At the Plunge, we spend a lot of time explaining how to plan and pull off a wedding–whether it’s a huge bash or a small, private affair. But there is another option for getting married. You could always elope. While it’s simpler than a big wedding, it’s not without its complications. You can’t elope if you don’t know how to elope, so let’s take a moment to clear that up .
What is Eloping?
Strictly speaking, to “elope” means to run away in haste from the point of origin and never return. So, for instance, you could “elope” from a bar once the brawl you helped initiate has broken out, or “elope” from jail by stowing away in the prison laundry truck.
Traditionally, of course, eloping has meant running away from town to get married without the permission of your parents. Back in the day this was a big deal: when you eloped, you cut yourself off your family and friends, sometimes permanently, in favor of your new love.
The modern version is different, and is more likely to be driven by economics as by forbidden romance. With the cost of weddings rising every year, plenty of young couples are opting to side-step the traditional route in favor of a quick ceremony during an awesome vacation somewhere exotic. It’s cheaper, easier, and still retains some of the radical thrill of running off to be with the one you love.
Creating a new family without incorporating your old one is a bold step. Depending on your relationship with your family and friends; that could be a terrible idea…or the best idea ever.
Teamwork may make the dream work; but planning a wedding can be stressful. Between managing family issues, ballooning expenses, lopsided bridal and groom’s parties, and stress over your outfit (bad enough for the groom, a thousand times worse for the bride) there are endless ways for a wedding to blow up. Rather than deal with that stress, some people opt to simply get out of Dodge.
Eloping can be less expensive than a wedding, for sure. With the money you save you could put a down payment on a home. (See below.)
Time is money, as the saying goes, and so the time it takes to plan a wedding is a hidden cost. You may feel the the hours you and your fiancé will take pulling your wedding together might better be spent on earning, resting and socializing. It can take up to a year to plan a wedding and it’s a part time job, for sure. Eloping is quicker, and there are a lot less details to wrangle.
This is your opportunity to make your relationship your own, do things your way and remember what the modern version of marriage is: love, commitment, a pre-agreed percentage of times cleaning the dishes.
Warring in-laws? Jealous friends? Disapproving parents? Side-step all that drama by eloping and then throwing a free-form party when you get back home.
Reasons Not To Elope
Some parents may be perfectly happy to avoid the whole wedding process, while others may be hurt if you don’t give them advance warning about this huge milestone event. With eloping, there is no first dance, no handing down of family heirlooms, no poignant speeches, no family photos. True, all that can be covered at the follow-up party, but they will not have the same heft as on the day of.
If more than half of your friends and family say you are too young, you might be. Think this one through.
One of the reasons people throw weddings is to be surrounded by their community as they take their vows. How important is this to you? If the answer is “very,” then you may want to reconsider eloping.
How Much Does it Cost (compared to traditional wedding)
According to a 2017 study by a prominent wedding website (let’s just say its name rhymes with “spot,” “hot” or “shot”), the average wedding costs $33,391. If you play your cards right and elope, you can save a ton of money on food, venue, band, flowers, bridal party and groomsmen’s gifts, which are where the money would go. You can walk down to the justice of the peace and get married for $15 to $100 depending on the state you live in, or you can go to Costa Rica for $4,500. You can make it as inexpensive or as fancy as you want.
What You’ll Need to Elope
First, game out how you want to do this:
- Justice of the Peace – all you need is City Hall, an officiant and 2 witnesses. The costs include the marriage license ($15-$110 depending on the state), the officiant, bus fare, and stamps to mail in the signed marriage license.
- You can self-solemnize outside of City Hall in the states of Colorado, Pennsylvania and Washington DC. If you are Quaker, Amish or Bha’i, you can self solemnize in California, Maine, Kansas and Nevada.
If you have a location/destination in mind
- Call the place you’re going to stay (or the local government office) and make sure they can recommend an officiant. If the answer is no, then bring your own.
- Check out permit rules (see below)
- Choose the location
- Invite less than 10 of your lowest maintenance, most joyous friends.
A few musts:
Check out the local permit rules
Public places have to advantages: they usually make awesome backdrops for beautiful pictures, and they are free–unless you get a ticket for not having a permit. So check out your location first. Whether it’s a beach, a local park or Grand Central Station, they all have rules.
If you don’t have an officiant, research what is available and local to your destination. Most officiant’s rates range from $200 to $500.
If you want to preserve this important day, consider ponying up for a professional photographer. Good photographs are a way to share the moment retroactively with the important people in your life. You can even use one of the better ones as the invite to your post-elopement / wedding celebration party.
Worried that a photographer will blow too much of the money you’re saving by eloping in the first place? Keep in mind that photographing an elopement is much less complicated than photographing an entire wedding. There’s the ceremony, maybe a few shots afterwards with any guests–but hardly the 12-14 hour slog that a full wedding requires of a photographer. They probably won’t need an assistant, and won’t have a hundred little moments to capture. That’s less time and work on their part, which means less money for you to part with.
There’s no limit to where you can elope, and because you won’t have hundreds of guests to worry about, you have a lot more freedom to find bargains. Pick a place you love, whether it’s the local pizza joint or two weeks in Costa Rica. Two slices and two sodas can run you under $10 and you can find a lovely travel packages $1,000 to $5,000.
This will take a big slice of your budget, but, as above, there are always bargains to be had with a little research.
The beauty of elopement is that you set your own dress code. You can be totally traditional or as out of the box as you want. When you elope, no one will bat an eye if you get married on the beach in swim trunks, or in a Vegas chapel dressed as Elvis.
