Swinging the surprise celebration

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Juan Ayala grew up hoping for a happy marriage, a steady job and a house filled with kids. And more than a decade ago, life seemed near picture-perfect. But when his youngest child passed away unexpectedly, that unthinkable tragedy shattered his world. “My wife and I divorced, and for the longest time, I told myself I would never get married, never date again,” he says.

He directed his focus to raising his three older children and on his work. Romance was so completely off the table, that he vividly remembers his youngest daughter once asking him, “How am I supposed to know what a husband and wife are like together if you never fall in love?” 

Love strikes when least expected

Then, four years ago, Juan was on a work assignment and met Kimberly. Juan, who hadn’t gone on a single date since his divorce, felt drawn to her. “I’ve never been star-struck by anyone in my life, but there was something about her,” he says. Two years after that chance meeting, they got engaged. 

The unexpected romance didn’t only take Juan by surprise—it threw his financial planning for a loop. “Paying for a wedding and an engagement ring weren’t on my radar at all,” he says. And though he’d been diligently building his savings over time, he also had one child starting college and two more who would eventually need help with tuition. Still, he immediately dismissed the idea of just running down to City Hall to save money on the festivities. “It’s not that you have to have some big extravagant wedding to get married, but we wanted a celebration,” he says. “We wanted to stand in front of everybody and really mark the occasion. To do that, the costs add up quickly.”

Budgeting, bargaining and bartering

“We had to really sit down and figure out—ok, how much is this going to cost?” Juan remembers. Instead of breezily hoping that the expenses wouldn’t get out of hand, the couple took a hard look at their savings and settled on a budget of $25,000. Then they made a long list of everything they wanted for the wedding—from the rehearsal dinner to the officiant to the DJ—along with quoted estimates for each item. “When we tallied up that list, it came to $34,000. So we knew we had to find ways to cut back,” Juan says.

Pausing regular trips to nearby Disney World was a first step toward saving. And rather than ditching the flowers or shortchanging the entertainment, they tried some creative tactics. After getting multiple quotes, Kimberly realized they could save more than $1,000 if they booked the DJ and photographer through the same company. And the $3,500 bill for flowers was trimmed down to just $600 by ordering directly from a local grocer and DIYing near-identical arrangements. The couple also asked every vendor if pricing was negotiable. The chair rental company cut them a small deal from just asking, while the venue suggested swapping a full open bar for pitchers on the table. “That saved us a bunch, but we wouldn’t have known that was an option unless we asked,” Juan says.

When the couple finally tied the knot in March 2017, they managed to stay incredibly close to their initial budget. And though that’s reason enough to celebrate, Juan says the experience of wedding planning also brought them closer as a couple—learning to navigate a shared budget, talk frankly about finances and work together to translate their goals into reality. “We didn’t have to have this elaborate wedding,” says Juan, “but we’re so excited to be married and so proud that we were able to do it the way we wanted.”

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