It’s done. The move is over and I’m ensconced in my new house. Every move has its challenges, but ours was relatively smooth. If you’re planning a move, here are my top tips for making sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

Start Packing Early
We started packing the weekend after our offer was accepted. My first step was to make a list of everything that could be packed well ahead, 1 week ahead, 1 day ahead, and the morning of the move. We worked through the early packing list quickly, and were done with the week ahead packing a couple days before the move.

Finish Packing the Night Before
The night before the move, finish packing everything except the sheets on your bed, the food in the freezer or fridge, and the items you’ll need to shower and dress in the morning. Have a box or suitcase ready to go for those. Have a cooler for the food and a freezer stocked with blue ice. You don’t want to be running around packing last-minute things while the movers are there.

Have a Plan for Your Pets
This is key. Even if you have a yard, you may not want to put them out there because the commotion may make them too skittish to catch when it’s time to pack them up to go to the new place. We put our cats in a room (with food and litter) with the door closed and then transferred them to an empty room when all the other rooms were empty. We had their carriers waiting. Once we go to the new house, we put them in a room that could stay empty while we unloaded. The other option is to take your pets to a friend’s the night before the move so they’re out of the way.

Hire Movers
This is optional, but frankly, hiring movers saved us a lot of hassle. We didn’t have to corral friends to help us move boxes and it saved us hours of backbreaking labor. What movers can do in two hours will take you and your friends four hours, trust me. I looked on Yelp and to find good movers. You should plan to book them early, because the really popular ones book up well in advance. If friends want to help with your move, get them to help paint, pack, or unpack.

Make a Checklist
Before we opened escrow, I made a checklist of everything that had to happen between then and about a week after we moved. That included all of the things that needed to happen to close the loan, transferring utilities, painting, packing, hiring workers, changing addresses, etc. I tried to put the list in the approximate order in which we’d do them, then checked them off as we went. I included important phone numbers on the checklist so they were in front of me when I was working through it.

Label the Boxes and the Rooms
Mark your boxes with the contents – put “large pots and pans” rather than “kitchen stuff” – and the room they go in. Print signs for each room that you can tape to the doors for the movers.

Take Time Off Work
I took off the Friday before the move and the Monday after so I could finish packing without being up until midnight and then so I could unpack and settle in for an extra day. I’d been hoarding my vacation time for a while and it was worth it to be able to have two days to put things away and make my home usable quickly.

Make an “Unpack First” Box for Each Person
This should contain your towels, bedding, sheets, PJs, toiletries, a favorite book or toy, and medications. Move these in your car, not in the truck, and put them in a spot where they won’t get buried so you can have some of your creature comforts right away.

Use this Time to Throw Stuff Out
We’d already done a lot of our purging in the last couple of years, but I found more stuff to throw out as I packed. If I hadn’t looked at something in years or couldn’t remember why I had it, I tossed it.

Label Your Styrofoam
If you plan on keeping your electronics’ Styrofoam after the move, label it with a black marker. We’d shoved all of our Styrofoam into a closet, but couldn’t quite match it all up with our stuff when we started packing We suspect that some of it belonged to things we no longer own. It would have been a lot easier to tell if we’d labeled it in the first place.

Buy Lots of Boxes, Bubble Wrap, and Unprinted Newspaper
We got some free boxes on Freecycle, but they were flimsy and not uniform. We had better luck buying boxes. I also picked up bubble wrap and unprinted newspaper. I went to a box store to buy a few larger boxes, mirror boxes, and dish boxes, but Home Depot’s prices were better and their selection was decent. For our 2-bedroom apartment, we needed approximately 100 boxes, although a good 15 of them are filled with books. If you don’t own books, you may not need quite so many.

Moving is difficult. It’s one of the things people hate most. Hopefully these tips will help your move go more smoothly.

Eek, it’s moving week! My computer will be dismantled at some point tomorrow and who knows when it will be set up again (or more specifically, what time on Sunday it will be set up again.) I’m already freaking out a little about the lack of a computer. Nevertheless, I have some blog carnival highlights to share.

First, the Carnival of Personal Finance #217 hosted by Almost Frugal chose my post about creating a wedding budget as an editor’s pick. I also recommend Debt Tips’ post about the actual cost of raising kids, since kids usually follow a few years (or less) after a wedding.

