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20 Steps To A Frugal and Earth-Friendly Wedding

The average American wedding these days costs over $30,000. According to Kate Harrison, author of "The Green Bride Guide," weddings produce around 400 pounds of waste. Both of those figures are positively mind blowing, yet they don't seem enough to convince brides and grooms that a green wedding may be the way to go.

Many people shy away from planning a green wedding, assuming environmentally responsible products and services will blow their budgets. While some green expenses are unavoidable, you'll often find the most eco-friendly options are also budget friendly. Look to nature for inspiration and you'll ultimately save both money and Mother Earth.

Couples who embrace the idea of reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing can also view their wedding day as an excellent opportunity to share this lifestyle with family and friends in a non-intrusive manner.

I've tried to come up with fresh ideas, some of which I used for my own wedding, while also mixing in tried-and-true tips for those just beginning this journey. (By the way, DIY doyenne Martha Stewart says a green-and-brown wedding is the perfect color palette this year.)

Livia Firth at the Golden Globes

1. Wear It Again, Samantha
Planning the perfect wedding doesn't have to mean finding the perfect dress. Why spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a dress you’ll only wear once? Consider buying a dress you can later convert into usable wear; going with a more casual look for the entire wedding; or finding a tailored outfit instead of one covered in fluff and meringue.

There are several ways to approach repurposing your wedding outfit. Convertible dresses, like those offered by ButterByNadia.com can go from casual to runway. A few snips of a seamstresses shears can turn a tulip-shaped gown into a cocktail dress. Or you might also have your gown dyed another color, then altered for length.

2. Try Hand-Me-Round Wedding Gowns
Livia Firth, lovely wife of the even-more-lovely Colin Firth (pause for sigh) wore an upcycled wedding dress to the 2009 Golden Globe Awards and killed -- until she told everyone her outfit had a former life as a bridal gown. So let's get down to it, girls. Never-worn white carries no magic properties; Vera Wang isn't a goddess (sorry, Carrie Bradshaw); and you can borrow or buy a second-hand dress while reducing the fuels used to create a new one.

3. Consider Gently Used Bridal Party Clothing
From flower girl to maid of honor, everyone should have the same option as the bride. While wedding purists might shudder, your carbon footprint will shrink if everyone is allowed to select their own clothes from within a specific color palette. (I've always thought black and white weddings were particularly classy, but maybe that's because I had one.)

Bring the females in your wedding party together with their closet favorites and see if they can strike a theme. The gals might also hit the local thrift stores for a day of mix-and-match. The dresses don't have to be identical but there should be a common look to draw everything together. Your attendants will be much happier if they're comfortable and not out several hundred dollars for a dress they'll wear once and loathe.

Attendants also might consider going the convertible-dress route. TwoBirdsBridesmaid.com has a line of short and long styles in a variety of colors that will simply flutter down the aisle.

For a less monochromatic look, use jewelry, flowers and other accessories to tie everything together in one earth-nurturing bow.

Tiny tux

4. Lose The Penguin Suits
Renting tuxedos is certainly cheaper and more ecologically intelligent than buying new ones, but the dry cleaning involved isn't exactly the greenest option. Unless you're determined to go the black-and-white route, gentlemen can simply wear their best clothing or shop thrift stores for something "suitable" (har, har). Outfits can be coordinated by using an all-dark or all-light color scheme, or you could add matching ties and pocket handkerchiefs to compliment the bridesmaid's outfits.

5. Let Nature Be Your Ornament
Nature offers some inexpensive and (duh) natural alternatives to expensive live florals. Incorporate leaves, twigs and grasses in your bouquet and centerpieces. Rocks also can be used in centerpieces or as place-card holders.

Fall leaves make colorful garlands and wreaths for autumn weddings. Turn your flower girl into a leaf girl by substituting fall foliage for petals in her basket.

Around Halloween, make centerpieces of pumpkins containing leaves or other ornamentation, with smaller gourds scattered at the "mama" gourd's base to fill out the look.

Finally, you could use everlasting flowers, grown and dried in your own home. (I caught my sister's bouquet, dried it and used much of her floral display in my own bouquet.) Everlasting flowers include everything from statice and larkspur to baby's breath and delphiniums. When hanging plants to dry, remove any extra foliage you don't want, bunch into loose bouquets, tie stems with a cotton string and hang them upside down. Make sure the blooms aren't crowded to speed up the drying process and make it easier to separate out the plants you'll later need.

