Our fairytale $24K wedding for $11K, er $790, er $265, er $205

Saya Hillman + Pete Aiello | Chicago Wedding

UPDATE: for a pictorial take on the day, head here.

Our fairytale $24K wedding for $11K, er $790, er $265, er $205

It’s been a week and a half since we became Mr. & Mrs.; I am still yawning, eating leftovers, and struggling to work more than two hours a day.

The wedding was everything we wanted. And a few things we didn’t.

It was a fairy-tale and truly one of the best experiences|days of my life (and I’m so not one of those “this DAY is SO important” gals…).

If you’re just looking for the cold, hard financials, scroll, scroll, scroll, and scroll some more. They’re towards the end of the post.

If you have the time and interest to delve into the successes, challenges, non-traditional’ness, lessons learned, and visuals, grab a skinny vanilla-latte and a la-z-boy…

Things We Wanted and Got

  • Have an “us” wedding
      • organized and thought-out yet low-key and comfortable
      • no dog and pony show, no fluff, nothing done because ‘that’s how it’s done’
      • fun
      • professional yet DIY
      • simple yet lovely
  • Host loved-ones at our space, especially those who had never been to our home before
  • Don’t accrue debt or spend anywhere near the average cost of a Chicago wedding ($53,000)
  • Use the random items we’ve hoarded for years, just knowing we’d put them to good use at some point in our lives, such as:
      • extra-long toothpicks (part of our centerpieces)
      • picture frames, pepsi wooden-crates, white-paper trees (decor)
      • wooden display cases (board game holders)
      • paint/paint brushes
      • baskets
      • our old license plates
      • a ceramic “2” that was part of an address on the front of a house
  • Use the random items I rummaged from alleys and pilfered from friends/family, just knowing they’d somehow fit perfectly into the wedding
      • gold-wire box: this was our ‘birdcage’ aka card-collector
      • wooden box, paper scraps, linen envelopes, and a shutter: our ‘guest book’. Guests wrote messages to us on the beautiful mismatched paper scraps, sealed them in envelopes, and slipped them into the Shutter of Love slats. At the end of the night, the envelopes were put in the box, where they’ll stay until future September 1sts, when we open a few at a time.


      • palette, windows, bedframe, easels, and scrapwood (signs)
      • wooden spools: part of our centerpieces
  • Comfortable clothes that we’ll wear again, that are Bride & Groom appropriate but not Bride & Groom’y, that fit our bellies, and that don’t cost a lot (see below for $$ breakdown)
  • Our dream venue


      • in the city
      • all-inclusive (food, furniture, service, and décor) but that allows for us to bring in what we want to bring in (e.g. alcohol, additional décor)
      • comfort-food that tastes good
      • allows us to drop off stuff before the actual wedding-day, as well as leave stuff there post-wedding that we can snag later
  • Rustic, mason-jar, white-light strands, faded-paint, wildflower theme, a la my Pinterest board
  • Bring together old friends and smoosh together new friends
  • A heartfelt, personal, non-dragging ceremony that incorporates songs that and people who are meaningful to us and that paint an authentic picture of our relationship for our guests
  • A low-stress and fun experience from planning through implementation for us
  • Me not having to do what I do for a living, which usually involves running around with a clipboard, reminding people of the time or of their duties
  • Not breaking the banks of our guests
      • we chose activities that were low-cost/no-cost and tried to get as many discounts as we could, such as group tickets to the boat tour, an outing to the hilarious and affordable Improvised Shakespeare, and hosting the rehearsal dinner at our home
      • we contacted a bazillion hotels, wanting one in a good location but without high downtown rates (the Hyatt Regency, at Michigan and Wacker, was $139 a night, a fantastic rate for that location)
  • Giving our guests a memorable experience (the number of Thank You! notes we got – aren’t we supposed to be the ones sending the thanks?! – has been a huge, heartmelting surprise)IMAG0416

Things We Didn’t Want but Got

  • No Place to Get Ready – perhaps this is my fault. I assume I can get dressed, hair’d, and makeup’d at the venue. About a week before the wedding, Husband double-checks with Venue Coordinator that there is an outlet and a mirror. Her unexpected, “thank god we found this out now and not day of” response: “Do not get ready at the yard (sorry).” Panic!