Second, the Festival of Frugality hosted by It’s Frugal Being Green. In addition to my post about saving money on wedding photography and albums, I also recommend The Homemaking Helper’s tips for a budget bridal shower. Pass it on to your friends.

Third, the Money Hacks Carnival hosted by Personal Finance by the Book. In addition to my post about DIY wedding invitations, I also recommend Miss Bankrupt’s analysis of Kindergarten school supplies lists. Not because I have a Kindergartner, but because I find these demands for masses of school supplies astounding.

There are two ways to experiment in the kitchen: try an extravagant new dish, or find new ways to use up the stuff you already have. For the last month, I’ve been trying to use up the frozen meat and various stuff we have in the fridge. I came really close to using all the meat before we move this weekend, but I guess we’ll have that last piece for dinner Sunday night in the new house. Nevertheless, using up my fridge contents has forced me to get more creative with my menus, and I’m finally learning how much money I can save by experimenting in the kitchen.

Substitute Cheeses
I’ve made two recipes in the last week that called for Parmesan cheese. Just one problem – I forgot to buy Parmesan. The first time, I tried substituting some Pecorino Romano I found in the back of my fridge. It worked perfectly. So this week, I did it intentionally. Rather than Chicken Parmesan, we had Chicken Pecorino. Neither of us noticed a major difference. Of course, once you’ve breaded something, smothered it in sauce, and added more cheese to the top, who’s going to complain?

Any Veggie Will Do
This one I actually discovered a few years ago. If I was making a stir-fry and didn’t have the right veggies, so I tossed in a different vegetable I had in the fridge. It tasted just as good. As long as it has the same crunch and roughly the same level of sweetness as the required vegetable, you shouldn’t throw the dish too far off balance. For example, this week I have fried rice on the menu, but I forgot to buy snow peas. That’s just as well because snow peas require additional prep and steaming. Instead, I’ll use up the frozen shelled peas.

This isn’t necessarily always true – you wouldn’t want to serve someone scrambled butter for breakfast, but it is true if you’re trying to use it as a binder. Usually, breading requires first dipping the item in flour, then in milk, egg, or butter, and then in the breading. If you’re out of eggs, try milk. Out of milk, try butter. Yes, you’ll change the fat content slightly, but not so much that you can’t work it off quickly. It shouldn’t drastically alter the flavor profile.

Leftover Bread=Breadcrumbs
Because I’m gluten-free, I have to bake my own bread (assuming I want edible bread that doesn’t cost $7 a loaf.) Unfortunately, baking gluten-free bread is expensive and time-consuming. I try not to let any of it go to waste. If I have heels leftover or a slice that’s falling apart or about to mold, I leave it on the counter to go stale. Then I pop it in the oven at 200 degrees to dry out the rest of the way. Once it’s dry, grind it into fine crumbs in a blender or food processor. Store it in the freezer in a big bag and pull it out as needed. It needs just a few minutes to come to room temperature before you add seasonings or spices. Need Panko breadcrumbs? Toast your breadcrumbs at 350 until lightly browned. Now you never have to buy a can of breadcrumbs again.

All Chicken Breasts All the Time
I have a few recipes that call for chicken thighs, but I buy chicken breasts by the bag, so chicken thighs would be yet another bag I had to buy. Instead, I use chicken breasts for just about every recipe. Yes, it tastes slightly different, but it saves me time and money.

These are just some of the tricks I’m leaning as I’m forced to experiment with my recipes. Do you have any simple, affordable kitchen substitutions to share?

Much has been made this week by the Fed’s announcement that the first signs of economic recovery are appearing. The news has left many people wondering – if the economy is getting better, why doesn’t it seem like it? There’s a simple reason – economists have a different metric than the rest of us.

Official Definition of Recession and Its End
Officially, a recession is two quarters of negative GDP growth. A depression has no formal definition. When a recession ends, it’s because we have had positive GDP growth again. However, GDP growth doesn’t mean everyone is out of the woods. It simply means that the nation is starting to produce more and government spending is having some effect. If you consider this one factor, the recession is probably over. Unfortunately, the economy is about more than GDP.

