You don’t need to have princess delusions to want your wedding to be incredibly special. I mean, you are committing to spend the rest of your life with the person you love - and regardless of how insanely expensive and commercial the wedding industry has become (yes, the average Manhattan wedding is now $88,000!), the pressure and cost shouldn’t mean you have to downplay or postpone such a momentous occasion that will undoubtedly change your life forever.
My now-husband, Jason, and I knew we wanted a low-key affair in NYC that didn’t require us to deplete our savings or take a year to plan. But we also wanted our wedding to be chic and special - something that reflected our life here. A day we’d cherish forever.
That’s when I discovered, after an Sunday of some serious internet research, that if you have fewer than 20 people, you can essentially congregate anywhere in city and get married with an officiant and two witnesses. So that’s what we set out to do. In just 6 weeks - from the moment we got engaged to the day we said “I do,” - we planned our small, intimate wedding (or was it an elopement? Verdict is still out.), while also going on vacation to Greece (us), training for a marathon (me) and starting a new job (him).
N. B. D. ... Right?
Not only is NYC is stunning backdrop for a wedding, but it’s also full of creative people and innovative services that make pulling off an event easier than ever. In fact, some startups now even offer pop up weddings right here in city, as well as other glamorous locations like Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. But if you follow my steps below, I guarantee you and your fiance have a blast planning it on your own! Here's everything I wish I would have known when I started planning...
T-minus 6 weeks
Congrats! You’re engaged and you’ve decided on a small intimate wedding. Before you launch into full-fledged planning mode (the time pressure can feel strong!), take a moment to talk about your goals. It will save you time and energy in the end, trust me. What pieces of the wedding experience are most important, especially if you’re on a budget? How big will the wedding, who will you invite and how will you communicate your decision to family and friends? This is a big one and was probably the hardest part for us. Because we have so many loved ones all over the country and world, we knew that if we wanted to keep it small and on budget, we could only invite immediate family and (literally) a couple of childhood friends - and hope that everyone else loved us enough to understand and celebrate with us later in the year. But be prepared for all sorts of reactions and be confident in your decision.
T-minus 5 weeks
If you’re planning on writing your own vows, start a google doc for all your ideas. Distilling the best parts of your partner into a short speech can be tough to do under pressure, mostly because it’s usually the everyday things that are easy to overlook which are most meaningful. It’s also lovely to be able to observe your relationship in action over the course of a few days or weeks through the lens of wanting to celebrate those nuggets in your vows.
On the other - very practical - end of the spectrum sits the rings (though arguably just as symbolic!). Finding and sizing rings takes time; and while many shops will do their best to work with your timeline, it’s good to start the process early. We did get some funny looks when we told a couple of jewelers that our marriage date centered on how fast we could get the rings, but I doubt it was the first time they’ve heard that. In the end, mine took 5 weeks and Jason’s took 4.
Wedding band shops in NYC
T-minus 5 weeks
Location, Part 1: The Ceremony
You have two main location options if you’re eloping in NYC - get married at City Hall, or find your own officiant and get married virtually anywhere in the city.
The first option is great if you’re a very small group (read: just you and your witnesses) and is certainly less hassle. There’s also something about taking the subway down to City Hall - decked out in vintage Chanel or sexy white cocktail dress from Rent the Runway - that feels quintessentially New York. As in: we do things our own way in this city, and it’s always stylish. Once you get through the awkward NYC security line, simply take a ticket and wait for your big moment.
First you’ll have to apply for a marriage license, which costs $35 (you can fill out the paperwork ahead of time online) - and then wait at least twenty-four hours before returning to the marriage bureau to have the ceremony performed, which will cost you $25 and takes place in either the East or West Chapel of the building. They’re open from 8:30am to 3:45pm Monday to Friday - they don't take reservations, so simply walk in, take a number and wait for your number to flash up on the screen!
Alternatively, the city is full of quiet gardens, secret rooftops and epic parks and skylines; as long as you bring an officiant, you’ve got yourself a perfect wedding setting that won’t cost you a cent. (You’ll find some inspiration about some of the most special places NY-based elopement photographers Leila and David have shot here.)
But just how easy is to find an officiant? Turns out: very! Thanks to the internet, anyone can become ordained as a minister, at least for the purposes of marrying two people you love in the five boroughs of NYC. My uncle (who officiated my cousin’s wedding) described it as “faster and easier than ordering anything on Amazon Prime.” Maybe you have a good friend who is already ordained, like I did, or you ask your favorite family member to do the paperwork and share in this moment with you (here’s a helpful link for that and some additional context to keep in mind). Of course, you can also book a local pro from this list.
