I know I can afford.  There’s no point in going to a store where I know I can’t afford the merchandise “just to look.”  If I fall in love with something there, it’s going to ruin my outlook on other, more affordable dresses.  There’s no reason to depress myself when I could be perfectly happy with something that doesn’t costs thousands and thousands of dollars.

5.  Another blogger taught me that it’s okay to negotiate. Yes, even on wedding dresses.

I’m going to nip this in the bud before all the personal finance bloggers can suggest it:  I’m not going to get one used.  I did that last time I got married.  I used a divorced girl’s dress because it was free and pretty enough.  It was actually a really expensive dress originally.  But I’m a total believer in bad mojo if I wasn’t before.

Besides that, I really was bummed that I didn’t get to do the traditional dress shopping with my mom.  Turns out it was a good thing that marriage didn’t work out, or I wouldn’t be getting married to the love of my life now.  So thank you, cursed dress.  Thank you.

Pssst! I’ve gotten married since this post went live. Want to see how shopping actually went for me? Read this post.