The Rest Are Lagging Economic Indicators
If you look at the rest of the factors that go into the American economy during various recessions during our history, you’ll see that incomes, consumer spending, and especially unemployment continue to drag well after the recession officially ends. This is because the producers – our employers – squeeze current employees to boost the bottom line. Incomes and employment don’t start to rise until current employees have become as productive as they can and employers are forced to bring on more people to continue growing. When that happens, incomes can start to rise again and people will feel more secure buying things. That’s why they call these items lagging indicators. They confirm once and truly that the current crisis is over.

What about Housing?
This particular recession is tricky because it was caused by a housing bubble. Unlike the tech bubble, this is taking longer to pop and we will continue to see declines until employment improves. However, the housing problem is more severe in some areas than others, and some areas will stop seeing declines earlier than others. Some that haven’t yet declined will start to. There have also been a range of predictions about how much values will decline. No one can predict who’s right, but we can all say with some confidence that it will continue to be a problem for the next couple of years.

What It Means for You
Basically it means that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re out of work, you might start getting calls for interviews again. If you have a job, this doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, especially if you work in a troubled industry or for a failing company. Unemployment often continues to rise after the recovery has started.

It’s also too soon to tell if the recovery will stick or if this is a “dead cat bounce” and it will start to decline again. Being a cautious person, I would invest carefully, but invest indeed. I would try to keep expenses low, but not live like a miser. And I would make sure that I’m still saving money every month. It never hurts to be prepared.

Recently I was watching one of the HGTV home buying shows, and the prospective buyer said she needed at least 3,000 square feet. She was a single woman with dogs, no children. My first thought was: why do you need a home that big? I grew up in a 2,000 square foot house with four bedrooms and 2 ½ baths. There were four of us. It was plenty of space for all of us. My new house is around 1900 square feet and it feels huge. Before you decide you need a big house, consider why that is and whether a small house has its advantages.

Why Do You Want a Big House?
In the 90s, McMansions were all the rage. People flocked to these massive homes with giant kitchens and expansive great rooms and three-car garages. I always wondered what the appeal was. On HGTV, people say they want a house where the family won’t be on top of each other. I certainly never felt like we were on top of each other in 2,000 square feet.

Will You Really Use All that Space?
Often, you’ll see homeowners with a room that’s simply abandoned. It’s the junk storage room. It might even be empty. My husband knows a couple who don’t use the top floor of their house at all. If you plan to expand your family quickly, buying a 3-bedroom instead of a 1-bedroom is wise, but be careful of overbuying or overbuilding. I saw a family on TV that expanded their house to 5,000 square feet – more than doubling the original size – about a year before their kids started to leave for college. What are they going to do with the space after everyone moves out?

Many families are actually downsizing to smaller homes after discovering that the huge dream home was too big to clean or manage.

Advantages of a Big House
I can see some advantages to a big house, but it’s still hard for me to imagine needing that much space. The advantages are:

  • Dedicated office
  • Large kitchen
  • Bedroom for each child
  • Space between parents’ and children’s bedrooms
  • Room to enjoy individual interests
  • Ample storage space
  • Modern updates and design (most larger homes are newer)

Advantages of a Small House
Okay, maybe it’s just because I live in Los Angeles where the majority of homes are under 2000 square feet, but I don’t feel a need to have a huge house. I see these celebrity mansions with seven bedrooms and wonder what anyone needs that much room for (Brad and Angelina excepted.) In fact, a smaller home has three distinct advantages:

  • More time spent together as a family
  • Lower heating and cooling costs
  • Less wasted space

The choice between a large home and a small home is partly one of personal preference. Of course, it also depends on your region. In areas with recent development, large homes are close to business centers. In older, built-out regions, larger homes are either very expensive or far from urban centers.

It’s common to fantasize about living in a mansion, but when it comes down to it you have to ask yourself whether you’ll really use all that space while evaluating the home.  Also consider the challenges of a small home before you try to squeeze into 1000 square feet with a family of four. Discovering a home is too big or too small after you move in is a surefire path to discontent.

Welcome readers of US News’ Alpha Consumer blog! If you want to know more about our budgeting system, I’ve linked to a few budgeting posts about halfway down this post. If you’d like to learn more about how we paid off $40,000 in debt in one year, I detailed it last September.