Jar of flowers

6. Recycled and Repurposed Decorations
Your wedding is an opportunity to let some of your wildest ideas out of the box. String coffee filters and colored paper together to create imaginative garlands. Fill punch bowls (frequently found at thrift shops) with Christmas ball ornaments in your theme colors. Recycle junk mail, catalogs and newspapers into lucky origami cranes to hang from trees or string together as garlands. (One thousand cranes is considered lucky, but that would require recycling an awful lot of paper.)

If you'd really like to be surrounded by flowers but plan a winter wedding, you can make flowers from colored plastic bottles, the funny papers, old tissue paper, plastic bags and any number of other recycled junk. Just get your Google on and search for "flowers from recycled products."

Another idea is to have wine bottles do double-duty as table numbers. Print large, graphic numerals on heavy paper then adhere over existing labels with double-sided tape for a clean, contemporary look.

7. Shop for Second-Hand Chic
Second-hand stores, thrift shops, garage sales and Craigslist are your multi-stop sources for just about everything, particularly if you don't get all matchy-matchy. If you're a fan of "My Fair Wedding With David Tutera" on WE tv, you may recall how well David's mix-and-match vases, table settings, linens, chairs and tables worked for the "Cowgirl Bride." (The purple cowboy boots were horrid with her white gown, but the reception looked stunning.)

These are looks earth-friendly brides can pull off with treasures purchased or borrowed from anywhere and everywhere. Rather than buying, you might consider borrowing from friends and family. (Make sure you write the loaner's name on a piece of masking tape and attach it to the bottom of borrowed items.) The key is to use your imagination and see ordinary objects in a new light. You may have to dig through a lot of crap, but some of the junk you push aside may actually be just what you want.

If you're trying to match a certain color, pattern or look, bring a sample with you, rather than trying to keep an image in your head. To unify mis-matched vases of varying sizes, shapes and materials, slip them into paper bags and cinch the throats loosely with a hemp ribbon tied in a bow.

Heirloom wedding ring

8. Make Your Diamonds Blood-Free
The history of the diamond market oozes with blood, revolutions and greed. Until the 20th century, diamonds weren't even the gemstone of choice for engagement rings. And let's not talk about the toxic waste generated by mining precious metals.

Fortunately, the market now teems with jewelry made from recycled materials like repurposed gold and precious metals. You also might look into heirloom, estate and pawn-shop jewelry.

9. Help Your Rental Fee Pull Double Duty
Find a venue that will benefit from your site rental fee, such as a museum, gallery or other cultural organization. (You'll want to confirm how that venue will use your fee.) We held our wedding in our local university's former student union, which was slated for renovation. Our rental fee went towards repurposing the building and we had a unique venue.

10. Be Kind To Mother Nature's Flora and Fauna
If you're planning an outdoor event, consider the impact you'll have on the proposed space. Asking guests to hike to a scenic location can wreak havoc on a delicate ecosystem. Instead, look for public spaces made to handle the impact.

11. Use Electronic Invitations
Miss Manners would swan dive onto a fainting couch at the very suggestion, but younger audiences simply respond better to electronic invitations. Nor are couples limited anymore to the cumbersome and ad-filled e-vites anymore.

Electronic invitations now come in the form of PDFs, fancy e-mails and even PowerPoint presentations. It's actuall becoming commong to see DVDs and even text messages and Facebook pages that all save trees, time and money. There's no wasted paper, no hours spent hand-addressing envelopes and cataloguing RSVP cards, and no engraved ecru to invest in, which recipients often trash once the party's over anyhow.

Couples with mad Photoshop and design skills can create their own e-vites, but for the rest of us, there are a bevy of alternatives, including:

  • Pingg.com combats the perceived tackiness of older competitors like Evite and offers basic packages for free. It applies a fair charge for upgrades, including $10 for ad-free invites.
  • PaperlessPost.com offers perhaps the classiest paperless invites. Dubbed the fashionable electronic invite option by the New York Times, PaperlessPost will charge $4 for every 20 invitations delivered.
  • OurWedvite.com was named "Wisconsin Bride magazine's Best of Bride Invitations in 2009," and focuses solely on weddings. Online bride reviews rave about their guest-management service.
  • Punchbowl.com is an entirely free up-and-comer, but it does includes some small Google Ads, a real downer for wedding invites but not so bad for shower and bachelor or bachelorette parties.
Handmade paper wedding invitation

12. Avoid Invites That Shout "Timber"
You can't completely dismiss printed wedding invitations, particularly for older guests, family and others who will treasure your invite long after the last celebratory bubble has been blown. Rather than felling a few oaks, use tree-free paper made of alternative products. Every ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water and the energy equivalent of 380 gallons of oil. It also keeps nearly 60 pounds of pollutants out of the atmosphere.