Location, Part II: The Celebration
Regardless of whether you’ve invited 20 people or it’s just the two of you, you should, at the very least, toast with some fancy champagne after the ceremony (or whatever the equivalent is to you, be it a dollar-slice or a pretzel in the park). The best part about keeping your event small is that you can afford to splurge a bit on good food and wine.
Many restaurants offer private dining rooms or at least your own little corner in their main space. Here are some of the most delicious options in NYC that we explored for our event:
- Peasant (Italian, Nolita). Rustic private room downstairs (we hosted our dinner upstairs in their elegant dining room and enjoyed the bustle of the other guests).
- Bacaro (Italian, Lower East Side). This sister restaurant to Peasant offers a cavernous private dining room for approximately 14 people.
- En Brasserie (Japanese, West Village). Several private rooms with space for anywhere from 5 to 38 people.
- Gramercy Tavern (American, Gramercy). Private dining room for up to 22 people.
- Lafayette (French, East Village). Private room seats 8 to 20 guests.
T-minus 4 weeks
Once you’ve settled on a location you can send out email invitations using Paperless Post. I used a super cute off-the-shelf design that made the whole process feel far too easy (who needs to stress about which shade of cream reflects ourselves as a couple?). Even if you’re only inviting a couple of guests, it’s important to give them as much notice as possible. And an invite, even if it’s emailed, makes it official and lets them know they should book their travel.
The one thing I hear again and again from women who’ve eloped is that they wish they had documented their big day. Photos let you relive the experience (you don’t want to rely solely on your mom and her iPhone abilities). I knew I wanted to hire a photographer, but figured it’d be hard to find someone for just a couple of hours. Luckily, a quick google search revealed that elopement photographers in NYC are kind of thing. They usually offer one to three hour sessions and vary in terms of style and approach; some want to get to know you first, others you can book online after selecting your desired “filter” (for the instagram generation), and a few will even act as your witness if you need one!
I found Leila and David of LL Style Photo via google and immediately fell in love with their instagram profile and editorial aesthetic. They were super easy communicate with ahead of the day and had scoped out some great backdrops near our ceremony location in Battery Park City. And after seeing my photos, I can tell you that I think they were worth every penny over my meager budget. (All of the photos in this blog are theirs, btw!)
T-minus 3 weeks
The last thing you want to worry about when you’re eloping is what to wear, so it’s good to think ahead a few weeks out. But if you don’t have that luxury, also keep in mind that on any weekday you can actually book a fitting appointment at Rent the Runway showroom in the Flatiron district for the same day. They have some stunners, too. Just look at the long-sleeved Nha Khanh cocktail dress and this tulle gown by Allison Parris. Or, how about a pair of vintage Chanel earrings?
Of course, if you’d rather buy something new, you’ll find a wide selection at NYC department stores like Bloomingdales and Saks (that’s where I bought mine). But also don’t rule out the designer boutiques in Soho. When you bestow the “wedding” title on a dress (or anything for that matter) the price magically shoots up. Personally, I found my budget stretched pretty far in some shops where I’d normally be outpriced for my everyday wardrobe. (I’m sure there’s some kickass bride ready to rock this The Kooples dress!)
T-minus 2 weeks
Flowers (and other advice)
Flowers. Of all things to keep me up at night the week before the wedding, flowers were what thrust me into dangerous bridezilla territory, “elopement edition”.
It all started when my mom kindly offered to pay for my bouquet, to which I responded that I hadn’t planned on having one.
While eloping means you probably don’t need to spend a fortune on centerpieces (one florist listed budget categories on their website starting at 10k!), a bouquet can help polish your look, especially if you’re not wearing a veil or other accessories (like me), and add some glamour to your photos.
So, I took to Pinterest - a site blooming with wedding eye-candy - and suddenly found myself falling into the rabbit hole of wedding blogs. Even after I ordered a bouquet and boutonniere from a Tribeca florist with impeccable taste, I found myself waking up days before our wedding wondering whether I had gone too dark, or whether a “cascade” arrangement might be too dramatic. (Or perhaps a bit of floral drama was exactly what our casual wedding needed!)
In the end, it was less about the flowers and more about the fact that we were eloping so quickly. I honestly never once doubted whether Jason and I should be married, but I did wonder whether we’d regret doing it so fast and so small (spoiler alert: one month in and no regrets so far!).