This morning I heard a story from the Financial Times, by way of NPR, that banks earn $38.5 billion a year from overdraft protection fees. First, this is highway robbery, since most people don’t opt-in to these programs. Second, can avoid paying these fees. If you’ve paid an overdraft protection fee even once, it’s time to take action to avoid paying one again.

Disenroll from Overdraft Protection
About a decade ago, I had an overdraft protection plan. Back then, it meant they pulled money from my savings account to avoid overdrawing my checking account. There was no fee for this, because it was all my money. At some point, the bank stopped offering that and instead switched to using my credit card, but that required a minimum $100 advance, a $20 cash advance fee, and a higher interest rate with no grace period. I opted out of that.

If you’re not sure whether you have overdraft protection, call the number on the back of your ATM card and ask. If they say yes, ask to have it turned off. Yes, your debit card will be declined if you overdraw, but you’ll know right away. You won’t get hit with fee after fee after fee.

If you tend to get hit with overlimit fees on your credit card, ask to have that turned off, too.

Create a Budget and Use It
If you know how much money you have at any given time, you’re less likely to overdraw your account. If you only have $80 until your paycheck hits on Monday, you won’t spend $100 over the weekend. Not sure how to create a budget? Why I have a few posts about different budgeting methods:

The monthly budget combined with the cash flow budget
The envelope budget
The irregular expense budget

Spend Only Cash
Some people aren’t good with plastic, and that’s fine. If you tend to overdraw when using your debit card or go over limit with your credit card, withdraw a fixed amount of cash from your account weekly and stop spending when the cash runs out for the week.

Keep Your Balance on a Post-It
If your account balance is low and you have errands to run, check your account balance and deduct any pending checks or purchases from it. Write the remaining amount on a Post-It and stick it to your debit card. Record each purchase as you make it, and then stop swiping the card when your balance gets low. I’d leave a $10 cushion in case any checks or payments post incorrectly. It’s better to leave a cushion than to fight the bank to credit you later.

Spend Less Money
If you frequently overdraw your account, then you’re spending more than you earn. It’s time to cut back. Start using grocery coupons, take your lunch to work, stop engaging in retail therapy, sell some stuff to raise funds, drive less, whatever it takes to bring your spending below your income.

The Financial Times article noted that 10% of the population pays 90% of the overdraft fees. If you’re in that 10%, it’s time to start managing your money. If overdraft protection kicks in just once per month at $35 each time, that’s a savings of $420 a year. I can think of a lot of things I could do with $420 besides give it to a bank.

I don’t yet have a child, but I’ve been a child, so I think I’m qualified to review “Munny Journey: Keepsake Journal for Baby’s First Money” by financial advisor Brad Dugdale. Given last week’s announcement that it now costs $300,000 to raise a child from birth to 18, this book would make a great gift for young or financially naïve new parents.

Munny Journey Sections
The journal starts like a regular baby book. It has places for letters to the baby from parents or grandparents, but the letters focus on financial goals rather than personal goals.

Baby Firsts
The next section includes some financial firsts, such as a first piggy bank, state quarters and birth year coins, first dollar, the financial page from the date of birth, and a record of initial financial gifts. When I was a kid, I loved finding coins minted in my birth year, so I think this is where kids will really engage with the journal when they’re old enough to use it themselves.

Financial Instruments
The later sections are more for the parents than the children, at least at an early age. This section holds a record of the accounts, initial deposits, etc. It also explains how each financial instrument works and how parents can invest in them on behalf of their children. He includes savings accounts, savings bonds, bonds, stocks, and mutual funds. Although he doesn’t get into great detail about how each instrument works, he covers the important basics of risks and returns for each without talking down to the reader.

Financial Toolkit
This last section is more complicated, so many parents won’t use it, but the book is designed to suit all financial levels. He starts by explaining how to interview a financial advisor and track investments.

Finally, we get to the most important part of the book, especially for parents who are trying to decide whether they should start saving for their child and how much to save. He explains how money multiplies over time and how much additional gain a child will have if money is invested in year 0 vs. year 10 or 20 or later. He presents different savings options with real numbers (assuming a 9% return). He also includes a chart that indicates how prices rise over time using real-life examples of postage stamps, college tuition, etc.

In addition to making the case for saving now instead of waiting, he busts several money myths and explains common money mistakes that may keep some parents from investing or lead them to make poor financial choices.