The timing/schedule doesn’t allow for me to get ready at our place under ideal conditions, e.g. no traffic. And there’s always traffic. What am I going to do?!? Does my gym have a branch nearby? Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m considering getting wedding-prettified in a locker room. Is there a Starbucks nearby whose bathroom we can horribly commandeer? Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m considering getting wedding-prettified in a public bathroom. Panic! Why is this happening to me? Why did the only people I know who live relatively close to the venue just move to Atlanta? Why don’t I know anyone who lives in Pilsen? Why God, wh… oh wait.

That dude! Whom I met a year ago and saw once again this summer for a hot minute. We just emailed a couple of weeks ago and I just learned that he lives in Pilsen. Yes, it’d be random and weird if I ask, and yes, the chances that he lives near the venue are slim. But, Life of Yes!… I ask.

A few hours later!, I have a Get Ready venue for my stylist and photographer to meet me at, FIVE BLOCKS from the wedding-spot! He and Fiancée hang out in their bedroom as we overtake their living room and bathroom. Frickin’ Angels.

Totally worked out for the better. I don’t have to be in the craziness that is the venue (and let’s be honest, while “rustic” is cute, it ain’t exactly an ideal gettin’ prettified atmosophere). And Husband and I get to take some awesome pics with Photographer as we walk from Heaven to the wedding.

  • Rain – we drop off most of our stuff at the Secret Garden Friday afternoon. They are setting up for a wedding that evening. It pours right at ceremony time (Venue Coordinator describes it as “horrible” and a “tornado” when we see her Sunday). I cry Friday evening, so sad for the couple. All that planning. All the visions. Yes, bottom-line is that they’re married and that’s what matters. But a wet wedding still sucks.

I cry Friday evening, scared for Sunday. A fraction of our guests could fit in the inside area if necessary. But definitely not all. And all of our decorations, the ceremony, the live-music, people focusing on love and happiness not on their ruined makeup and dress…  no, rain would not do.

Life of Yes! (and frugal) way of thinking — we don’t need no stinkin’ $3000 contingency-tent. It won’t rain. It won’t… So what if it rains, what can you do. Don’t think about it. Don’t stress about it. Everyone will still enjoy themselves. You’ll still marry your best friend… Oh God, please don’t rain.

  • Rain #2 – Saturday morning river and lake boat tour with 50+ friends and family. It begins to rain when we step onto the boat, continues to rain for the 90-minute tour, and stops about 45 minutes after we disembark. Perfect. A bunch of us standing near the guardrail get soaked when a huge wave comes on board.

Our outside rehearsal dinner later tonight. It won’t rain. It won’t…


  • Rain #3 – Sunday morning. Wedding Day. I am hope’ified by the lack of rain at our wonderful rehearsal dinner and an email from Mom: “Weather Channel’s been downgrading its rain predictions a lot, hour by hour. Less and less likelihood, probably a short period only — if any.”

A few hours before go-time, Coordinator tells us she’s going to move up dinner because 8pm-ish showers are forecasted. My eyes well up. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. Sprinkles start during dinner. The most foreboding lightning flares up the darkening skies. Umbrellas go up, people scatter inside. Ten minutes later, the sprinkles stop. Another round of flash-sprinkles occur later in the evening. But praise the lord, that is the extent of Wet Wedding.


  • A Sinking Aisle/Dance Floor – hundreds of guests over a short-period of time (three days in a row of events at our venue, with us being the last) require new sod and that combined with rain make for an aisle and dance-floor into which you sink. This prohibits us from riding down the aisle on our bikes (Plan B: we walk them down) and from a graceful entrance.

If we were delicate, graceful people, perhaps I’d be upset. If I cared about dancing, perhaps I’d be upset.


Most of the ladies listened to our advice and are not in heels, so while they sink, at least they don’t get stuck. One of our Reader’s shoes get so muddy, she does her portion of the ceremony barefoot. Which I love.

  • Ceremony Techno Music – music is important to us. We enlisted some of our sweet-sounding friends to play pre-ceremony music, as well as four ceremony songs.


One of the Readers surprised us with a ukulele duet with his girlfriend of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. That was a good amount of music. No more was needed. Unfortunately, neighbors didn’t agree. Just as the rain had perfect timing for our boat ride, so did the neighbors for our wedding. Silence until the ceremony starts. And then —

throughout the ceremony. At first, we all just look around like, oh man. Annoying Neighbor doesn’t realize we’re getting married. But as time went on, it becomes apparent Neighbor knows exactly what is going on, as he/she times the musical outbursts perfectly with our Readers, our Officiant, our singers, our vows.

