Roadmap to the Big Day

Here's our step-by-step guide to everything you need to know, from the minute you're engaged to the moment you say "I do."

Set Your Sites

Ceremony who and where. Finding an officiant and a ceremony site can be simple—if, say, you wish to marry in your hometown house of worship. Even if you're no longer living in the area, you may have family who still are and can help out. Sometimes for the sake of convenience, couples choose a place that's in between their homes and their parents'. And then there's the destination wedding; just make sure that everyone you really want to come is able to make it.

The reception site. Think again about those wedding dreams you two discussed, and see how they mesh with reality. Perhaps you imagine a party at an outdoor garden. Fair enough, but what if you can't find just the right place or the weather is an issue? Maybe there's a quaint hotel with a pretty courtyard that would suit. Use local resources to narrow down options: a wedding planner, a recently married friend and ads in the local paper. Check wedding websites and bridal magazines.Then start scheduling visits.

Know Your Pros

How to hire the best? Here’s what you need to know.

Photographer and videographer. Don’t wait till the last minute to find a photographer and/or videographer; the good ones usually book weddings many months in advance. Start with recommendations from friends, then research what kind of shots you’d like to see—formal portraits and dancing shots or a candid, journalistic format. Always ask to see other wedding albums the pro has done.

Musicians. Arrange to hear musicians perform before you sign them on. Make sure they agree to stick to the playlist you give them. Find out how they will dress and how many breaks they will take. Hiring a DJ is less expensive than a live band, and these days some couples are cutting costs by programming their iPods with their favorite tunes.

Flowers and décor. Once you have your reception site booked, you can decide on table arrangements and other decorations. A hotel ballroom might be a relatively blank slate, whereas an art museum may need little more than simple centerpieces. A profusion of blooms looks lush and lovely, but you can get the same effect with fewer flowers than you think.

If there’s a local farm where you can buy fresh stems, you’ll save tons over hiring a florist. The hitch: You (or someone you know) must put together bouquets and centerpieces. Or ask your florist to suggest only in-season local blooms, and have her use greenery cleverly in arrangements that make fewer flowers look like a lot more.

Caterer. You want to know how the dishes will taste and look and how flexible the caterer is with menus and prices. Don’t be afraid to bargain; for example, cut down on costs by limiting the number and kind of hors d’oeuvres served at cocktail hour.

Quick Tip: Not sure what kind of album you want? Look for photographers with a looser style and many package choices. Your best bet may be to hire someone who will simply sell you all the photos, plus negatives. Later, you can get creative and make your own album or have one made. No rush.