Most parents worry about how they’ll pay for college, so he quickly reviews the current savings options for parents.

Munny Mountain
The book contains a cute chart parents can hang next to their child’s growth chart to track investment growth over time. Children are visual, so seeing amounts increase on a chart may help motivate them to save rather than spend their allowance and other money they receive. Following the chart, he includes pages to record baby’s net worth for the first several years.

A book by a financial advisor would not be complete without a quick primer on good financial responsibility. It’s basic, but it’s an important last reminder for parents and a lesson to children once they’re old enough to work through the book with their parents.

Audio CD
The book also includes an audio CD that offers additional financial advice for parents. It’s simple, but more detailed than the text in the book. It has an NPR feel to it, which is nice.

Downside of the Book
I could only think of one downside of the book: spelling. I’m a stickler for spelling, so “munny” annoyed me. But that’s me. Other people like cutesy names for baby items. I also hate kars, lite, and other brand terms that are cute misspellings of common words.

Will parents use it?
My mom filled out my baby book for about a year, then it was forgotten. My sister’s baby book last just a few months. I think new parents will dive into Munny Journey the same way they’d dive into a traditional baby book, but it will probably be one of those things that will be forgotten after a year. Fortunately, it can also be used by children as they get older, so it has potential to be useful much longer than a traditional baby book.

If I were looking for a gift for young parents or parents who weren’t financially literate, I would definitely consider this book. It offers great lessons for parents, but under the guise of giving a gift for a child. When I was five, my dad took me to the bank to open my first bank account. It was thrilling, but I wonder how many parents today do the same thing. If you know someone who’s unlikely to think about something like that, give them this book.

The bride’s dress is often one of the most expensive components of the wedding, especially when you consider what you get for your money – a dress that will be worn once for 12 hours and then put in the closet. Frankly, wedding dresses are total rip-offs. So, if you’re a frugal bride, your dress is a great place to slash your wedding budget. Before you buy a dress, find your location. Your location will determine the type of dress you need. Then set your wedding dress budget and promise yourself you won’t exceed it.

Where to Find Cheap Wedding Dresses
Bridal salons usually offer dresses in a wide range of prices. When you start searching for a dress online, note the prices of the styles you like. If you like some of the less expensive designers, then you may not need to bargain much. If you like the really expensive designers, it’s time to start searching for alternatives. Start with these five:

Rental Wedding Dresses
I know, most women don’t like the idea of renting a wedding dress, but why not? Your fiancé is renting his tux. If you’re not the sentimental type, you can rent a beautiful dress for just a few hundred dollars and then return it. No one has to know you don’t own it.

Every day new dresses are posted on eBay. Quite frequently, they’ve never been worn. Either the bride found a new dress she liked better or the wedding was cancelled. Before you buy on eBay, try on potential dresses in a real salon and sneak a peak at the size they recommend if they won’t tell you. Wedding dress sizes are not the same as clothing sizes, so buy a bigger dress if you’re not sure what you need. A friend found a Monique Llhuillier dress for $1200 on eBay that would normally sell for $4000.

Wedding Dress Sample Sales
The big designer sample sales are usually held in New York, but local bridal salons also have sample sales. Call frequently to find out when the next sample sale is and then arrive early to be first in line. Usually these are dresses that have been tried on frequently, so be prepared to do some repair work. My cousin bought a sample sale dress for $100. The bodice was trashed, but the full skirt was in great condition. She and my mom made a new bodice for a few hundred dollars. If you can’t sew, find a dressmaker in your area to fix it for you. Once again, wedding message boards are the place to find good seamstresses.

Custom Dresses
I had a theme wedding, so my dress cost $500, including the fabric, which I chose and purchased in the fabric district. However, you can have a fairy-tale dress made by a local seamstress for $1500-$2500. That’s a lot of money, but if you want a $5000 dress, it’s still cheaper.

Discount Retailers
In addition to David’s Bridal and Alfred Angelo, both of which carry less expensive dresses, there are a few wedding dress salons that sell discounted dresses. One of the best is Pearl’s Place in Louisiana. I ordered a bridesmaid’s dress from them for $80 off retail. I simply called and ordered it over the phone. It was shipped within a few weeks. When I was getting married, several brides on the message boards I frequented ordered their dresses from there. The key is to find your dream dress in a salon, then sneak a peek at the tag to find out the designer and style number/name, or at least get the name of the designer and find the dress on his or her website. Have a seamstress take your measurements to give to Pearl’s Place, then find a local seamstress to do the alterations locally for a few hundred dollars.