I didn’t know this till after the fact, as I am in Wedding Daze, but friends run out of the Garden during the ceremony to find Neighbor. They cross the street and try to buzz Neighbor’s door but there is no buzzer. Wedding Coordinator is in panic mode. Nervous titters spread amongst the guests. Will the Bride explode? Will she start crying? People look at each other, people look at us.

One annoying song blares for long enough, you begin to forget it’s there. And then Neighbor starts a new annoying song, renewing the frustration. I take a couple of breaths. I feel horrible for our musician-friends who have practiced for months. I feel horrible for our Readers and Officiant who have put so much time and thought into their words. I feel horrible for us who have worked so hard to make this a ‘perfect’ celebration. I have thirty-seconds of pity-party and then practice what I preach time and time again in my Life of Yes!’ness.

Let go.

This seems to de-clench the guests. Our ‘security’ is unable to find Neighbor. The music plays throughout, ending when the ceremony ends.

Word starts spreading as we eat and mingle that Neighbor is warring with the venue, and thus did what they did to get back at them. What is this? A parking issue? A noise-issue from the venue’s end? A people invading their community issue? Illogical hatred of Pilsen and incredulation bubble inside of me. Really? Someone would be so petty and immature to ‘ruin’ a wedding, perhaps frustrating the venue, but in reality, shitting upon the Bride & Groom and all of their loved ones? I also begin to stew about the venue. Did they know about this? Is this an on-going issue? This caveat will certainly go in my review of the space when I’m asked for venue referrals (which I am, often). I bubble and stew. We stand in circles discussing. People chuckle. “Well, it’s a good story at least…”

I begin to let go. Again.

UPDATE: A few days after the wedding, the worst-best wedding present ever arrives in the mail, accompanied by a note — For the wedding scrapbook: we thought you needed a copy of the album that was playing during your ceremony! (It happens to be one of our faves. Definitely an acquired taste.) xoxo Colleen + Tim.

IMAG0395 (1)

What the what?

a) Guests at our wedding recognized the music?!

b) they sent us a CD of it?!

c) they like it?!

We can’t help but laugh.

Yet, I admit, illogical hate for Laurie Anderson, sunglasses, spiked hair, black and white imagery, and science on my part.

UPDATE: A few days after the wedding, email from the venue – Oh and the Gal across the street (Crazy\Noise\Music) had her place rented to 3 Girls from Germany…an Air B&B thing..Crazy Right..She was mortified when I told her. 

Illogical hate for Airbnb. Which is too bad as we Airbnb’ed our Asheville, North Carolina trip, which turned out to be our engagement trip, we’re Airbnb’ing our October Hawaii honeymoon trip, and have had nothing but pleasant things to share with our extensive networks about the lodging-option.

Also, illogical hate for Germany, girls, and the number three. Guess there is no ‘warring with the venue.’ Just people being obnoxious. Sigh.

Let go. Again.


  • Friend as Officiant – Well, this isn’t that non-traditional any more; seems like everyone has been ordained by the power of the internet. Husband himself has officiated three weddings. Frugal and efficient as we are, we investigated if he could officiate our wedding. The answer was no. Thus we asked a friend if he would get ordained so that he could marry us. We’ve been to too many weddings where it’s obvious the Officiant barely knows the couple. We wanted someone who knew us both, and could be eloquent and introspective without being cheesy or religious.
  • Honeypreneur Fund – The Honeyfund, where people gift you funds for your honeymoon, e.g. “$90 to swim with the dolphins” or “$50 for a boat tour,” as opposed to a traditional registry, is also not that new anymore. We loved the idea, especially at our ripe old age of thirty-four, when we have most of the normal toaster and bath towel type items. Besides wanting to have a honeymoon that was a bit more extravagant than our normal trips, we also wanted to grow our entrepreneur’ness. Thus our honeypreneur fund, where guests could upgrade us to first class, pay for a night of lodging, help me build out my website, or get Husband video for his business. We did Bed Bath & Beyond and Amazon as well, as we knew some would be scared by this “weird” registry and just want to send us tupperware (which they did, and we love!).
  • #Petaya – To round out the “this is not so non-traditional anymore” string, we made our wedding uber social-media friendly. From the vendors’ twitter handles on centerpieces to our #Petaya hashtag (Pete + Saya = Petaya) to signs encouraging live-tweeting and instagramming, it was awesome pre, during, and post-celebration to have an easy way to share in the weekend. People who weren’t able to join us in Chicago were able to get a taste of the celebration, as we gave them the heads up that they could follow along. We even had someone create a twitter handle at the wedding, Am_I_Twerking, so that, yep, you guessed it, people could comment on #petaya-twerking.


