If you’ve been walking on air with your head in the clouds ever since your engagement, you’re likely also imagining the perfect fairy-tale wedding in glorious detail. But it may be time to pull yourself back down to earth and start turning that dream into reality. The first step? Put together a firm budget, before you get carried away with planning a spectacular occasion that gobbles up your life’s savings. How exactly do you know what you can afford? We asked Vancouver money expert Katie Dunsworth of TV’s Smart Cookies and smartcookies.com to share her own savvy tips on creating a realistic budget — and sticking to it.

Stay Out of Debt

Dunsworth’s first tip? “You don’t want to incur debt, period.” A heavy debt load can put enormous strain on a couple anytime, but it’s particularly challenging in a new marriage. Do you really want to spend your first few years together struggling to pay off an over-the-top wedding? Instead, suggests Dunsworth, consider your income-to-cost ratio in working out what you can truly afford: “Look at how much you’re bringing in every month and what you either have to sacrifice or find a way to earn a little bit more, between now and your wedding.”

Whether you’re getting married three months or three years from now, average your total estimated wedding costs over that time period to determine how much you can either save or earn before the big day. In the long run, planning a wedding that’s within your means will be far less stressful — and pave the way for a worry-free new life together.

Earn Extra Cash

For her own wedding, Dunsworth spent about $20,000, a figure she notes is considered average these days, with many Lower Mainland couples spending between that amount and $30,000 on their day. Rather than rack up debt, Dunsworth managed to earn enough to cover the entire cost by taking on freelance public relations work in her spare time. “Not everyone necessarily has the opportunity to make money in that way,” she admits, “but there are definitely things in your life you could be selling to earn a little bit more, or there’s additional work you could take on, whether it’s freelance design or helping someone clean out a garage.” Chances are there are a number of ways you could earn extra funds, if you have the time and inclination.

Write It Down

Your wedding is probably the biggest, most complicated event you’ll ever have to organize, so it can be a daunting task to create a comprehensive budget from scratch. Luckily, you can find useful checklists from numerous sources, including our own Real Weddings budget worksheet (download from realweddings.ca). It itemizes everything from invitation printing to marriage license fees, to ensure you remember to account for every expense.

To fill in estimated costs for your budget, you’ll of course need to do your homework. Comparing the offerings and fees of different vendors can be time consuming, but it’s well worth the effort to make sure you’re getting exactly what you want, at a price you can afford. But keep in mind that in order to get accurate estimates from vendors such as caterers and reception venues, you’ll need a good idea of how many guests you’ll be inviting, so give that number serious thought early in your planning process.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Setting up a separate savings account for your nuptials can be enormously helpful, says Dunsworth. Otherwise, she explains, “It’s really easy to just get excited about wedding favours and parties and a lot of different things and have all that coming out of your paycheque. But it’s all putting you into debt instead of coming out of a planned budget.”

Unless you’re fond of spreadsheets, Dunsworth suggests using mint.com, a handy online tool for monitoring everyday household budgets, as well as dedicated budgets for special expenses — like weddings, of course.

Mint.com offers an easy way to track your discretionary spending (how much goes towards entertainment, meals out, clothes, cosmetics, etc.) by pulling all your debit-card and credit-card transactions into one online aggregator. “Real numbers don’t lie,” says Dunsworth. “You’ll get a real picture of what you’re spending. You’ll only have to do it for a couple of months to see where your money is going and how much you can free up.”

Set up your wedding budget on the same website and you’ll have one quick online source where you can keep an eye on all your spending.

Make a Wish List

For many couples, certain elements top the list as must-haves, such as a beautiful venue, a gorgeous new dress, elegant food and wine, and custom floral arrangements. “But the reality is, if you can only carve out a few thousand dollars for a wedding,” says Dunsworth, “you’re limited in how many people you can have at your wedding, or what you can offer them.”

Dunsworth recommends creating a wish list for your wedding, and numbering your priorities from 1 to about 20. Compromises may be in order, but if you establish at the outset what’s most important to you, you can still hold the wedding of your dreams. You may simply need to get a bit creative. For example, if an extravagant wedding cake isn’t critical for you, a dessert buffet could be a less pricey alternative. Or, if paying for an open bar seems out of reach, limiting the selection to a signature cocktail and a few chosen wines could be a smart compromise.

Stick to Your Budget

Once you’ve worked out what you can afford, how do you resist temptation and not splurge on that designer gown that will put you $1,000 over budget? It helps to review your money situation regularly, says Dunsworth. In the year leading up to their own wedding, Dunsworth and her fiancé sat down once a month to check their expenses to date. “The reality is things change,” she points out, “and you need to keep an up-to-date tally of where things are at.”

By reviewing the numbers regularly, you’ll be able to see where you may be going over budget and need to cut back, or you may be inspired to look for savings elsewhere. This is where you’ll put your priorities to the test, and you may find yourself scaling down, or crossing off items that are optional or low on your wish list.

Details, Details

To avoid surprises later, try to anticipate all your costs ahead of time. Before signing contracts with any vendors, make sure you understand what’s included and what’s not. There may be additional fees you wouldn’t expect, such as shipping charges to deliver items the day of your wedding, or a teardown fee at your reception venue, so always ask about any extra costs upfront.

Dunsworth also notes that brides tend to budget for hair and makeup, but often overlook other beauty costs, such as facials, manicures or tanning. Another expense that sometimes gets forgotten, she adds, are costs outside of the wedding day itself, particularly thank-you items like the rehearsal dinner if you plan to host that yourself, or gifts for shower hosts or other friends or family members who extend themselves on your behalf in the period leading up to your wedding.

Just Say Yes

You may not be in the habit of ever asking for a handout, but parents and other family members are often more than willing to help when there’s a wedding at stake. “If you have family that generously wants to give you money, take it!” laughs Dunsworth. If it’s important to you to hold the best wedding you possibly can, then why not feel free to accept any assistance that’s offered to you? Just remember that your day will be unique and memorable regardless of how much you spend, but it will be that much sweeter knowing you can start your new life together with cash left in the bank.