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I’ve had the privilege of helping many friends and family members plan their weddings over the years –when you work at a wedding magazine, you become the go-to gal! As much fun as it is to dream about color schemes and escort card ideas, the area where I feel I’m really able to add value is the logistics. A wedding day is a complicated event with a LOT of moving parts, and if you’ve never planned one before (and don’t necessarily have the assistance of a planner), it can be overwhelming.

A solid wedding day timeline is the best tool I know for making sure the right things happen at the right time with the right people present, and so today, we’re going to walk through how to create one!

A note: If you’re working with a wedding planner or day of coordinator, creating a wedding day timeline is likely something she will handle. If you’re on your own, it is absolutely essential that you create one of these yourself. (And trust me, there are very few things that I will say are essential for every single wedding!) A well-crafted timeline creates a seamless experience for your beloved guests (and maximizes your time with them!), helps your vendors do their best work, and cuts down on the amount of “managing” you’ll need to do on your wedding day — all very good things!

Let’s get started!

Begin by gathering information and materials. Collect all of the information you have, especially the parts that are externally set/not in your control. It might help to start by asking yourself these questions:

A note: Most ceremonies last approximately twenty minutes, but I would recommend rounding up to at least 30 minutes – and some can be much longer. Add up liturgy, readings, entrances, vows, homily, communion, rituals, etc. to get a ballpark.)

Whew! Answering these might require conversation with your vendors, particularly on subjects like food timing. Your caterer will have the best idea of how long it will take to serve all of your guests at your venue based on whether you’re having a plated dinner, a family style meal, or a buffet, and your photographer can advise you on how long portraits will take based on the list you give him. If they don’t offer this info, ask! Never assume you’re on the same page about how things will run – always confirm.

Add times and details as you confirm them. As decisions are made and information comes in, start plugging each piece into a doc (Word or Excel, your choice!). For example, you probably already know what time you have to vacate your reception venue, so that’s a great place to start! If you’re totally stuck, here’s the general arc most evening dinner receptions at two locations tend to follow:

Of course, there are many, many, many factors that can affect this timeline. Let’s discuss a few.

— One location or two. If your ceremony and reception are at different locations, be sure to build in time for your guests to get to their cars, travel, park, and walk. Take traffic into consideration. I would recommend underestimating the amount of time travel will take, because there are few things worse than having guests arrive to a reception that’s not ready for them!
Portraits. While there are many reasons to recommend them, first looks are not the only option – but, if you’re not having one, you need to be realistic about the time of year and time of day you’re getting married, and adjust your expectations accordingly. (i.e. If you’re having a winter ceremony at 5pm, don’t expect your photographer to be able to capture daylight portraits.) Whether or not you’re having a first look, I recommend checking off as many bridal party and family portraits as you can before the ceremony, and leaving a concise list of group portraits for after.
Location and transportation. Confirm where the gents and ladies will be getting ready, and if it’s not at the ceremony location, confirm transportation for everyone as well as how long it will take. If you’re taking portraits at the ceremony venue but getting ready elsewhere, consider putting on your gown once you arrive to make travel easier!
Dances. At our wedding, we moved immediately into our first dance when we entered the reception, which I loved. You could also use your first dance or parent dances to open the dance floor after dinner, or do them during dinner.
Toasts. I like when toasts are offered during dinner, perhaps between courses. I’d also recommend splitting them up, so guests are able to focus on each one individually.
Sunset. Your photographer will likely suggest taking a few bride and groom portraits at sunset. Even if you did a first look, I think this mini portrait session (10-15 minutes) is a great idea. You’ll be in a different “head space” than before the ceremony, and it will also give you a chance to be (mostly) alone in the middle of your reception. And, there will be lovely glowing light!

Photo by Blue Ribbon Vendor Sawyer Baird

And finally, a few tips to remember:

Guest will arrive early. Fact. Plan to begin your pre-ceremony music at least half an hour before the invite start time. Likewise, if you’re doing a first look or pre-ceremony portraits, have everything wrapped up and be “hidden” away from guests at least half an hour beforehand – otherwise you might get caught chatting with arriving guests when you’d rather be spending a few quiet minutes with your ladies.
Make multiple versions of your timeline. I had a typed, single-spaced, two-page timeline that outlined exactly where every person was going to be for nearly every minute of the day — but I certainly didn’t send it to anyone but my day-of coordinator. That would have been completely overwhelming! I made simplified versions for each major vendor, and emailed them out a week in advance. I also printed out personalized copies for family members and the bridal party, so everyone felt confident about where they had to be when.

