Wedding Planning 101: Ultimate Guide to Planning a Wedding

Your guide to planning a wedding from start to finish. Learn about all of our free wedding planning tools and so much more to help you on this journey!

By Chelsea Bishop

bride and groom under veil
Photo by Unsplash

You’re in love, you’re engaged, and you’re seeing the world through rosé-tinted glasses of celebratory champagne. Cheers! We are SO here for this. And you know what else we’re here for? You, planning your special day like a total pro. We know what you’re thinking: Can I really plan my own wedding? Between the vendors, the invitations, and the décor, wedding planning seems like a massive undertaking.

Trust us on this one, though: You can plan your own wedding. Whether you want to save money or simply enjoy creative projects, wedding planning can be a fulfilling experience. Couples just like you do it every day. It doesn’t even have to be overwhelming with the right organizational tools and timelines — and don't worry, we've got you covered on both counts. Our handy wedding planning guide will help you handle all the to-dos before “I do!”

Wedding Planning Timeline

Before you plan your wedding, you need to plan for planning your wedding. And no, that’s not as crazy as it sounds! In fact, creating an outline of important tasks, dates, and deadlines will keep your stress levels low and your productivity high throughout the planning process. Then again, why create one yourself when we’ve already done it for you? Allow us to introduce our definitive wedding planning timeline.

Our printable checklist breaks down all your important milestones by month and effectively walks you through two years’ worth of wedding planning, from your first kiss as fiancés to your last wedding day dance. We’ve ensured that all major events are included, and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment with every checked-off item. Sticking to a schedule truly makes all the difference.

While you’re at it, create a timeline for your wedding day (or wedding weekend, if you’re doing the traditional rehearsal dinner and morning-after brunch). It can be as detailed as you like, but we recommend planning your wedding by the hour. The more effort you put into outlining events, the easier it will be to relax and enjoy them. For a breakdown of a standard wedding day’s events including tips and time estimates, check out our wedding weekend timeline.

Wedding Planning Checklists & Glossary

When you’re planning a wedding, keeping track of tasks is almost as important as completing them. Our wedding planning checklist will help you stay organized and send you friendly reminders to ensure you never miss a deadline. You can even delete, edit, and add tasks as your wedding plans evolve. Oh, and it’s free — regardless of whether you register through our online store or use our stationery. Consider it an engagement gift from Zola to you.

Aside from regularly checking in with your checklist, you may want to brush up on some wedding planning language. In the world of weddings, “charger” and “train” may not mean what you think they mean. Our glossary of wedding planning terms covers common words you’re bound to hear during the hustle and bustle of orchestrating your nuptials, so you’re not left scratching your head after a call with that caterer (or that pun we just made).

Creating a Wedding Budget

It’s tempting to dive right into visiting venues, hunting for the perfect attire, and curating your reception playlist — but first, budget! While it’s not the most romantic aspect of wedding planning, tackling financial details is one of the first things you should do. Why? Because weddings can be expensive.

The operative word here is “can.” They don’t have to be expensive. In fact, it’s completely possible to plan a dreamy wedding for way, way less than the average cost of $29,195[1]. If you’re wondering how to plan a wedding on a budget, you’ve come to the right place. And once we get budgeting out of the way, we promise we’ll move on to the fun stuff!

To determine your budget, ask yourself a few important questions:

  • Who’s footing the bill? If you’re paying for the wedding yourself, you know how much money you want to spend — but remember to clearly communicate with your partner to make sure there are no surprises. If you’re expecting contributions from family members, you’ll want to determine exactly how much they’re willing to spend before you make any assumptions (or deposits).

  • What’s the best use of my funds? Once you’ve figured out how much money you have to spend, it’s time to decide how you’ll spend it. Not only does budgeting help you manage your expectations (and save you the disappointment of realizing you can’t afford that $10,000 ballgown), but it also encourages you to prioritize your purchases. Do you care more about your location or your attire? Your guest list or your dinner menu? The occasional tough choice must be made, but remember, it’s all about what will ultimately make you happiest.

