Decorating do's, don'ts that will create the look you want without blowing your budget

Creating the reception of your dreams is as easy as finding the right words. But those words will be different for every couple.

“Come up with a few key words that reflect how you want your guests to perceive your day, and go back to those words every time you think about purchasing something,” advises Lisa Sullivan, senior event planner for Nationwide Hotel and Conference Center in Lewis Center. “Do you want elegant, sophisticated and refined? Or are you more casual, fun and relaxed?”

Not only will the words you choose help develop a more unified theme and feel for your reception, but they will also help keep your decorating costs in check.

“If you really focus in on those words, it keeps you from buying a lot of things just because they're pretty or cute or you saw them on Pinterest,” Sullivan says. “It will help you bypass a lot of the décor distractions.”

Heather Christopher, wedding and event coordinator for Jorgensen Farms in Westerville, agrees.

“Keep it simple and meaningful,” she says. “Don't go to Hobby Lobby and clean out the shelves of ‘Love' signs just because you're getting married. Those types of items are a waste of money because they're not personal. And what are you going to do with them afterward?”

Focusing in on a theme or feel doesn't have to limit your reception space choices—your guest count will typically do that, Sullivan and Christopher say—but it could help narrow the field.

“If you want sophisticated in a barn, you can do it,” Sullivan says. “You just have to know what your vision is and not stray outside of it.”

“The décor should feel like the bride and groom, whether it's a steampunk wedding or a Star Wars theme,” she adds. “Those are things I would never do at my own wedding, but that's not the point. It should be very customizable and personal. Not something generic.”

For Hannah and David Pierre, who married last June, pinwheels provided that personal touch.

“We met in an environmental chemistry class at the College of Wooster; we were assigned to a group project about wind energy,” Hannah says. “So having a pinwheel-themed wedding seemed like an obvious choice.”

The couple selected the NorthPointe Ballroom at Nationwide for their reception because it was “formal, yet modern and simple,” she says. “It allowed for a lot of customization of décor.”

The creamy yellow walls and blue carpet also fit with their chosen color scheme.

“It was perfect,” she says.

The couple created handmade pinwheels in various shades of blue and yellow to scatter about the foyer and insert in centerpieces on guest tables.

“We made all the flower arrangements at The Flowerman, which was so much fun,” Hannah says.

While handcrafting a few items that add a unique, personal touch can be good, Christopher warns couples against trying to take on too much.

“Do not assume doing it yourself is the cheaper route,” she says. “A lot of times, it ends up being more work and more expensive.”

She also cautions against over-decorating.

“Some people bring in truckloads of knick-knacks,” Christopher says. “You want to complement the venue's décor, not overwhelm it. If there's too much going on, it takes away from the overall feel.”

To this end, Sullivan suggests selecting a few big, eye-catching items to create visual interest without overdoing it.

“We see a lot of brides stretching their décor budgets too thin and coming up with a lot of small elements, like tiny little favors or a sprinkling of rose petals, which don't really add up to much in a ballroom of 300,” she says. “I'd rather see them use that money to do great flowers around the cake or a sequined table cover. Those things will end up in photos and have a larger impact.”

This was the approach Erin and Scott Fredrickson took when decorating for their wedding at Jorgensen Farms last October. The couple had a friend create some striking flower arrangements as a focal point for their laid-back, nature-focused reception.

“Everyone raved over the tall centerpieces,” Erin says. “They looked like giant flower trees. Our friend Paul went out and cut birch tree branches and set them in little clay pots and just added a ton of different flowers and greenery. He did all the centerpieces and flowers as his gift to us. We were so lucky to have his help.”

Repurposing floral arrangements from ceremony to reception also can carry your theme across both venues while keeping costs down.

“If you have big urns of flowers at the altar, then take them in the reception and put them by the stairs or in the bar,” Christopher says. “If you have tied flowers or hanging Mason jars at the wedding, reuse them on your cabaret tables. You get more bang for your buck if you can use them twice.”

Couples often try to reuse bridesmaid bouquets on the head table, but Christopher recommends putting those elsewhere.

“There will be a lot of pictures at the head table, so you really want to make that pop,” she says. “I've seen people do elaborate backdrops or even hang lights over the head table.”

Lighting actually plays a huge role in how guests perceive your space, Sullivan adds, so don't overlook it.

“Uplighting and a ton of votives will make your space look totally different than just going with the lighting that's already there,” she says. “And lighting is inexpensive.”

The key is to prioritize.

“Make a list of non-negotiables and start with that,” Sullivan says. “If it's really great chairs you want, then spend your money on the upgrade. If it's really delicious food, focus on that. If it's great photography, think about what's going to end up in your photos. You can't have everything as a No. 1 priority. You have to decide what's important and what you will pass on.”

When uncertain, she adds, defer to the experts.

“Trust the preferred vendors list that your venue gives you,” Sullivan says. “They know what works in the space, and they know how to maximize it. They've done this 100 times. You can trust them to execute your vision.”