OK, this weekend was totally the best, but it started out about a year ago with a giant "wtf do we do" so in case you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few thoughts I can brain dump.
It may seem like a lot of little choices that make up your budget. But it's not; it's really a few big choices:
1. Where is it? The bigger/more expensive the city, the more expensive the wedding. I recommend Pittsburgh.
2. Is it small (<40 ppl), medium (110 ppl), or huge (200+)? I don't see a ton of weddings in between those sizes, though I don't know why not. I think small or medium is the easiest to find a venue for.
3. Is it on a summer Saturday? No, stop, don't do that. Everyone wants a summer Saturday. Especially if you don't want to book a year in advance, pick a different day. (But don't worry if you really want a summer Saturday; we did it and it was OK.)
4. What's the venue + catering + booze cost? The Mattress Factory was expensive, but not actually, once we factored in that we could bring our own caterer and bartenders. As a counter example, Phipps Conservatory seems kinda reasonable at $3000, but you then have to use their caterer, who is at least $90/person. Calculate this all together.
5. Are you gonna DIY hardcore? We are both super job busy and across the country, so our answer was clearly "no" - our MO across the board was to hire good people and let them do their thing. But if you want to save a lot of money, I think the answer is to do a lot yourself or hire volunteer friends. Note: this is way more difficult; it probably helps if at least one of you is unemployed or part time or something. The amount of work feels like the order of magnitude of putting on a college theater play or two.
Small or medium sized choices you can make once you've figured out the big ones above:
1. How much photography? We went for "a lot" and had 2 photographers and 2 videographers. This was, all in all, a big expense. People say it's worth it though.
2. There are not many! Once you make the big choices, the small choices will kind of be locked in, and you're talking hundreds of dollars more or less that you can spend, not thousands.
Things we did that I was proud of:
1. Indian food catering. Tamarind was awesome, everyone loved it, and it was $25/person for the food, or $45 including full service catering and tablecloths and silverware etc. For a medium sized wedding, catering can definitely be your single biggest expense.
Doesn't have to be Indian if you don't like Indian - you can do Mexican or Thai or whatever you like that is served in big portions. (so also like Japanese would be bad I bet.) Just get outside the expensive-and-blah "American food."
2. After party. Find a bar you like that isn't super crowded or has a back room, and rent it out. If your budget is blown, they'll often give you a minimum instead of a fee, and then your guests can pay for their drinks at this part and it's basically free to you. This was such a great decision - instead of going to bed at 11, we got to stay up till 2 - like multiplied the length of our wedding by 1.5.
3. Hire great people. Everyone was top notch 100% awesome. I don't know how you do this really besides meet with them, screen them, get lucky, and also be willing to pay for it. Our photographer and we just clicked; we knew as soon as we met them that they were on the ball, super skilled, matched our energy, within our budget, and we just booked them right there. The DJ, I went to his weekly gig, and though it was a college bar and therefore a little different atmosphere than we wanted, I felt like he was good at reading the crowd. Our bartender Matt is a friend who I know has bartended professionally and we've talked about drinks, so I knew he'd be great at coming up with fun cocktails and good ideas for beers/wines, and at serving them up. Plus Amanda and the Mattress Factory crew - I mean, the space is awesome, I got a good vibe from meeting with them, and they have a million great reviews on Yelp etc. We had a pro do most of our flowers, but my mom made centerpieces because she'd done that a bit before and knew how to make them simple, cheap, but elegant. Our friend Killian, a professional artist/tattooist, was super happy to make us a drawing for our programs. And our officiant John is a friend and a professional chaplain, so I knew he'd be great too. See a theme here? Friends/family + pros. If they're one or the other, that's fine (and err towards "pro" as much as you can afford), but if you can find someone who's a friend (or feels like one) and also a pro or otherwise experienced, that is a great thing and you'll be fine.
4. Trust your great people! Once you go in with someone, don't micromanage them. They've done this way more than you and have probably thought of everything you've thought of. Feel free to ask them stuff, but try not to worry. (this is more for your sanity; your people will do great, don't worry about it.)
5. Have it at a place you like. I think we lucked out with the Mattress Factory, but I mean, if you like nature, have it at the Aviary or zoo. If you like history, have it at the history museum. If you like baseball, there was this baseball ish venue we saw. Do you. Plus, then it's more fun for other people.
6. Oh oh oh, honeymoon registry. I mean, if you want a bunch of household stuff, go ahead, register at Bed Bath and Beyond etc. But if you are like us, getting married at 30+ so you have some dishes already, and have a small apartment anyway, do this do this do this. You will not ever use those fancy kitchen gadgets. But you can instead use people's gift-giving instincts to pay for a killer once-in-a-lifetime wedding.
If you are planning a wedding, feel free to ask me stuff! I can share more exact money numbers too, I just feel a little self conscious posting them online. I will say that when we googled for wedding price estimates, they were actually pretty accurate (for our medium, summer-Saturday, Pittsburgh, independent-caterer-and-bar wedding). We might have beat them by a little.