  • How can I save money? If your budget is tight, there are countless ways you can save money. Get married on a weekday, snag that wedding dress at a sample sale or trunk show, or skip fancy wedding invitations and provide a simple liner that directs guests to your website. Pro tip: Sometimes it’s as simple as removing the word “bridal” from the equation — for instance, a bridal bouquet will cost more than regular flowers and a bridal hairstyle will be far more expensive than your standard blowout.

In addition to answering all of the above, determine how much of your budget you’ll allocate to each wedding expense and monitor your spending with a wedding budget calculator like this. The wedding venue will likely be your biggest investment, so determine how much you’re willing to spend on your event space and then divide your remaining funds among other major expenses like catering, wedding rings, photography, flowers, and music. And speaking of your wedding venue…

Expert Advice: We make budgeting fun and stress-free. Find all of our articles about Wedding Budgets here.

Choosing a Wedding Venue

Aside from choosing to get married, choosing where to get married is one of the biggest wedding decisions you’ll make. Your venue quite literally sets the scene for your special day. It should fit your carefully set budget, work with your schedule, and reflect your personal style — suffice to say, there’s a lot to consider. Fortunately, Zola makes it easy to discover, contact, and book venues online. We also have a few tips for choosing your wedding venue:

  • Decide what you want. Easier said than done, we know, but you don’t have to go at it alone. Set a time to sit down with your fiancé and bounce ideas back and forth. First off, decide whether you want to have your ceremony and reception at the same location. If not, you'll need to search for two venues. Then, try to picture your dream wedding. Does the ceremony take place in a country club or in a church? Are you after a bohemian or black-tie affair? Think about how you want your wedding to look and feel, and let that be your guide.
  • Consider your guests. It’s a fact: Your wedding venue will impact your guest list. Not just due to its capacity, but due to its location. Weddings are expensive for your guests, too, and selecting a faraway venue will inevitably result in fewer attendees. A destination wedding can be a great way to guarantee a more intimate ceremony. If you’d like a good turnout, keep it local so your guests don’t have to shell out for accommodation.
  • Start researching. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re considering and the average venue rates in those areas. Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a few venues, gather information about those specific venues like their capacity, amenities, and whether onsite services are provided.
  • Explore alternatives. It’s possible to forgo an official venue altogether. Say your parents have a lovely backyard or your aunt has a lake house you’ve always adored. If they’re willing to let you set up shop for the day, you’ve just scored yourself a free venue! Many public parks and beach spots in the U.S. are also available for events; you’ll pay a fee, but it’ll be much less than the cost of a standard venue.
  • Schedule tours. This is the fun part. When you start visiting venues, it starts feeling real. Make a day of it with your significant other and a couple of close friends or your parents (especially if they’re helping you pay for it). Accept their input, but follow your instincts. If a wedding venue doesn’t feel like the one, it probably isn’t.
  • Ask questions. Before your venue visit, assemble a list of questions to ask your tour guide. During your tour, take notes and photos. They’ll come in handy when you reflect on the experience later. Most venues offer wedding venue floor plans, which can be customized to illustrate your wedding and help you envision your wedding in the space.
  • Scope out the surrounding area. Get to know the areas surrounding your top venues. If guests will be traveling to your wedding, check out nearby hotel and vacation rental options so you’ll have suggestions for them.
  • Weigh your options. Once you've visited a few venues and chosen your favorites, it's time to compare and contrast. A pro/con list can be helpful here! Consider the venue price, space, whether it fits your vision, and how it made you feel.
  • Book your venue. Some popular wedding venue locations are booked out years in advance, so you’ll want to secure your spot sooner rather than later. We’d recommend doing this at least nine months before your wedding or perhaps even further in advance if you’re getting married during a popular wedding month (May through October).

The decision is a big one — but once you choose your wedding venue, other aspects of your wedding will start falling into place. The time of day you want to get married, whether you’ll have an indoor or outdoor wedding, and where you’ll take your photos will become clearer once you can visualize your location. Your next step? Make a wedding website so your guests can start planning, too!

Expert Advice: See all of our articles on Choosing a Wedding Venue for more insight into the process!

Making a Wedding Website

Once you’ve set the date, booked your venue, and prepped your save the dates, it’s time to create a website. Ideally, you’ll do this about six to eight months before your wedding. A wedding website serves as a hub for you and your guests. It’s where your invitees can go to RSVP, check out your wedding details, peruse your registry, and “aww” at your engagement photos. It’s also where you can go to review your RSVPs, update your event and registry information, and “aww” at your own engagement photos (don’t worry, we all do it).