  • Bride’s Attire – “They” say you’re supposed to start shopping for your dress twelve-months out. I wanted nothing to do with any of the traditional dress’ness – the actual dress, the cost, the shopping – and thus didn’t start looking until three weeks before wedding. Fifteen days before wedding, I made my purchase. I was sad I didn’t choose my Marshall’s or Dress Barn options; a wedding dress from either would’ve been awesome. But in the end, with comfort, niceness, and frugality achieved, I was happy.
  • Groom’s Attire – “They” say you’re supposed to get your tux six-months out. Husband wanted nothing to do with a tux. Two weeks before wedding, we got his pants at Old Navy, his shirt at Walmart, and he wore flip-flops he had. Comfort, niceness, and frugality achieved.
  • Wedding Cake – Make that no wedding cake. We asked seventeen loved ones to bring a baked good in lieu of a gift. Best idea ever. Red velvet cupcakes, Texas sheet cake, deep fried apple pie, cheesecake, sriracha molasses cookies, fudge balls, rum cake, bride and groom brownies…


  • Wedding Party – Make that no wedding party. So many horror stories of making people buy clothes they hate and will never wear again, of hurt feelings because you chose Susy over Sherry, of people feeling obligated to do this and do that. No thanks.
  • Assigned Seats – Make that no assigned seats. If there was ever a more time-consuming, stress-inducing task, I challenge you to find it. Why add that to your life when you absolutely don’t need to?
  • Head Table – Make that no head table. I’ve always hated sitting at the head table. Who wants to be watched by everyone as you eat? And it’s impossible to have a conversation with anyone except the person right next to you. We had a Sweetheart Table, tucked away to the side, for the two of us. Not on display. Allowing us to have a little bit of alone time. Allowing loved ones to come say hi. Allowing those in the wedding to sit wherever they wanted.
  • Rows of Chairs – Make that no rows of chairs. People sat where they desired, which were their dinner seats. This way there was no “flipping of the room,” where you make everyone wait around while the staff moves furniture to make way for dinner seating.
  • Printed Materials – Make that no printed materials, save for song lyrics on plantable seed paper. Our program, menus, and other text, we painted on wood scraps from my mom’s carpentry days and on old windows given to us by architect friends.


  • Wedding Band – Make that no wedding band. I got my three engagement rings. He got his wedding ring. No more jewelry needed. I’d rather a wireless music system.
  • First Dance | Mother Son Dance | Father Daughter Dance – Make that no dances. Husband doesn’t dance at weddings. Even his own. I am not the biggest slow-dance fan, especially when under the proverbial spotlight. My “father” is my mother and slow-dancing with Mom didn’t jump off the page as being “a thing.”
  • “Readings” – We asked five people to be a part of our ceremony. We didn’t give them pre-selected readings. We didn’t in fact specify that they had to do a reading at all —

We want you to do something at our wedding. That’s pretty vague, but you know, that’s kinda how we roll, what with empowering others and whatnot. Anyway, we want a few folks (you!) to get up at some point in the ceremony and say a few words–like, 3-4 minutes max. We very much value people, and we’d rather hear our loved ones talk for a minute than just force them to read a poem with a bunch of long words in it. We really want you to do it. “It” being something that does not make you pee your pants, but something that is from your heart that is at least tangentially appropriate for a wedding ceremony. 

