Oh, oh! I am so excited for the chance to tell you about our cheap-but-wonderful wedding. We had a small guest list (~30), but much of what we did could be adapted to a somewhat larger group.
Don't rule out a wedding chapel for fear of cheesiness. The facility we used was very tasteful (much more attractive than our plain, 1960's church sanctuary). And there are options for all different party sizes, even outdoors. The key is everything is included in a package price that's unquestionably lower than trying to pay for everything individually: location, decorations, officiant, photography, music, bouquets, little extras like a guest book; even, for all practical purposes, a wedding planner. Someone consults with you on decor, flowers, music and who should be grouped together in photos - then they make it all happen. Someone oversees a little "rehearsal" and goes over where everyone should stand and what they should do; then comes to get you in the dressing room when all the guests are seated; and spaces people as they walk down the aisle, etc. They were open to anything we wanted done in a particular way, or anything extra we wanted to bring in. Overall it seemed so effortless, but it came off as though I'd spent months coordinating everything. Afterward, we received an album of photos plus all the pictures that were taken, on c.d., so we could print out additional things as we liked.
Our wedding was in a quaint, rural area an hour's drive from our city. Deep in the woods, there's a tiny town that was abandoned around the turn of the century (I think) and then bought, in its entirety, and restored. The General Store is now a casual but gourmet restaurant that specializes in using local ingredients and growing its own organic produce in onsite gardens. The homes are now cottages that are run as a bed-and-breakfast. And the old grain mill is the restaurant's banquet facility, which is where we had our dinner. Because it's a good restaurant, dinner felt like an event, but we were able to keep the price down by having them print out a limited menu and wine list just for our party, and serving certain things (like the salad) family style, instead of paying for individual servings. The rustic setting made "cheap" touches like that (and our homemade centerpieces and placecards, and our simple-but-pretty little cake) seem right in line with the restaurant's Mason-jar drinking glasses and oil lamps in the windows, made out of old bottles. As long as we were spending a certain amount on dinner, use of the facility was free.
We rented several cottages for the night (family members slept there and helped with the cost). After the ceremony but before dinner, we hosted drinks in one of the cottages. We had known we'd be getting married for quite a while and had taken advantage of liquor discounts whenever possible, so we had a stockpile of things we'd gotten at good prices. Letting people have a few drinks before-hand cut down on how much wine was consumed at dinner.
After dinner, we hired a local singer-guitar player to just hang out and play in the corner of one of the cottages while people gathered, danced a little (and polished off our cheap alchohol!) Of course, it was a nice area in which to walk around outside a bit, too. In our invitations, we invited guests to book some of the other cottages for the night - and most of them did - but we didn't offer to pay for those (couldn't afford to!), which was OK, because we were only an hour from the city, so people could have driven home at night, if they preferred. Since breakfast came with the rooms, we were able to have a very nice, group "morning-after" breakfast without having to pay for everyone's meals.
If there is no place like the Story Inn near you, you could pull off the same sort of thing at a national or state park that has cabins and a restaurant.
Let me also put in a plug for do-your-own invitations. For ~$40, I bought a kit with sheets of handmade paper with embedded dried leaves, vellum sheets to go over them and little fragments of ribbon to tie them together (plus RSVP cards and envelopes). The printing companies (that wanted over $100 for half the number of invitations we could make with that kit) gave dire warnings that a home printer could never work on vellum. Indeed, Kinko's would not mess with vellum unless we ordered our invitations from them. We had to be very careful, but we printed them at home and they were beautiful. If you have the time, making homemade paper is easy to do, too.
As far as clothing, our 3 boys had their hearts set on tuxes and a family member happened to work at a tux-rental place, so we went that route. But with a casual wedding, there's certainly no reason for that expense. Even with the tuxes, I wore a creme silk sundress of sorts that I got on major after-season clearance from a nice store for ~$100. I've heard you can get similar deals on traditional wedding dresses from bridal shops, but have never seen that with my own eyes.
* For favors, I made candles from small-size, antique glass jars (the kind with the hinged, glass lids) that I found for nothing at a junk shop. (I have to credit Martha Stewart with the idea.)
* We put out a basket of disposable cameras (including black-and-whites) at the door to the wedding chapel and had a basket to collect them, in the cabin where we gathered after dinner. People will promise to give you copies of photos they take with their digital cameras and phones, but most of them won't get around to it.
* An artsy friend's gift to us was hand-painted wooden signs to hang near each of the buildings we used for the reception, so our guests would know where to go for drinks, dinner and the party (and so other people wouldn't stumble in by mistake). We still have those, hanging in our home.
If you need SUPER cheap, I attended a beautiful wedding where the couple said their vows in a gazebo overlooking the water, in a state park, at sunrise and the guests enjoyed fancy danishes and coffee at picnic tables afterward.
P.S. I'd like to clarify that we didn't use a wedding chapel to avoid church. A window of time suddenly opened up that enabled us to side-step most of my husband's ex's excuses for not letting his son attend. But to take advantage of it, we had to marry on a specific day and had only ~6 weeks to pull it all together. The Church will affirm your vows, afterward.
One woman in a house full of men: my soul mate: or... twin sons:(HS juniors) ... step-son: (a freshman) ... our little man: (a kindergartener) ... and there is another female in the house, after all: our.