In this modern world, a website is a pretty essential component of a wedding.

The good news? You don’t need to be a web designer to make a wedding website. You don’t even need to be creatively inclined. At least, not with us by your side! With tons of templates and a user-friendly interface, our wedding website builder makes it easy to create a professional, beautiful website in no time at all. Here’s how:

  • Step 1: Pick your platform. It doesn’t have to be Zola…but for the sake of this how-to, let’s say it is. Our website builder isn’t just accessible — it’s also free! Your budget can thank us later.
  • Step 2: Select a template. Did we mention we have more than 200 customizable templates? Whether you’re after classic elegance, modern minimalism, or flirty florals, you’re bound to spot a style that makes you smile — and matches your wedding invitations and save the dates, too.
  • Step 3: Choose your domain name. Play it straight or get creative while brainstorming a web address that represents you as a couple. Just make sure it’s available before you get attached! Once you’ve locked down a domain name, you can direct guests to your website on your save the dates.

Next up, personalize the site with information about your wedding. Your website is the perfect place to add all those details that won't quite fit on the official wedding invitation. Here are a few things you’ll want to include: The basics. List the date, time, and place each of your wedding events will occur.

  • The attire. State your wedding dress code (or lack thereof). Those considering heels might appreciate a heads-up if they’ll be walking on sand or uneven terrain.
  • Your registry. Tell your guests whether you’re accepting gifts or charitable donations for your wedding; if you are, include a link to your gift registry. For seamless integration, create your wedding registry with Zola.
  • Your story. This is optional, but it’s also pretty fun. Create an “About Us” page that tells your love story alongside favorite photos or a timeline of your relationship.
  • RSVP information. Most invitees will appreciate the option to quickly RSVP online. Digital RSVPs are eco-friendly, more affordable, and easier for you to manage. However, some older invitees may prefer RSVPing by mail. When in doubt, give your guests the online option while also including a card with the invitation.
  • Travel information. Provide helpful information regarding accommodation (like whether you’ve reserved a block of hotel rooms) and transportation (like whether you’re providing shuttles from the ceremony to the reception).
  • Little details. Include any important notes about your reception and ceremony — for instance, whether children are welcome.

At this point, all that’s left to do is proofread, check your links, and publish your site! You can decide whether to make your site public or keep it password-protected for guests. Just make sure your site goes live before you send your save the dates. Ready to get started? For a 10-step guide to creating the perfect website, visit our wedding website planning guide.

Expert Advice: Check out all of our articles on Wedding Websites here.

Wedding Planning Tools

Unless you’re an event planner by trade, planning a wedding will likely be the most significant endeavor of your (un)professional career. You’ll need more than the standard to-do list and a few scattered notes on your phone. Luckily, organizational wedding planning tools aren’t hard to come by. We’ve created quite a few wedding planning tools for you, all of which are guaranteed to make planning easier.

We’ve already covered our wedding planning checklist and wedding website builder — two of the greatest wedding planning tools in existence, if we may be so dramatic — and we’re not ones to repeat ourselves. So. Moving on to the rest!

Wedding Registry Creator

Once upon a time, building a wedding registry meant wandering through department stores with a little contraption that beeped when you aimed it at barcodes. Today, you can still totally do that, but you can also assemble an online wedding registry from the comfort of your own couch.

Our wedding registry allows you to quickly add items from thousands of top brands or select things from other stores of your choosing. You can browse items by category or a curated collection like "At Home Spa" or "Build Your Bar." Already have enough stuff? Shift your focus to experiences and register for zero-fee cash gifts or gift cards for Airbnb, hotels, airlines, and more. Your registry will automatically update when a gift has been purchased, so you won’t end up with two toasters (unless you want two toasters). We’re not here to judge.

Bonus: After your wedding, we give you a 20% discount off of anything that’s left on your registry — and that offer stands for six months! Talk about a honeymoon phase.

Guest List Tracker

Creating a wedding guest list often leads to overthinking. Our guest list tracker gives you a sense of control, even if you still can't decide whether to invite your college roommate who always wishes you a happy birthday even though you haven’t seen each other in years.