  • Favors – So many war-stories of people spending tons of time and money on items people throw away as soon as they get home or that are left on tables at the end of the evening. From the start we said that if we thought of an item that people would actually like AND use, we’d do favors; if not, nada. Nada it was. And I don’t think one person left our wedding saying, “What a gip! I didn’t get a _____ with ‘P & S, September 1st, 2013’ monogrammed on it.”
  • All-In-One – We had the ceremony and reception all at one venue. Cheaper. Easier. Less time in transit, more time hanging with loved ones. One of our best decisions.
  • Transportation – We discouraged out-of-towners from renting cars, as parking in Chicago is crazy expensive and we have a wonderful public transit system. We did not want to rent shuttles, due to the expense and the coordination-headaches. We liked the idea of giving guests a transportation option that allowed them the freedom to come and go as they pleased. We loved that our venue was bus/train accessible. Hearing that one of the few ‘negatives’ to our venue was the lack of late-night cabs, we brainstormed. Cue great idea music!

I asked Uber if they’d be willing to give our guests a deal on rides. They not only said yes, they threw in free rides for Husband and I (holy high-rollin’ black SUV!). First-time Uber user guests each got thirty dollar credits to use any time the week of our wedding. Some used for the rehearsal dinner, some for the wedding. If you shared rides, you could get the credit multiple times.

Public bus to wedding.
Public bus to wedding.
You never know who you'll sit next to! Like this cutie.
You never know who you’ll sit next to! Like this cutie.
Walk from bus to wedding.
Walk from bus to wedding.
Wood-paneled Uber car home.
Wood-paneled Uber car home.
  • Children – Make that no children. We had a child-free wedding. A symptom of getting married in your mid-thirties, your loved ones have a gaggle of offspring. When we started making the invite list and saw that including children raised the headcount by thirty, fifty, seventy, we tossed around the idea of being a child-free zone. The more we hang out with peers who have kids and are unable to have quality conversations with them because Timmy is spilling apple juice or Sally wants us to watch her twirl, the more the idea of just parents was appealing.

We knew that finding a babysitter for out-of-towners would be difficult. These were folks who were spending a bunch of time and money to celebrate with us, and we were about to complicate their life a bit more with our no-kid ceremony. Cue bright idea music!


Petaya Childcare. We rented a suite in the hotel where all the parents were staying, bartered three sitters whom we armed with tubs of books, games, and arts & crafts, provided dinner and a spreadsheet of bed-times, allergies, and emergency phone numbers, and thusly, nine children, ages less than one to thirteen, from Seattle, Jersey, Wisconsin, Denver, and New York, celebrated our matrimony.

baby trainsm

This is the parents wheeling their kiddies back to their rooms post-wedding.



Bonus! We slept in the suite after the wedding, very much appreciating the ten-minute distance to the hotel as opposed to the forty-five minutes home, especially since we had to return to the venue the next day to pick up our car. The fluffy king-size bed, surprise complimentary wine and random snacks from the hotel, and breathtaking 26th floor view of our city were lovely as we decompressed.

  • Vows – “They” say if you’re writing your own vows, you should start penning them three-months out. Husband wrote his a few days before wedding. I wrote mine the morning of. Turns out, waiting till the last minute isn’t always disastrous. Numerous guests echoed a guest’s sentiments: “Best vows ever!”
  • Opening of Gifts – We didn’t know we were balking tradition with this one, but we opened our gifts as soon as we got them. Turns out you’re supposed to wait until after the wedding? The idea of the gifts sitting in our house starting from May until September seemed nonsensical and anti-Life of Yes! – live for today! Don’t save the good china for special occasions, every day is a special occasion. We registered for things that’d be extremely useful in our lives. Why stave off the usefulness? Sharp knives would enhance our lives today!
  • Photobooth – Make that no photobooth. I was over the photobooth everyone has at weddings but liked the idea of a fun experience and a takeaway for guests. Husband’s brother is an amazing artist. Cue bright idea music! A live photobooth.1233598_10101520115513212_1865466480_n.1187088_10151617587143240_1946682161_n.Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 9.29.17 PM.Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 9.28.34 PM.

By the Numbers | By the Details

  • 3 engagement rings
  • 16 month-engagement
  • 1 wedding-band
  • 28 google docs between us (e.g. day of wedding schedule, vendor list, boat-ride ticket list)
  • 19 tabs on our main Wedding spreadsheet (e.g. Hotels, Gifts to Give, Alcohol To Buy)

As you’ve probably caught on, we couldn’t stomach paying a lot for a wedding; nor could we afford paying a lot for a wedding. Unfortunately, according to a study by The Knot and The Wedding Channel of a gaggle of 2012 brides, Chicago is the second most expensive city in which to get hitched (why so many of my Chicago-peers hike out to the ‘burbs for their wedding’ness).