Photo by Blue Ribbon Vendor Gandy Photographers

For all this talk of detail, though, hear this: your wedding timeline is a guideline. As long as you don’t keep guests waiting and the food is fresh, it’s totally fine to deviate from it as the day begins to flow. And that’s where a talented coordinator or planner comes in. I know one is not in every budget, but I would highly recommend making room for one if you can, and if not, at least arranging a handpicked family member or friend to be the point person on the big day. If you’re the type to stress over whether everything is getting set up correctly and whether little details are being taken care of, a coordinator could be the best gift you give yourself. I think a coordinator is also a gift to your family and friends – both because you’ll be less stressed, and because it will allow them to relax, as well. A win win!

Tell me: Do you have a timeline for your wedding day yet? Are you doing anything different with the flow of your day? I’d love to hear!

P.S. Does this advice sound reasonable to you? (Ha! Hopefully!!) Well, if you love it, you will surely love our Joyful Wedding Planner – there’s lots more where this came from!

emily Written with love by Emily
4 Comments
  1. avatar Kelly reply

    I love this information! So resourceful, I can’t wait to use it some day. :)

  2. avatar Kyla Shattuck reply

    This almost perfectly matches the timeline we built for our June wedding! Our timeline was crucial to ensuring that every meaningful moment had space in the day to be enjoyed, but also left room for spontaneous moments to bless us throughout the day! :)

  3. avatar Pixie Weddings reply

    Great article as always! Leaving contingency time in the morning is so important just in case of any last minute delays or dramas!

  4. avatar Kristina reply

    I’m a reader from Germany and have always been curious about one thing when reading about or hearing of American weddings. And that’s the fact that there is a definite end to the reception. Is there a traditional reason for that? All the weddings that I have been to ended after the last guest had left. And that is usually not until well into the early morning hours. It’s just one thing that has always struck me as a big difference between American and German weddings and I was just wondering if you, as the wedding experts, could tell me if there was a reason for it. Lots of love from Berlin, Kristina

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The vendor I was most excited about working with AND also the most nervous about working with for my own wedding? My florist. Like most people, I adore flowers and wanted beautiful ones on my wedding day, but I was also very aware that flowers are expensive (and that my budget was not so large).

A lot of what I learned as a bride about making the most of a floral budget went into the vendor section of the Joyful Wedding Planner, so today, we’re sharing a few tips along with the floral inspiration board from my own wedding! :)

1. Set your budget first. Even though it’s difficult to guess how much the flowers you want will cost, you can still set a floral budget that makes sense within your overall wedding budget (most sources recommend 5-10% of your overall budget). Knowing your budget will help your florist recommend flowers and styles within your price range. It’s also helpful to have a general idea of numbers, like how many reception tables and how many bridesmaids you’re having, before your first meeting, as most proposals are priced per piece.

2. Be flexible about specifics. So many factors go into beautiful blooms–season, weather, location–making it hard for a florist to make any guarantees about what will be available and in good condition on your wedding day. As well as communicating your favorite flowers to your florist, discuss the colors and feel you’re going for. They will make their best effort to get you the blooms you want, but if anything goes wrong, they can use their expertise to find substitutes that will fit the overall look you’re going for and look great, instead of using a sad-looking flower because it’s one you HAD to have. To improve your chances of getting your must-have flower, find out when it’s in season in your area and set your wedding date accordingly. The flower chart in the Joyful Wedding Planner is a great reference!

3. Organize your inspiration. Florists are visual people, so lots of picture inspiration is helpful IF it’s well organized. Instead of general captions like “love this” on your Pinterest board, identify WHAT you love about different arrangements and bouquets. Is it the shape? The texture? The colors? The specific flowers? Making a note of what specifically draws you to each picture will help you communicate your vision and style more effectively.

4. Be realistic. One of the biggest pet peeves we’ve heard from florists is when brides bring in pictures of grand arrangements or pricey blooms, and ask for something similar on a minimal budget. Keep in mind that floral arrangements in magazines and on Pinterest are often the most unique and expensive in a florist’s portfolio. Instead of asking for an exact replica of an arrangement you love, bring your inspiration photos to your florist and have a conversation about what you like about them. Love the large scale of an arrangement? Use lower-cost greenery to get the same big impact. Love the fullness of a big peony bouquet? Create the same lush effect with different flowers that fit into your budget.

5. BYOA: Bring your own accents. Supplementing your florist with vessels and bouquet wraps is a great way to save money, because you won’t be paying for the time they spend searching for something perfect for you. Just be sure you’re willing to do the work and have the resources to do so before adding this task to your to-do list, and be aware that wide and intricate ribbons come with their own price tag – often upwards of $15/yard.