Add individual guests, couples, or families along with their addresses, contact information, and RSVP status. You can also specify how you’re related to your invitees and whether they’re definitely, maybe, or definitely maybe invited. Once you’ve added all your guests to the tracker, you can collect missing addresses, order free addressing for your save the dates and invitations, and enjoy automatic synchronization with your online RSVP list.

Seating Chart Organizer

Once you’ve got your guest list sorted, it’s time to figure out where everyone will sit. Creating a seating chart isn’t inherently difficult, but you do have to wait until all your guests RSVP to finalize the seating arrangements. There’s not much you can do about that (aside from sending a friendly RSVP reminder via our guest list tracker), but you can remove all other stressful aspects from the equation!

Our seating chart tool is super straightforward. Simply navigate to your wedding event on our website and click “Create Seating Chart.” From there, enter the number of tables and chairs. This is where your online list of RSVPs comes in handy — the names of all your attendees are accessible directly from the seating chart tool, so all you have to do is assign a seat to each person. You can also edit your seating chart as much as necessary.

Expert Advice

We’ve got your back. Expert advice is just another way we're proving it. Here, you’ll find in-depth articles, advice, tips and tricks, and access to Team-Z (aka your own personal wedding advisors, available via email, Instagram, TikTok, and Coffee Chats). Browse topics like décor, honeymoon, and invites, and get the inside scoop on wedding trends from our seasoned pros.

While we're on the subject of experts, it's time to select your wedding vendors.

Selecting Your Wedding Vendors

Hello, cake tastings! Vendors are the experts who bring the goods (and goodies) to your wedding. Your vendors will be an integral part of your big day, so approach the selection process with clear expectations — and an appetite, for the aforementioned cake tastings. Before you start, solemnly swear you’ll stick to your budget and make sure you’re aware of any vendor restrictions your venue might have.

Another important part of selecting wedding vendors is developing a request for proposal. No, not that kind of proposal! Also known as an RFP, this is a document that includes your wedding date, budget, expectations, and other important details about what you want from a specific vendor. When the vendor receives your request, they'll send you a proposal detailing what they can (and cannot) do for your big day. And when you use Zola to inquire with vendors, we provide the questions you should ask to get the answers you need.

On average, couples hire a whopping 15 vendors for their big day. Do you need that many? Absolutely not — but you’ll probably want to consider the following:

  • Catering. When choosing a caterer, you’ll want to consider the type of meal service that suits your wedding. Sit-down service is the formal option, whereas buffet-style cultivates a more relaxed, “serve yourself” atmosphere.
  • Desserts. The wedding cake is a classic, but there are tasty alternatives. Pies, cupcakes, cookies, pastries, doughnuts, all of the above…anything goes!
  • Bar and beverage. A full bar is neither expected nor necessary, but your guests will appreciate an open bar if you can afford it. Provide a limited menu featuring a couple of specialty cocktails and a few classic standbys.
  • Florists. Flowers and weddings go together like you and your fiancé. From bouquets and boutonnières to centerpieces and walkways, a floral flourish is always welcome!
  • Photographer and/or videographer. Hire a photographer, a videographer, or both to capture the magic of your wedding day.
  • Band or DJ. A live band or a DJ is essential for most couples — especially if a dance party is on the agenda.
  • Beauty. Whether you want an intricate updo and makeup or help with styling and selecting the perfect accessories, a beauty professional (or entire glam squad) will make sure you’re photo-ready on your big day.
  • Officiant. As the person who guides you through your vows, an officiant plays a pretty important role at your wedding. Many couples enlist a family member or friend to perform this duty, while others hire a seasoned professional.
  • Day-of coordinator. Don’t worry, you can still say you planned your own wedding even if you hire a day-of coordinator. All the plans are 100% yours! A day-of coordinator is merely there on the day of your wedding to ensure all your carefully laid plans are flawlessly executed. Not to mention, they’ll handle any last-minute issues that arise so you can relax, enjoy, and get hitched without a hitch.