Some of the most popular alternative materials used for paper-making include bamboo, hemp, jute straw, corn-plant stalks, coconut husks and elephant dung. (I recently bought a journal made from this material and it's both beautiful and stench free.) In fact, many of these paper products are made from materials with no other use. For example, "bagasse" is the husk and pulp that remains after extracting juice from sugar cane.

You can further reduce waste by using invites that are small and folded in such a way that no envelope is necessary. Post wedding details and updates on the Internet to prevent further waste.

13. Make Handmade Paper Invites
DIY brides with plenty of advance time should check out B Zedan's series of easy-to-follow flickr photos and instructions. The guide leads you through the process of using junk mail, newspapers, sheets, a blender and other readily obtained items to make new paper.

A nice touch is to add some natural elements to the paper for texture and color, like green grass or flower petals. For truly sustainable accents, embed seeds in the paper for future planting, allowing your love to blossom into actual plants.

With enough time, you can extend your paper making to include the guest book, place cards, programs and decorations.

14. Lick Your Own Stamps
When you mail out those paper invites, use the old moisten-and-stick stamps. The new self-sticking stamps come on wax paper that can't be recycled. You also might have the invites metered and stamped at the post office. Metered envelopes won't look as elegant, but it'll eliminate one more piece of paper.

15. Webcast the Wedding For Long-Distance Guests
Broadcasting your wedding live over the Internet will reduce the carbon footprint of long-distance friends a family, who won't need to drive or fly to attend the event. (It'll also reduce your reception costs.) Some people will still want to be on hand, but others will appreciate not spending hundreds on airfare and hotels, while still sharing in your special day.

Young girl taking photos at a wedding

16. Ditch The Disposable Cameras
A professional photographer is always a plus, but often times expensive. Needless to say, the trend toward providing guests with disposable cameras isn't the greenest option, either. Digital cameras have made many non-pros into excellent photographers, so ask your friends to bring their cameras and shoot away.

17. Feeding The Masses
Catering is expensive, rarely offers local products and can be wasteful with leftover food. My husband and I were graced with friends who offered to provide potluck dishes. Another friend collected flat mirrors from local thrift stores and spread them around the tables to tie together the food presentation.

Another option is to provide a vegan or vegetarian reception. Foods with animal proteins require more resources than vegetable proteins and meat is usually the most expensive item on the menu. Most vegetable products, with the exception of vegetable oil, can also be composted. It's important, however, to use in-season produce grown locally to keep the environmental impact low.

18. Ask For Carbon Offsets as Wedding Gifts
No matter how great your green intentions, most weddings and honeymoons have a huge environmental impact. Since this is extremely difficult to avoid, you might ask your guests to purchase carbon offsets instead of gifts to reduce the event's carbon footprint.

Guests can calculate their individual footprint at TerraPass.com and donate the equivalent cost to programs that plant trees or preserve rain forests. They can also donate through TerraPass via the website's "Checkout" page.

Handmade wedding favors

19. Create Eco-Favors
European aristocrats started the wedding favor trend by treating guests to sugary bonbons wrapped inside expensive porcelain, crystal or gold boxes. Fortunately, favors weren't en vogue back when I got married, but today's Wedding Industrial Complex makes multimillions off what I consider to be a non-necessity.

If you want to give your guests something more than a free party, however, there are many ways to green-up guest favors. One idea: Plant fall flower bulbs or herb starts in votive candleholders or recyclable paper cups. These can later be dumped directly into the earth for a useful and sensible gift. Make these little beauties pull double duty as centerpieces by arranging them on reception tables in a heart shape with several votive candles in the middle.

20. When You're Done, Pass It On
When all the hoopla is over, recycle unwanted wedding items and give them to others preparing for a green wedding. Hold a garage sale or market your extras on Craigslist or eBay. Smaller items not worth selling can be passed on via Freecycle.org.

For more frugal wedding tips, see our blog posts "20 Ways to Avoid the Wedding Industrial Complex" and "20 Ways to Cut Wedding Costs."

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