When we brainstormed how to have the wedding we envisioned without breaking the bank, we came up with the idea of reaching out to our large and awesome network. But instead of the usual asking for stuff for free, we asked for barters. Don’t get me wrong, free is nice. But a win-win situation, all the better! Especially if you’re collaborating with nice, local, green, this is my passion!, small business, little guy-folks, like yourself.

Because of said network, we had an almost 100%-bartered wedding, allowing us to throw a $24,171.35 wedding (includes rehearsal dinner) for $10,732.77. That’s still a lot of money in our minds, but on the scale of what weddings could cost, swallowable.

Which we never had to do.

Because of the unexpected crazy-generosity of friends and family – we had fully expected to pay for the entire weekend ourselves, much of why we were so determined to come nowhere near that $53,000 price-tag – our out of pocket expenses for the rehearsal dinner and wedding combined came to $790 $265 $205.

$205. That’s $102.50 out of my bank account. For a weekend of 100+ people with full-bellies and full-hearts and a lifetime of memories. That’s ridiculous.

And the fact that we have an additional $2200 in gift-funds to use on our honeymoon makes it double-ridiculous.

Here’s how the ridiculousness breaks down —

Rehearsal Dinner

    • 87 invited; 54 attended
    • Venue: our home on the northside of Chicago
    • Food (served buffet-style) —


Bacon wrapped dates stuffed with Gorgonzola

Frosted Berry Baby Scones

Grand Marnier Vanilla Bean French Toast Points

Served with Peach Raspberry Compote or Maple Whipped Cream


Fruit Skewers

Sundried Tomato and Cheddar Quiche Bite

Summer Ratatouille Hand Pie

Breakfast Soyrizo and Cheddar Hand Pie

Fresh Grape and Nut Butter Sandwich

All American Burger Slider

Grilled Chicken with Cajun Honey Mustard Slider

Grilled & Chilled Vegetable Slider

Mixed Greens with Radish, Dill, & Honey Lime Vinaigrette Salad Roll

Bacon Lettuce & Tomato Salad Roll


Chocolate Mini Cupcakes with Peanut-Butter Frosting

Carrot Cake Bites

    • Drink (open bar): sangria, beer, pop
    • Service: bartender, server, chef (server and chef also served as dishwashers and clean-up crew)
    • Rentals: nothing (between us and the caterers, we had enough chairs, tables, linens, and dinnerware)
    • Non-Food Vendors: two photographers
    • Expenses –

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 5.32.07 PM


    • 202 invited; 134 attended
    • 8 non-venue vendors in attendance (whom we figured into our final headcount for the venue, since we wanted to feed them)
    • 17 loved-ones brought dessert
    • Venue: Honky Tonk BBQ‘s The Secret Garden, 1714 S. Racine, Chicago, IL
    • Food (served buffet-style) —


Cheese & Fruit Platter


Slow-Roasted Beef Brisket

Championship Pulled Pork

Smokey Hot Links

Girlfriend’s Salad with Jicama, Blueberries, Goat Cheese and Walnuts

Mini Sour Cream Corn Muffins

Five Cheese Creamy Mac & Cheese

Soft Dinner Rolls

Sweet, Mustard Garlic and Tangy Sauces


Variety of desserts, from cupcakes to pie to cookies to cheesecake

    • Drink (open bar): lemonade, sweet tea, wine, beer, pop, mixed drinks
    • Service: three bartenders, three venue staffers
    • Rentals: dinnerware from venue (tables/chairs included in venue price)
    • Non-Venue Vendors: two photographers, two videographers, day of wedding coordinator, 3 babysitters, hair/makeup stylist, textual storyteller, invitation creator, two beer brewers, graphic designer/printer
    • Expenses –

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We didn’t attempt to barter for wedding venue or food.

By the time we found Honky Tonk, we were so done with the venue-search. That combined with there being only three dates left that we could book, and the date we wanted having almost slipped through our fingers (a couple had just booked September 1st  with Honky Tonk but, due to their high-number of wheelchair guests, had elected to just cater through the restaurant and use a more ADA-friendly venue), made for us speeding home to get our checkbook and speeding back to Pilsen thirty-minutes later to put down our deposit.