The best way to save money: stop looking once you find a dress. When I was planning my wedding, I saw several brides buying second or third dresses because they just couldn’t stop. Once you find something you like, stop shopping. Unless your culture dictates special wedding attire for different segments of the ceremony, you don’t need a ceremony dress and a reception dress.

In addition to doing my own wedding flowers and wedding album, we also made all of our own wedding invitations, save-the-dates, programs, placecards, and favor tags. I bought thank you notes at Target for $5 a box. My total cost for all of my paper items was around $200.

When to Choose DIY Wedding Invitations
If you want a simple printed card, then it may actually be cheaper to buy your wedding invitations from one of the online printing companies. However, once you start veering into complicated invitations with folded cards and ribbons, it’s time to consider do-it-yourself wedding invitations. Although it will take more time, those fancy invitations can easily cost $4-5 per invitation if you buy them from a printer. If you buy the paper by the ream at a paper supply store or online, you’ll pay less than $1 per invitation in most cases. Visit Neenah Paper to find local paper suppliers.

Ideas for DIY Wedding Invitations and Other Wedding Paper
These days, you need more than just an invitation. Everything is supposed to fit your theme, and you need lots of pieces to accomplish that.

Save the Dates
This is the place to get really creative and express your theme or location. My friend made refrigerator magnets and included a list of local hotels with it. My sister made postcards based on the location of her wedding. Another friend scanned and printed photos of them from a photo booth and attached them to simple cards in their wedding colors. They had a photo booth at the reception to tie it together.

I printed our cards on 8 ½ x 11 inch cardstock, then divided it into three pieces, folded another piece of cardstock around the middle and tied it with a ribbon. The first card had the date and location. The second piece recommended costume ideas for our theme wedding. The third card listed local hotels and our website.

My invitations were scrolls, so we had to make them ourselves. My mom designed the border, then we printed them on an inkjet. We made reply cards out of cardstock so there was no need for an envelope. A friend bought a bubble-jet printer on eBay to make special raised ink on her invitations. Yet another friend had the invitation cards printed at a paper store, but lined the envelopes with another paper to match her theme. Both of them bought small envelopes at a paper store for their DIY reply cards.

If you’re willing to corral your friends and use some elbow grease, you can have fantastic invitations for just a few hundred dollars, but people will think you spent much more. Although calligraphed invitations are still traditional, many brides choose to handwrite the envelopes or simply print them in an attractive font. Let’s be honest – most people don’t care about the envelope typeface or stamp placement. They’re more concerned with the details inside.

If you make your own invitations, you’ll probably have some leftover cardstock. If it’s a light color, you can make your own placecards by printing several on a single sheet of cardstock and cutting them out. Use stickers or a symbol to indicate who chose which meal if you offered options.

Favor Tags
We made our own favors, so of course we made our own favor tags. We printed them on the same paper we used for the invitations, cut them into rectangles, punched holes in the tops, and then tied them to our handmade favors (hand-rolled beeswax candles) with blank ribbon that matched our colors.

If you’ve already got paper for your invitations, you can simply print programs on your computer in colors to match. Keep it simple by folding the sheet in half and tying a ribbon through two holes punched near the crease. One friend bought cheap fans in Chinatown and tied her program to it. We rolled ours up and put them through a cheap “gold” ring intended for favors. Another friend simply folded hers into thirds.

Thank You Notes
It’s traditional to order printed cards with your names on them, such as “Bill & Katherine” or your new joint initial or a monogram of your first name, his first name, and your new joint initial: “BMK”. My aunt still uses notes with their names on it to send thank you notes and other correspondence. If you like this tradition, you can order affordable cards from a paper store. Or you could go to a stationery store and buy a box of basic thank you notes in a color that matches your theme. At $5 for 20 cards and envelopes, you really can’t beat that price and you can use the leftovers well after the wedding.