Make sure you meet potential vendors for trial runs, taste tests, and vibe checks. They should provide clear pricing, tell you exactly what’s included in their packages, and answer any questions. Traditionally, you’ll tip the drivers, valets, bartenders, cake bakers, catering staff, musicians, attendants, and delivery people on the day of your wedding. If you don’t see mention of a tip in their contract, it doesn’t hurt to ask what's expected.

If you’re searching for wedding vendors in a big city, narrowing down the options can feel a lot like resisting your favorite dessert: practically impossible. That’s why we feature favorite vendors on our Wedding Venues and Vendors page. Shuffle through vendors in your area or take a quick quiz to find your best match. And remember: Only commit to vendors you genuinely love.

Wedding Decor & Themes

Your wedding décor is what makes your venue yours. It’s what unites all the little details and transforms your wedding into a cohesive, one-of-a-kind celebration. That said, with so many options and trends, settling on one style can be tricky.

Find Your Style

Not sure where to start? Imagine your ideal venue. If you want to say your vows in a restored barn surrounded by sun-kissed meadows, a rustic theme could be your thing. See yourself dancing the night away in a swanky hotel? A formal, chic aesthetic may fit the bill. Other tried-and-true wedding décor styles are modern, vintage, whimsical, romantic, holiday/seasonal, and beachy/tropical.

Note that while all weddings will have a style of décor, not all weddings will have a theme.

Lean Into a Theme

A theme can guide your décor in the same way your venue can, and many couples who have their hearts set on a theme will choose their venue to suit it, not vice versa. Movies, books, time periods, and locations are all popular sources of inspiration, and you’re bound to find something you like on our extensive list of 75 wedding themes.

Start Decorating Once you find your style or settle on a theme, you’ll find it much easier to start decorating. Every wedding is different, but décor generally includes the following:

  • Lighting
  • Table numbers and place cards
  • Guest book
  • Signage
  • Centerpieces
  • Florals
  • Aisle runner and markers
  • Dessert display
  • Altar arrangements
  • Menu
  • Table linens and tableware

Our wedding décor checklist will ensure you don’t miss a thing!

Get Inspired

To explore beautiful wedding dresses, unique theme ideas, classy charcuterie spreads, DIY hacks, and more, try Pinterest. It’s an endlessly scrollable source of wedding inspiration that lets you pin your favorite images and create as many aspirational mood boards as your heart desires. To really hone your vision, head to Zola's Real Weddings. (More on that later!)

When it comes to wedding décor, we have only one rule: Your chosen wedding décor and theme should speak to you and your partner. No exceptions!

For now, onto an aspect of wedding planning that doesn’t allow for quite so much creative freedom.

__Expert Advice: __See all of our Wedding Decor & Inspiration articles for the best wedding decor ideas.

Legal To-Dos

This is where making it official gets really official. Yes, it often feels like you’re planning one big party, but that doesn’t mean you can leave your t’s uncrossed (or your vendor contracts unsigned). Read on for a few legal to-dos:

  1. Get a marriage license. Note that we said license, not certificate! You must obtain your marriage license prior to your wedding in order to receive your marriage certificate after your wedding. The process may differ depending on your location, so visit your state’s government website for specifics.
  2. Complete vendor contracts. Your florist may feel like an old friend, but it’s in your best interest to get a signed contract after enlisting their services. This allows you recourse in the event that gasp flowers are nowhere to be found on your wedding day.
  3. Get liability insurance. Many wedding venues require you to sign a liability release when booking your wedding. That means that if anything goes wrong, you’re on the hook. In our world, all wedding days would be perfect days…but it’s good sense to protect yourself from unfortunate accidents with liability insurance, just in case.
  4. Change your name… that is, if you’re changing your name after marriage. And if you are, we’ve got one made-up word for you: HitchSwitch. This service lets you skip the lines and change your name online in three simple steps. Queue-free is the way to be!
  5. Discuss a prenup. Prenups aren’t for everyone, but they aren’t just for celebrities either. A prenup can protect both you and your soon-to-be spouse in the event of a divorce, and it's prudent if either of you has significant assets.

You should consider doing all of the above tasks, but definitely don’t skip the first three! What’s a bit of paperwork when it’s getting you one step closer to the best day of your life?

