Couple says 'I do' in the park where they met

We’re celebrating the month of June by sharing the success stories of a dozen savvy brides who threw the wedding of their dreams on a surprising budget.

When Anne Claire Shilton and Christopher Paul Derman decided to get married, they returned to the place where it all started.

The couple wed where they met — at the Prince William Forest Park in Fredericksburg, Va., just south of Washington, D.C.

The ceremony was held in a field and the reception at the park's campsite.

"We ditched a lot of old wedding traditions simply because we're not really traditional people," Anne Claire says.

The couple spent about $13,000 on their October nuptials with 120 guests, "which is not super cheap, but in D.C., where the average wedding is $40,000, we felt like we did OK," Anne Claire says.

Indeed, their marriage cost $12,500 less than the national average for 2012, according to The Wedding Report, a research company that tracks such data.

Anne Claire, 29, is a freelance writer and Christopher, 37, a ranger with the National Park Service.

The couple met when Anne Claire, a freshman in college, drove to the park to do a trail run. Christopher was working the entrance booth.

She admits that she "chatted him up, hoping he'd waive my entrance fee." He didn't.

They kept running into each other, but it took Anne Claire three years to work up the nerve to ask him out. Yes, she made the first move.

"So, choosing the park for us was a sentimental choice, but it was also a practical choice," she says.

Instead of paying a $7,000 venue rental fee, which Anne Claire says was typical everywhere she looked in the Washington area, the couple rented all of the cabins in the park for two nights for about $1,000.

They saved a bundle when you consider that the average rent for a ceremony location ran $1,194 last year, plus another $3,226 for a reception venue.

Lisbeth Levine is co-author of
“The Wedding Book: The Big
Book for Your Big Day.”

Renting out park cabins was a meaningful and practical choice for Anne Claire and Christopher. I’ve also known couples who got married at overnight camps — some because they have fond memories of sleep-away camp, and some because they actually met at camp as campers or counselors.

A summer camp often has a lake, ropes course, climbing wall and hiking trails, and, of course, a fire pit for making s'mores, so you can easily fill an entire weekend with activities and turn it into a mini-camp for your guests.

Many camps will rent out their facilities once their season ends, making them a good option for late August and early-fall weddings. If you go this route, keep the comfort of older guests in mind by putting out some comfy chairs at the site and reserving rooms at a nearby hotel or B&B.

There was an additional bonus: For their $1,000, Anne Claire and Christopher not only landed some very affordable ceremony and reception space but a free place for their guests to stay as long as they were willing to rough it.

"I have a lot of broke friends, and at about 27, everyone starts getting married," Anne Claire says. "I wanted coming to my wedding to be as little a financial burden as possible."

While the site location was a deal, it wasn't much visually. So the couple decided to dress it up, buying almost everything secondhand.

"Goodwill was our best friend when it came to décor," Anne Claire says. They bought vintage tables, lamps and candelabras. They also picked up vases for $1 each at their local store.

On Craigslist, she found a listing from a bride who had just had a wedding with décor similar to what they were looking for.

"We went over to her house and bought all of her stuff," Anne Claire says. The haul included table numbers, an antique birdcage used to hold cards, baskets full of flip-flops for guests to change into and chalkboard menu signs. Nothing cost more than $10.

Anne Claire bought a dozen burlap table runners for $100 from the website Recycled Bride (now called Tradesy Weddings), which lets brides resell items after their wedding.

The couple also built their own altar using a wooden frame from which they hung a piece of cloth that stretched across the ground between the seats to create a unique aisle for Anne Claire to walk down.

Total cost of the decorations and lights was about $1,200. Anne Claire has already resold most of it and made back $850.

She also bought a veil that had never been worn from Recycled Bride for $150, or about half what it would cost new.

Her dress came from a sample sale, and even though it cost her more than she expected — $1,600, slightly higher than the average cost of $1,187 in 2012 — it was still a deal off the original price of $3,200.

"The dress fit me from the get-go almost perfectly and saved me on alterations," Anne Claire says.

Her bridesmaids wore dresses they already owned.

"I was adamant that no one buy anything new for my wedding. It turned out that all my gals had blue dresses and brown boots, so everyone wore those and I ended up loving the look of it," she says.

Chris ended up buying a suit "because he didn't own a suit!" He spent $400 for the entire outfit, including shirt and tie, at a Jos. A. Bank 50%-off sale.

Anne Claire walked down the aisle to her uncle playing a mash up of "Makin' Whoopee" and the "Bridal March" on the trumpet, and a friend sang during the ceremony.

The bride's mom bought the flowers wholesale and did the arrangements and bouquets herself.

Anne Claire celebrates after taking a whack at her wedding pinata.

For food and drink, the couple decided to look outside the high-priced Washington area.

They had the wedding catered by Caroline Street Café in Fredericksburg, which served a barbecue dinner and provided an open bar with beer and wine only.

For $10 per person, they got three different wines and three different craft beers the couple specifically requested. That's a big savings off the average open bar, which cost $2,456 last year.

Another splurge was hiring the Liz Donaldson Quartet for the reception, which cost $2,600. But they had a reason, because the band's specialty is contra dancing.

"We have a lot of ... relatives who cannot or will not dance to club music," she says, which is why she went for contra, in which a caller walks everyone through the dances, with frequent switching of partners.

"The day flies by so fast, and there really are people you only get to see for a moment, but do-si-do-ing with them out on the dance floor is a pretty great way to spend that moment," she says.

Rather than rent a photo booth, the couple put her DSLR camera on a tripod, added a remote shutter control, a laptop and "an assortment of ridiculous props we either owned or found at Goodwill," Anne Claire says.

Instead of a garter and bouquet toss, Anne Claire led her guests in smashing a piñata that she had made to look like a wedding cake and filled with dark chocolate, toffee and scratch-off lottery tickets.

"It was the most fun day, simply because all of my friends and family were there helping to make it happen for me," she says. "It may not have been fancy, but to know people care enough to help you have the day of your dreams, well, that means everything."

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