Who to Invite
If you do want to invite people, they should be your most supportive friends and family. One of the purposes of eloping is to maximize pleasure and escape guilt and pressure, so keep the guest list to under 10 people. Those who get left out might feel hurt, but they can always console themselves with the idea that it just about everyone else got left out too.
That said, you may still have to massage some people’s’ feelings, which might require a few gentle discussions. Don’t neglect to call those people out at the after-party: Heartfelt words of gratitude and love during your toast will go a long way.
Post Elopement Party
When it’s time for the celebration, you can do it in a relaxed, loving atmosphere with your nearest and dearest, without many of the traditions and expectations of a wedding reception..
The best way to invite family and friends to your post-elopement party is with a photo of your actual wedding ceremony, no matter what form it took.. Be sure to make it clear in the invitation that you’ve already said your “I do’s,” and that this is just a chance to party.
This is where you can get creative. Inevitably, this is going to be a less formal situation than an official wedding reception, so you can save money on the venue accordingly. The local ale house, the wood-oven pizza place down the block, even a hotel bar are all acceptable. You can even side-step the question of venue completely: no one will clutch their pearls if you hold your post-elopement party at your apartment, in the backyard of your house, or even in a public park.
Again, you’re free to hire a professional if you like, or just get your friends to take a bunch of photos. Because a casual party will not have as many moving elements as an official ceremony and reception, there is less chance of someone missing a crucial moment. If you do hire a photographer, you may only need them for an hour or two, and will save accordingly.
This is one element you should definitely carry-over from the traditional reception, as if won’t cost you anything aside from the nervousness of public speaking, and will do a lot to mark the importance of the occasion. It’s also a great opportunity to smooth over any hurt feelings your guests might have about being left out of the actual wedding itself.
A nice tradition you can include if you like. The bride should dance with her father, the groom with his mother, the bride and the groom. Or start your own tradition, and have the whole party hit the dance floor to reenact the Uptown Funk video. Whatever floats your collective boat.
Cake is never a bad thing, and because this isn’t strictly a wedding reception, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg. You can get fancy cakes for $150 to $1,000. Or you can go to Costco, whose cakes have the best frosting, feed 48 people, and are only $18.99.
Remember this is your day—you just created a new family with the one you love. Set the tone with the invitation, your communication food and cake and you should set out, the two of you, on your own terms, on the good foot.
Where to elope
Planning your elopement is not unlike planning your honeymoon–-in fact in most cases you’re really just combining your wedding with your honeymoon. We have a whole section of this site devoted to honeymoon destinations, which is a good place to start. The only thing to keep in mind is that–unlike a honeymoon–you’ll need to make sure you know all the marriage procedures required at your destination, what forms need to be filled out, what fees need to be paid, etc.
But maybe you don’t want to go to an exotic honeymoon destination to tie the knot. Maybe you want to know where to elope in the U.S..
Places to Elope
New York – Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls makes it easy for you to elope. After all it’s the honeymoon capital of the world. Unless you have a New York State Marriage License (valid for 180 days, you can front load that detail), you can get one at the Niagara State County Clerk’s office between 8:00AM – 3:30PM at 745 Main Street. It will cost $40 and you must wait to wed 24 hours after that. Also, you will need the services of an officiant. You can create your own elopement experience or get a package that fits your budget. Plan ahead, this is one busy town.
California – Big Sur
Whether you get married in Ojai, Napa, Tahoe, Beverly Hills or San Francisco, one thing you are going to have to do is get California marriage license. The cost ranges between $35-$100, depending on the county and are good for 90 days. You must have an officiant. Eloping on the beach is compelling but unless you have a planner, there is a lot of administration to deal with in California. For example, if you want to elope in Big Sur, a beach permit is $275 for 4 hours with a $25 filing fee. Damage deposits run from $400 to $1500 and there is a monitoring fee–a park ranger–assigned to monitor your party for $316. There is a 12 page contract. But if you were California and your locations were as beautiful as Big Sur, you would want to protect them, too. We recommend hiring a planner or getting a package deal.
Getting a marriage license in Las Vegas could not be more convenient. It costs $77 at the Clark County Marriage Bureau, which is open 24 hours, 6 days a week. On Sunday, they close at 8PM. The license is valid for a year. There is no wait time after your license is issued. You can walk, or crawl through traffic, to their nearly 50 wedding chapels. Some have everything you need there, including attire, hair and makeup and photography services. The ceremonies can last about 15 minutes and then you are free to create moments to remember, or just leave in Vegas.
Florida is a hop, skip and jump from many places on the East Coast. Marriage licenses are $93.50 and can be reduced by $32.50 if you take their 3 day pre-marital course. The license is good for 60 days and there is no waiting period before you get married. Getting married on the beach has never been more simple and laid out clearly. Packages, including officiants, start at $199 and go up from there.
Hawaii – All Islands
Besides being one of the most beautiful places on earth, the weather is fairly constant on Hawaii—it rarely rains on the beaches. Marriage licenses cost $60 plus a $5 administration fee. You can download an application online or go to Honolulu to Marriage Bureau. Hawaii also has agents who will work with you on this process, since the islands are so dispersed. Beach permits start at $95 but you will need an officiant as well. Since you most certainly will want a photographer and without knowing the area, it’s best to hire elopement specialists of which there are many. Packages start at $399 and go up past $2,000. But the less expensive packages don’t offer everything, they offer information on obtaining other things, so you’re best to go with a mid-range package for maximum fun and the least stress.