Wedding Planning Questions

Throughout the process of planning your wedding, you’re bound to have many, many questions. We’ve organized a few pertinent ones for you to ask your venue, your vendors, and yourself.

Ask Your Venue

  • What are the event space options?
  • How much is your deposit and rental rate?
  • How many hours will I have the space?
  • What services are included in my booking?
  • Can I bring in my own vendors?
  • What’s your parking situation?
  • When can I book?
  • What happens if I have to cancel?

Ask Your Vendors

  • Can I see samples of your previous work?
  • Based on my budget, what services would you suggest for me?
  • How many weddings have you done?
  • What’s your cancellation policy?
  • Is a tip included in your contract?

Ask Yourself

  • Am I clearly communicating with my partner throughout this process?
  • Am I staying true to my wedding vision when possible and compromising when necessary?
  • Am I making the most of all my resources?
  • Am I making time to connect with my partner and not talk about wedding planning?

Lucky for you, you're planning a wedding in the age of the internet. If you have a wedding planning question, it’s likely already been asked and answered on a wedding forum. Wedding-specific discussion threads and blogs can be a great resource for wedding planning because you can learn from the struggles and successes of other couples. You can also join our Zola Community on Facebook, where newlyweds often share detailed recaps of their big days and the lessons they learned while planning their own weddings.

And it goes without saying, but you can always ask us anything! Team-Z lives to answer your wedding questions. Email us at with what’s on your mind or visit the Advisor page for more details!

Real Weddings

Real Weddings is the destination for engaged couples planning a wedding and searching for vendors. We created this platform so you can get inspired by the real weddings of couples like you!

You’ll find professional wedding photos, decked-out venues, magical fairyland dance floors, on-trend wedding cakes…we could go on and on, and you will too. Of course, that’s not to say there are no organizational features — you know us better than that by now. Our gallery can be searched by keyword and filtered by season, style, venue type, location, and color.

The best part? All the stunning images you see on Real Weddings feature real vendors. As in, best-in-class vendors that you can hire for your own wedding, tagged for your convenience. Simply glance to the right of your favorite photos and click on a vendor to view their Zola profile, complete with:

  • Verified reviews from Zola users
  • Rates
  • A gallery of their work
  • Biography
  • Location
  • Summary of services
  • Contact and social media information

You can either reach out right away or save them to your favorites list for later.

Fun fact: We’re always accepting new submissions from wedding photographers. If you ask yours to send us photos from your wedding, your special day can earn a place in the Real Weddings gallery.


Wedding planning is only as complicated as you make it.

Your wedding can be big or small, simple or extravagant. What's important is that you stick to your budget, mind those checklists, and cultivate a wedding day atmosphere that makes you happy.

After all, once the planning is complete and you're walking down that beautifully decorated aisle as your loved ones cheer, all that really matters is the person you’re walking toward.

We may be biased, but Zola is an invaluable one-stop shop for all your wedding planning needs. Once you pop the question or say yes, hop onto our website and create a free account.

From there, you’ll have access to all the tools, checklists, expert advice, and other wedding planning necessities we just explored. The best part? We’ll even help you figure out what to do with all those wedding leftovers and send thank-you notes to your guests and gift-givers. Planning your wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and we're here for you every step of the way!


Where do I start with the wedding planning process?

Start with the wedding planning basics: your budget, checklist, vision, and venue.

What wedding planning tools should I use?

Zola! Yes, that’s us. Here’s everything you’ll need: wedding planning checklist, budget tracker, registry creator, wedding website creator, venue and vendor marketplace, invitation shop, guest list tracker, seating chart organizer, and expert advice.

What are all the steps in the wedding planning journey?

The main steps of wedding planning include budgeting, creating a guest list and seating chart, sending invitations, creating a registry, finding a venue and vendors, making a wedding website, getting your marriage license, and putting together a timeline and checklists to keep track of everything. Check out our 15-step wedding planning guide for more!

How can I simplify wedding planning? A simple wedding isn’t as elusive as it seems, and organization is key to streamlining your wedding planning process. If things start feeling too complicated, regroup and scale back. Ultimately, your wedding day is about marrying the one you love. What's simpler than that?

Find even more wedding ideas, inspo, tips, and tricks

We’ve got wedding planning advice on everything from save the dates to wedding cakes.