Category Archives: Wedding on a 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!

Still want to get married by a fake Elvis in polyester? More power to you! Just be sure to save while you’re in the city of sin.

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.

Self-Uniting Marriage Can Save Brides Money


We are not particularly religious people.  Okay, we’re not religious at all.  We try our best to be spiritual, good people.  Just not in an organized, Sunday-church-going type of way.  So a church marriage was just not “us.”  We’ll just be getting married at our reception site by a family member who is ordained.

But let’s say we weren’t lucky enough to have that option.  It would be super weird and inconvenient to pay a religious leader we didn’t know or really even support to officiate our vows.  Or what if we were atheist and didn’t want to go to the Justice of the Peace?  Or get married on a boat or by a mayor?

Pennsylvania can be pretty cool.

Luckily, we live in the great state of Pennsylvania, where reverent, God-fearing people have accidentally paved the way for modern-day heathens.  (At least I’m sure that’s how the 1700s group would view us.)  Quakers played a huge role in the foundation of this state.  One of the many laws that reflects that is self-uniting marriage.  Because they traditionally have no clergy, when Quakers marry they don’t have an officiant, as it’s God marrying  them, not any man.

This is why for all of its history Pennsylvania has allowed self-uniting marriages.  So if you want to just write your own vows, you can.  And skip the clergy fee.  (Just make sure you have two witnesses.) I think it could be kind of beautiful.  (Though I’m happy with our decision to have our family member involved; it means a lot to us.)

When you go in to get your license, be sure to mention right off the bat that you want a self-uniting marriage.  Do your research before you apply.  Some clerks might be jerks and refuse to give it to you.  If you do get a jerk clerk, you really could, and I’d argue should, throw this ACLU case in their face.

Essentially what happened was that Allegheny county asked a couple if they were Quakers. They said no.  So they refused to give them the license.

Let me recap:  they asked them their religion, and because of their answer, refused them a government service.  Allegheny county screwed up royally.  So from what I understand they are now much more accommodating to couples who want to take the self-uniting route.

I also understand that they do not charge a fee for this service.  This is not true in all counties.  Philadelphia county charges $90 in addition to the fee just to apply and get a normal license.  Which may start to get close to the fee an officiant would charge, making this a budget wash. UPDATE:  A reader was recently issued a self-uniting marriage license in Philadelphia county.  Contrary to how it is presented on their website, the fee for that county is only an additional $10, making the entire affair $90 TOTAL.

If you live near a county other than the one you live in, try giving them a call to see what their fees (and jerk levels) are.  In Pennsylvania, it doesn’t matter if your license is issued by a county other than the one you live in or the one you will be married in.  As long as it comes from PA and you get married in PA, you’re good.

Planning a wedding on a budget? Get this free budgeting template!

Other states offer self-uniting marriage, too.

Here are some states that offer similar options, or just options that may be better for some more secular couples:

  • Colorado also offers self-uniting marriages.
  • UPDATE!  Thanks to a reader comment, we now know that Washington DC‘s laws changed in 2013 to allow self-uniting marriages.
  • UPDATE! Thanks to a reader comment, we now know that Wisconsin offers self-uniting marriages in much the same way Pennsylvania does.  It was set up for specific religious purposes, but it is illegal to deny a couple a self-uniting license because of their religion.  Meaning that as it goes it PA, it goes it Wisconsin.
  • UPDATE! Thanks to a reader’s efforts, California now has a precedent for performing non-Quaker non-clergy marriages. (AKA self-uniting marriages where you don’t have to be a Quaker.)
  • Let’s say you don’t have a religious leader in your family.  In Massachusetts, anyone can become a Justice of the Peace for a day, specifically for the purposes of marrying a friend or family member.  (Or just anyone.)  The fee to apply is only $25, so most people would be saving money vs. a professional clergy member.  And you can get married by anyone that’s super close to  you.  Or just anyone  you want.

If you know of any other pretty cool state marriage laws pertaining to the officiating, let me know and I’ll add it to the list.

How to Find Inexpensive Engagement Rings

Explore ways to get inexpensive engagement rings without neccesarily sacrificing quality.

It’s proposal season! For those on the hunt for inexpensive engagement rings, here are a slew of alternatives to walking into a big box store and paying whatever they tell you it costs. An engagement ring is undoubtedly a huge purchase, but there are ways you can save a ton of money so you don’t start your marriage off broke.

Inexpensive Engagement Rings? Try free!

Student Debt Survivor started a great discussion on engagement rings a while back.  In her post, KK asked if it was frugal or tacky to purchase a used ring.  While I was among the few who voted tacky, I mostly did so because I was afraid of the bad juju that could come from someone else’s broken dreams. There was nothing rational behind it.

The rational argument is that a ring is a ring, whether you buy it from a store at the mall or have it passed down to you from your mom after your parents divorced. If it’s pretty and she’ll like it, there’s no logical reason to not take the free ring. You can use the extra money you didn’t spend on a ring for the wedding or honeymoon, or throw it towards a down payment for a house.

Cluster Engagement Rings

Another way you can save on engagement ring is by buying a cluster ring.  Instead of one large diamond in the center, there are several smaller ones.  At first glance you wouldn’t necessarily notice, and you can get a lot more bling for your buck.

If you don’t want this kind of ring, be careful.  The jeweler won’t necessarily warn you that it’s a cluster ring, and rings are  usually advertised with the total carat weight.  For example, “1 carat weight total” could be made up of four 1/4 carat weight diamonds. When you’re looking at inexpensive engagement rings, it’s smart to ask, “Is this one a cluster ring?”

Save Oodles By Buying Online

When I was buying my husband’s ring, I came across an awesome savings hack: buy online. When you buy direct from the jeweler, you save an incredible amount of money over the prices in a physical store. I was a little wary when I did this, but it couldn’t have turned out any better. If you pursue this route, there are a couple things you’ll want to take into consideration.

The first is that you want to have a good view of the ring. If the site doesn’t provide 3D imaging, you may want to find a site that does. To check out a great example of quality 3D imaging on engagement rings, check out James Allen. If you find yourself on a site that’s providing you with images inferior to theirs, I would stay away.

Another thing to stay away from is sites that have tight return policies. You have to order the ring, have it shipped to you, and then actually look at it to make sure you like it and that it’s legit. Tight return policies don’t allow you to do this. Make sure the return policy gives you enough time to go through all of these steps. Look for at least 30 days, and free shipping on returns.

My experience buying online couldn’t have been better. Purchasing this way saved me a lot of money, and I hit none of the snags I was fearful of. The ring was legit and beautiful, and arrived in plenty of time for the big day.

Buy in Pieces

My last tip for purchasing an inexpensive engagement ring is to buy the two pieces separately; buy the diamond direct from a diamond dealer/wholesaler, and then buy the ring from the jeweler and have them set it.  Some cities even have a diamond district, most notably New York City. Using this strategy, you may be better going to a local jeweler than a big box store to have it set, but both should be able to handle it.

Some online stores allow you to use this method, too, so you could save even more money by going that route, matching the diamond with the setting while benefiting from the direct-from-jeweler pricing.

What are you opinions on the ring matter?  How far would you go to save?  Or did you splurge?

You may also like: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year to Buy Wedding Jewelry

*This post contains affiliate links. You do not pay more for using these links. In fact, sometimes they allow me to bring you better deals.*