How to Determine Whether You Can DIY
The best way to come up with an idea is to flip through wedding magazines to find invitations you like, then see if you can figure out how to construct them yourself. Visit a paper store to price out your supplies. If it’s less than the cost of the wedding invitations you like, it’s worth the effort. We made ours at Christmas when all the family was together and could help.

If you’re worried people will think you’re cheap, don’t be. When I see a handmade invitation, I’m always impressed by the care and creativity that went into it. Your friends will be, too.

Of course, DIYing isn’t for everyone. If you prefer to buy invitations, choose something original that will reflect you as a couple.

When it comes to your wedding photos, there are good ways to find affordable wedding photography and cheap wedding albums, and bad ways to do it. I didn’t spend thousands on my wedding photos, and I spent less than $200 on my wedding album and parents’ album. Nevertheless, I have a beautiful album and fantastic photos.

Bad Ways to Save Money on Wedding Photography
Let’s start with the bad ways to save money on your wedding photos. If you employ these methods, you will probably hate your photos. All of these apply to your wedding video, too.

Ask your friends to take the photos.
Unless your friends are professional photographers who are offering your services as a gift, you will probably regret this. First, there is an art to wedding photography and capturing the right moments. Our friends sent us their digital snaps, which were lovely, but our professional images were better and higher-quality. Second, your friends are there to celebrate, not to work. If you rely on your friends to capture key moments, you just might miss them.

Hire the cheapest photographer you can find.
There may be a reason that photographer offers super-low packages. It could be that you’ll only get a few hours of his time, he uses poor equipment, or he’s a weekend hobbyist rather than a pro. When it comes to these wedding photos, you want a pro.

Rely on table cameras.
Once again, this is asking for trouble. Those table cameras are cute, but there’s no way you can guarantee that you’ll get usable images from them. Use them for candids to fill out your album, not your sole source of wedding photos.

Good Ways to Save Money on Wedding Photography
You can find a good, professional photographer you can afford if you research carefully and negotiate well.

Research local mid-price photographers.
I paid $1700 for my professional photographer. That included 8 hours of her time, an assistant, unlimited digital proofs and a DVD of the wedding photos, and an engagement shoot. That was about the average for photographers under $2000. Once I knew I could get good photos for that budget. I searched for photographers in that range. They tended to be independent photographers (rather than affiliated with a studio) who had started as wedding photography assistants and been doing their own wedding photography for 1-2 years.

Read reviews from other brides.
Once again, the wedding planning message boards are your friend. I compiled a list of potential photographers in my price range based on the reviews.

Review online portfolios, then interview potential wedding photographers in person.
I reviewed the photographers’ online portfolios to whittle down the list, then showed my fiancé the websites for 4-5 of the top contenders. We then scheduled interviews with 3 of them. We wanted to see complete albums in person and get a feel for our rapport with the photographer.

Negotiate the price.
The photographer we chose didn’t initially offer a free engagement shoot, but the other two we interviewed did. I asked ours to include it free ($200 value) and she did. Of course, you can’t ask a photographer to cut the price in half, but asking for an engagement shoot or an extra hour is completely reasonable if it’s something other photographers offer. Also make sure that you’ll receive a DVD of all of your digital photos or copies of all of your negatives within one month of the wedding so you can make your own prints.

Don’t buy the professional album or prints.
I know, some brides really want the beautiful, digitally printed massive book of photos. I liked those, but I didn’t want to pay $1500 for it, especially considering that most photographers limit you to 40-60 images.

Instead, my photographer referred me to a local professional photo printer and I made my own album. I used Imagexperts to print my photos. This is a pro lab that also serves the public. I got my wedding album from (full disclosure: I know her and it was a gift). I spent $100 to print about 120 photos for my album. I used scrapbooking supplies from Michaels to assemble it. Total cost: $115. If I’d paid for the album, the total would have been $380. I created my parents album in Photoshop and then uploaded it to MyPublisher.  I used a 50% coupon I received from them by email, so the total cost was $56. Tip: send them your email address shortly before you plan to order the album to receive your email coupon.

For your video, you can do all of the above except edit your own video, unless you know a professional editor or have your own video editing software. Like photographers, you can find videographers in all price ranges and negotiate to get what you want.

These are the keepsakes you’ll have for a lifetime, so you don’t want to go uber-cheap, but you can find quality, affordable wedding photographer and wedding album if you research carefully and negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

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