Bartering never entered our minds. I didn’t think about it till weeks later. Initially I kicked myself for signing on the dotted line before even exploring possibilities with Honky Tonk. But I got over it. All the other barterships were coming along nicely and Honky Tonk’s prices were manageable; if venue and food ended up being our only large expenditure, well, ok. That’s still pretty kickass-wedding’ness.

Lessons Learned

  • The Power of “I’m Getting Married!”

    From the first meal after we got engaged, where we nonchalantly mentioned to our waiter the exciting news and were promptly introduced to the owner and given a free meal, to the Starbucks drink I accidentally scammed on the day of the wedding, when I asked about their “Get a free drink on your wedding day” offer – turns out that’s not a thing; they gave it to me anyway – people go gaga when they hear “I’m getting married.” Had no idea the power of those words.


  • Say Yes to Help

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Neither Husband or I are great at taking people up on offers to help. I’m crazily independent and he doesn’t like “inconveniencing” folks. I knew I could handle everything myself. Event Curation is what I do.

Thank goodness we saw the errors in our ways!

Whether it was my mom and I cleaning our house from 8am-4pm, my Aunt lending us her car so we could transport all the decor items in one trip instead of two, or my friend coming from Boston a couple of days early to help with all the DIY projects, I can’t express how wonderful and appreciated and sanity-saving all the support was.

And ohhhh boy, am I glad we had a Day of Coordinator. I can’t believe I considered handling it all.

We started freaking out because it was too quiet, no one was asking us questions – Where is the tub that has the scissors? Do you have the iPod? Where should I put this dessert? We realized no one was asking us those questions because we had someone to run interference. Our Handle-Everything Angel.

She directed the readers, musicians, and parents to their places. She kept people at bay when they wanted to hug and take pictures, allowing for our few moments of alone time. She brought us food and drink. When it started to sprinkle, she protected the things that needed protecting. When the ‘dance’ playlist started during dinner instead of the ‘dinner’ playlist, she fixed it. She made sure the vendors ate. She gave the videographer the hard drive so a footage-transfer could occur. She put out our DIY décor and packed up our belongings at the end of the evening.

And she did it all with a smile on her face and a calm demeanor.

Truly, an angel.

  • Trust Your Gut

Honeymoon: lots of different opinions on when to go —

“Go right after, you’ll want to bask in the wedding memories! You won’t want to go back to normal life! Enjoy each other!”

“Wait! You’ll be so tired! You’ll be on such a wedding high!”

We are going to Hawaii a month after the wedding. And we sooooo glad we decided to wait.

We have never been so exhausted. I know I would’ve spent the honeymoon stressing out about the disaster-zone of a house we had post-rehearsal dinner and wedding-whirlwind’ness and about the overflowing inbox which had had a vacation-response on it for a week already.

We’re here to ease back into life, together. To answer the door when UPS gifts us. To enjoy all of our loved ones sweet reflections of the weekend.

And in a month, when the Chicago air has started to chill and when the memories have started to fade, we will escape to Hawaii, just the two of us. Best Friend with Best Friend.

Great decision.

Invitations: real vs. digital —


When we first started planning, and realizing expenses, we jokingly said, “Let’s do an e-vite to our wedding!” And then it became less joking and an actual conversation. I am all for saving money. We both are.

But then we thought it’d be nice to have a real invitation. It is our wedding, a hopefully once in a lifetime event.

And so our frugal-sides compromised with our sentimental-sides. E-save the dates and real invitations.

Great decision.

  • Schedule Realistically

Packing cars with all your DIY crap, getting your hair/makeup done, and cleaning will always take longer than you think. Plan accordingly.Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 8.34.12 AM

  • Sit & Eat!

People very much respected our space and our hunger as we sat at our Sweetheart Table eating dinner. That was until I made the rookie mistake of getting up to hug a well-wisher.

Never get up until you’re done! Guests bee-lined for hugs and congrats, and the line of people waiting to talk to us never stopped. Eight days later, I am still thinking about that half-eaten brisket, cornbread, and mac & cheese on my plate, that I never saw again…

I admit to hugging someone and staring at my dinner plate over his shoulder. I’m a horrible person.

  • Remember it’s Your Wedding

Don’t make decisions based on ‘tradition’ or what others have done.

Don’t make decisions based on anyone else’s opinion or pressure.