6. Don’t try to change them. Just like you wouldn’t hope to fundamentally change your mate, don’t expect a wedding vendor to stray far from her preferred style. If you don’t like the style of the arrangements or bouquets in their portfolio, you probably won’t like what they produce for your wedding. If you’re unsure, ask them to send over some examples of past work that they think fits with your style, like my florist did for us (make sure you have an initial conversation first, of course!).

7. The easiest way to cut is to cut. By that I mean, you may be able to wiggle the price of a bouquet from $200 down to $150 by changing the size or composition, but you’re not going to get it down to $25. If the proposal your florist delivers is outside of your budget, instead of whittling down every item, look instead at cutting out several items entirely, like ceremony altar flowers or boutonnieres. That way, you’ll meet your budget AND the pieces you leave in your order will be showstoppers that are exactly want you want!

Are you nodding your head along with this advice? You’ll love the Joyful Wedding Planner! Pick yours up in our shop.

emily Written with love by Emily
3 Comments
  1. avatar Karen reply

    Emily, thank you for sharing great tips that both help brides and are respectful of designers! Tips 6 & 7 have me smiling and joyfully clapping inside! To give a realistic expectation to brides, I did want to share one shift from what is stated in #1: Within the past few years (due to drought as well as economic factors) the average floral budget takes up 12-15% of a budget. Floral Design is often on par or more than what is spent on photography.

  2. avatar M. Goblet reply

    Do you often copy/paste your previous articles into new articles, only adding a few small bits of information, and then publishing it as new? See what Lisa wrote in Expert Advice on May 15, 2014, as it’s pretty much word for word what this article is.

    • avatar Emily reply

      Hi M.! This may or may not surprise you, but actually, yes! We know that our readership largely turns over every 1-2 years as brides get engaged and married and new brides come to our site, so we regularly re-post similar content buried in our archives that we think is helpful for every engaged bride to read. I hope that helps to clarify, and thank you so much for reading!

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John and I are coming up on our fifth wedding anniversary in a few months.

Enough time has passed since that September day that you might think our choices would have fallen out of favor in our memories, that I’d now wish we’d switched this or that detail or done this or that differently. I know some friends who are already itching for a complete do-over, though thankfully to the same people (ha!).

But no. No. Our wedding day was an absolutely magical day, crystalline in its clarity and astonishing in its beauty. I feel so lucky to have absolutely no regrets, looking back — so thankful, in hindsight, that we took the time to do things our way, to do them meaningfully, and to do them with great love. I have no desire to do our wedding over again; instead, I’m free to look forward to what is to come.

I say that not to stress you out — what kind of person would I be if I added stress to a bride’s plate?! — but to encourage you to double down with grace, patience, and purpose as you plan your wedding. Because I want that same clarity and beauty for you… one, five, ten, and fifty years on.

The urgency of wedding planning is this: if you do it right, you only get one chance — but if you do it right, you only need one chance.

One chance to create a memory that will shine in your mind like a beacon until you are old and gray, beckoning you back to why you committed to lifelong love.

One chance to honor and celebrate your community on your wedding day.

One chance to say to your world, This is who we are and who we will be, and this is what matters to us.

One chance to affect all of the people who matter most to you with the power of your love.

Don’t let the urgency of wedding planning scare you — let it fuel you. Don’t let it add details and to dos to your plate — let it strip from your plate the things that don’t matter, that aren’t “you” through and through. Leave those things behind without a trace of guilt.

While you are engaged, so far as you can, prioritize this unique opportunity called a wedding to create meaning in your life and in the lives of the people you love. I promise you that you will reap the riches of that work for years and years to come, and so will those beloved people of yours.

I am with you and for you, friends. And we’re here to help. What part of wedding planning can we help you with so that you’re freed up to create this one wild and beautiful memory? I’d love to hear.

P.S. It must be said – the best tool I know to help you plan a wedding is the Joyful Wedding Planner. I co-wrote it using all I learned from my own wedding, and I couldn’t recommend it more.

P.P.S. New here? You can see more of my wedding in two posts. The photo above is from our big day, by the inimitable Tanja Lippert.

emily Written with love by Emily
3 Comments
  1. avatar Kelly reply

    Oh how I love this post. I’m saving for my future season, whenever that might be, of wedding planning. So I can reflect and remember

  2. avatar Ashley reply

    These words are so true! I’m three weeks away from our wedding day. It feels good to read a post that leaves you encouraged.

    • avatar Emily reply

      I’m so glad this post encouraged you, Ashley!! Best of luck as you count down to your big day! :)

Southern Weddings reserves the right to delete comments which contain profanity or personal attacks or seek to promote a business unrelated to the post.  And remember: a good attitude is like kudzu – it spreads.  We love hearing your kind thoughts!

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