But back to the flowers...luckily, in NYC you can find flowers on any corner, whether at a bodega or a Whole Foods. I ordered mine just a few days before our wedding from Elan Flowers in Tribeca (who interpreted my vague vision in a more elegant way than I could have imagined). Although I wasn't super fussy about what I wanted, a few shops did tell me I was too late to have flowers custom ordered - so if you had a specific look in mind, it's a good idea to talk to a florist at least a week in advance.
Bonus tip: beware of the wedding blogs - especially a week before your elopement! Trust yourself and the decisions you've made with your partner (for more on that point, see T-minus 6 weeks: strategize).
Florists in NYC
T-minus 1 week
As with the dress, just because you’re choosing to have a small ceremony doesn’t mean you can’t get glammed up, if that matters to you. Sometimes it’s as simple as a vibrant flower in your hair or a brand new glossy lipstick. Or, perhaps you want to go all out with hair and makeup...
GlamSquad is one of those startups that may not be on a mission to solve the world’s big problems, but they certainly make life easier for city dwellers who want to primp for an event or fun night out. Through their website and app, you can easily book all sorts of beauty pro’s - hair stylists, makeup artists, manicurists - to come to your apartment or hotel.
For our elopement, I arranged manicures for my two girlfriends, plus hair and makeup for myself - and we didn’t need to leave the apartment for any of it. GlamSquad’s nail polish colors were carefully curated to include classics as well as on-trend seasonal shades, and I was impressed by how they styled my hair in an elegant side bun (resisting the urge to tease my volume-challenged hair into a crow’s nest).
If you prefer to keep it simple and do your own hair and makeup, Sephora is a great place to buy some new tools and get a quick makeup tutorial, without feeling pressure to buy a ton of product like at department stores. And if you want a fab blowout or up-do, it’s easy to book an appointment on short notice at one of the many DryBar’s scattered across the city. In fact, there’s one in Tribeca not far from City Hall.
Or maybe you decide to go au natural. Believe me, that newly married glow is for real.
Hair and makeup
T-minus 24 hours (minimum)
In NYC, you’ll need to get your marriage license at least 24 hours before the ceremony, whether it takes place at the courthouse or not. But if you time it right, you can do it all in one long fabulous weekend trip: arrive early Thursday morning, go straight to City Hall (no appointments needed) and be married later in the day on Friday, ready for a fun celebration in the city. Plus, the up side to the waiting period is that you get a sneak peek at what it’s like to get married at the City Clerk’s office before you do it yourself.
Weather check: location, props, tissues
If you’re planning on eloping outside, make sure to download the Dark Sky app, which gives a pretty accurate hour-by-hour preview.
Jason and I had planned to get married outside, rain or shine, on a what we naively imagined would be a crisp, sunny, early-autumn day. A stylish umbrella was our plan b, c...and d. But in the days leading up to our ceremony, when I started getting texts from friends saying “rain is good luck” and “wellies make for cute photos,” I realized that our casual approach to planning may have some consequences in the face of pre-hurricane storms.
The day before the wedding, I met two of my good girlfriends for lunch, my clothes (and eyes) soaked because of rain. “We have no plan b,” I said, unable to hold back the tears among people who have known me since I was 12. They immediately ordered me a fancy cocktail, a decadent brunch dessert and then took me umbrella shopping all over downtown NYC for the perfect prop. When a salesgirl at Century 21 tried to offer us second rate umbrellas near the ground floor entrance, my friend pulled her aside, looked her straight in the eye and said sternly: where do you keep your good stuff ? Before we knew it, we were whisked up to the 4th floor, facing a whole wall of fun and pretty patterns.
Of course, despite gray skies, it never did end up raining. But we were prepared with a light-hearted “I love NY” prop anyway - purchased from a street vendor, in classic NYC style.
If you’re planning an outdoor ceremony and concerned about rain, here are few gazebos and sheltered spots I came across in my planning. And just in case you need one more reason not to fret about rain: you’re almost guaranteed to have the city all to yourself!
- Wagner Cove in Central Park
- Washington Square arches
- Gazebo in Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City
- Grand Central Station
- Ladies Pavilion in Central Park
If you’ve booked a private room for dinner, you may be able to move the ceremony there. Or, if you’re getting married at City Hall, but planning to take outdoor pics afterwards, your photographers will probably know the best spots in the city for rainy day elopement shots. Grand Central, the New York Public Library and (a few dry spots of) the High Line all provide stunning backdrops.
And remember - you’ve come this far, you’re marrying the person you love and doing it as a team your own way. A quick scroll through #nycelopement and other elopement photos should help remind you just how beautiful the moment you say “I do” will be. Rain or shine. Big or small. $100 or $88,000.