We had a few sniffs at our no-child’ness and a few “But my child is an angel and doesn’t ever make a peep, can I bring him/her?” inquiries. (We stood firm and are so glad we did)

We had a few “Can I bring my friend/a date?” inquiries (if the invite is addressed to you, not you + NAME, or you + Guest, only you are invited).

I had a gazillion people freak out and make me feel bad that I hadn’t gotten a dress yet.

We had some total Debbie Downers when we shared “our ridiculous wedding wish.” “That’s never going to happen.” (It did. Twice.)

Don’t feel bad or guilty. Don’t feel torn. Don’t feel like your ideas are dumb or crazy.

Don’t do anything other than what you want to do.

That’s the awesome thing about your wedding. It’s your wedding.

  • Batch Thank You Notes

We started getting gifts in May for our September wedding. We agreed that waiting to do all the notes at once would not only be in poor taste (some people wouldn’t get thank you’s for four months after they blessed us with their generosity) but would also make us insane and less able to write heartfelt gratitude.

So we’ve been doing them in about four-week batches; every four-weeks, we’ll write a stack. With a huge list of people to thank just from the wedding itself, we are so glad we’ve already reached out to everyone who gave us something pre-wedding.

  • Send Gifts

I will never bring a gift to a wedding again. Even a card. After hearing all the horror-stories of people’s gifts being stolen at weddings, after having to keep track of soooo many things at the wedding, and after stuffing and unstuffing our car over and over and over, gifts that are mailed directly to the home are seen in a whole new appreciative light.

  • Recognize & Squash Self-Created Stress

I really wanted to expose guests to different neighborhoods and unique venues. I also wanted to give people the opportunity to hang-out pre-wedding, so that at the actual wedding everyone could just jump into conversations and not just hang out with significant others or college buddies. We planned a jam-packed weekend that did all of those things.

Then in July, Husband and I started stressing about all of the different goings-on, both in coordinating them and in feeling like we were making people fill their entire weekend with Petaya’ness. We live in one of the best cities in the world and wanted folks to explore our restaurants, museums, parks, and shopping. So we came to the hard conclusion to cancel two events, a day before wedding open-house at Aunt Laurie’s roof-top pool and a day of wedding brunch at Enerspace. They were hard conclusions because we had to tell Aunt Laurie, the caterers, the photographer, and the venue that after our months of planning with them, we decided not to move forward with the two events. I HATE wasting people’s time, so felt horrible.

Luckily, they were all sooo understanding, and in fact, all supportive of the cancellation, saying it made total sense. I love people.


Another instance of self-created stress was rehearsal-dinner related. We played Petaya trivia. I wanted the teams to be mixed up, so that they weren’t all Husband-people or me-people, all young or all old, all college-friends or all improv-friends. After about twenty minutes of spreadsheet-time, putting Frank with Jon, Chris with Allie, and Judy with Carol, my stress-levels increasing with every cell due to the million other things I needed to do, I realized, this is ridiculous. Just make an announcement right before trivia that you want people to mix it up and stop trying to create the perfect teams and micromanage everything. And that’s what we did. And it was wonderful.

  • Ask

If we hadn’t made that first ask to Spilled Ink Press about bartering (and if they hadn’t been so awesome in immediately saying yes!), we never would’ve had this most amazing experience of community, out of box thinking, excitement, inspiration, and support.

Almost every person we asked to barter with us said yes. A wedding planner and a restaurant said no, due to I guess them not seeing the benefit for themselves. The very few others that said no were due to schedule conflicts.

Seventeen vendors said yes. Immediately. After one email. And usually accompanined with a “Thanks for thinking of me!”

Without our asking, our wedding certainly would’ve been a lot different. Probably still lovely. But probably a bit-less lovely.

  • Dream and Believe

We never had “What if this doesn’t work?” “That’s crazy, why bother?” type thoughts.

Dream big, believe big.

Why not shoot for what you want, not for what you’ll settle for? If you shoot for the stars and end up just short, that’s still pretty damn good.

  • Let Go

Many things besides those listed above did not go to plan. I was about to start listing them, as I am wont to do.

But why?

My wedding was beautiful, humbling, meaningful, spirit-lifting, and full of love.

That’s what I choose to remember.

Saya Hillman + Pete Aiello | Chicago Wedding

Video of one of the many lovely moments

UPDATE: our vows are the topic of the next blog post


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