With the average wedding costing upward of $30,000, it’s no surprise that booking a low-key courthouse wedding might seem like a v appealing thing to do instead. A courthouse wedding can cost a lot less (the women below paid between $50 to $150 for the actual wedding) and be a great way to focus on you and your partner on your special day instead of worrying about event planning.
Here, three women who had courthouse weddings (two who had them before COVID, one during the COVID pandemic) explain everything you’ve ever wanted to know about courthouse weddings, from the creative ways they livestreamed their ceremony on Instagram during the pandemic to the importance of hiring a photographer with experience of your specific courthouse to their tips on how to celebrate afterward.
1. How old are you? And how long had you been with your partner before getting married?
Woman A: 34, two years.
Woman B: 30, 10 years.
Woman C: 31, one and a half years.
2. How far in advance did you choose to have a courthouse wedding?
Woman A: Eight months.
Woman B: One month—we wanted to do it as quickly as possible but since it was just before Thanksgiving when we decided to get married, we figured we’d make the appointment for the first day after we’d be back from traveling for Thanksgiving. That way, we could use the holiday to tell friends and family.
Woman C: Three weeks.
3. Was a courthouse wedding your first choice over a larger ceremony?
Woman A: Yes. We knew we’d want to celebrate with our larger community later on (and we did!), but we wanted to have as low-key of a wedding day as possible.
Woman B: Yes, I never wanted a big wedding or to be married at all so this kept it comfortable for me.
Woman C: A courthouse wedding was not our first choice. If we had it our way, we would have wanted to have a small ceremony (50 people or fewer) at my dream wedding venue, but as soon as COVID hit, we knew we had to be creative. We loved the idea of a frugal courthouse wedding and, over time, grew to love the idea more and more!
4. What were your main reasons for choosing a courthouse wedding over a larger ceremony?
Woman A: Our priorities for our wedding day were quality time together, quality time with our families, and a delicious, intimate dinner. We knew that if we hosted a large wedding, we’d be distracted by the moving parts, our time together would be limited, and we’d all be too busy being with a massive group to really get quality time with our immediate families. So we separated our plans—our courthouse wedding day was spent with our immediate families and a couple of close friends, and then we hosted a dinner party for our broader community later on.
Woman B: Avoiding “big plans” and involving too many people. We firmly believed that our most intimate feelings regarding committing ourselves to each other forever should be shared in private.
Woman C: As the news of COVID-19 worsened, our families became concerned that if, god forbid, either my fiancé or I got sick, there was a possibility we might not be able to visit each other in the hospital. This larger medical concern, coupled with the fact that we were also very in love and ready to be wed AND liked the idea of being frugal, made us realize that a courthouse wedding was the right step for us. And thankfully, our whole family was supportive and on board!
5. How much did it cost?
Woman A: The courthouse was $60 ($35 for license, $25 for ceremony), and dinner for 16 was about $1,600 including tip, so $1,660 in total.
Woman B: Getting the marriage license and justice of the peace to sign cost about $150 in total. But if you include the photographer, dress, flowers, and a big lunch for four people, it cost around $4,000.
Woman C: The registrar of deeds was $50, and the magistrate usually charges $60 but she waived the fee out of the kindness of her heart (so nice!), so the ceremony itself was $50 for us. We paid $110 for Paperless Post, $250 for hair and makeup, $100 on the dress, $50 on a flower crown, $500 for the photographer, and $40 for lunch for us four people afterward. In total, $1,100.
6. How did you do it? Was there a lot of planning in advance? What steps did you have to take to have a courthouse wedding?
Woman A: Getting married at NYC’s Marriage Bureau was easy, and a simple Google gave us all the info we needed: We went the day before to get our license and then returned on our wedding day to wait in line for a ceremony. We literally paid for the ceremony with two years of spare change found around our apartment (we took it to Coinstar to turn it into paper money first—we’re not monsters).
Since we traveled in from California (I’m from New York originally, so we wanted to root our marriage there), most of our planning had to do with travel and hosting: choosing a great Airbnb where we could toast with coffee and cake, picking a great neighborhood restaurant for dinner that evening.
Woman B: The only planning required was for aesthetics. I bought a bunch of dresses online hoping one would work, booked a photographer, ordered a little bouquet from a flower shop near city hall, chose a walkable location for lunch after—we just tried to make it feel special/traditional without going overboard.
Woman C: As soon as we made the decision, my fiancé began calling local courthouses to arrange our appointment. We wanted a way for our friends and family to attend, so we called ahead to the magistrate’s office to make sure we could stream the wedding. We decided to use Instagram Live to broadcast our wedding to our friends and family (Zoom can be complicated, especially for non-tech people), and we figured so many people were already familiar with the platform. We created an Instagram wedding page, and on our email invitation, we invited about 200 friends and family to attend our wedding virtually for the Instagram Live ceremony.
We also set up a Zola registry for a newlywed fund and added the link to our Instagram page, which was very successful. We hired a photographer/videographer to help us film our wedding day and hold the camera for our broadcast. The ceremony was short but adorable and meaningful. The livestream had some tech difficulties and we had to start a bit later than expected because of weak internet, but in the end, it worked out great!
7. How many people attended?
Woman A: Fourteen guests.
Woman B: We could have up to four, but only my husband’s brother and sister-in-law wound up attending, as they were already in town for my 30th birthday celebration.
Woman C: We had two witnesses in person (our photographer and my fiancé’s son), and about 60 people tuned in to our broadcast: friends and family across the U.S. and around the world, including relatives in Italy!
8. What was the best thing about having a courthouse wedding?
Woman A: We got SO much quality time with each other and with our families—we spent the day in deep conversation and celebration instead of managing/producing a big event. We also loved the publicness of it, like taking the subway and walking alongside Tuesday morning commuters. So many people stopped to wish us luck, others just shared a smile. We loved that this ordinary Tuesday was also such an extraordinary day in our lives.
Woman B: Being as present and focused on formalizing our legal partnership without worrying about a schedule or guests.
Woman C: I loved the fact that because the courthouse wedding was simple and easy to organize, we could focus on what was really important: our love and creating a day of wonderful memories and photos we would always cherish. I also think that the low cost of a courthouse wedding was very exciting for us and allowed us to stay on track for our financial goal to buy our first home in the next one to two years. I also personally enjoyed the process of being creative and figuring out a new way of getting married via Instagram Live so we could include our friends and family.
9. What was the worst part about having a courthouse wedding?
Woman A: Nothing.
Woman B: Missing out on traditional moments like family photos, speeches, the father-daughter dance, etc.
Woman C: Feeling disconnected from friends and family. While we felt their love virtually, it just wasn’t the same as in-person hugs and congratulations. I didn’t feel it fully the day of the wedding, but in the days that followed, I felt sadness that they hadn’t been there. But in the end, I am still very proud of us for how we planned and followed through with our courthouse wedding!
10. What are some tips for others for having a courthouse wedding that you would share?
Woman A: Get a great photographer—looking through the photos brings us right back to each moment. It’s also smart to hire a photographer who knows your courthouse well or has experience photographing weddings at your courthouse specifically—they can help you prepare in advance. On the day of your wedding, everything happens so fast that having someone who knows what’s coming next is such a boon.
And please, please, please: Take some time to be truly alone. After our ceremony, our families and our photographer went for a drink while my husband and I got coffee and cake ready at our Airbnb. That hour we spent alone—in the middle of the day, before the rest of the celebration—gave us time to really feel the weight of what we had just done. It was a quiet, giddy subway ride back to Brooklyn, a more meaningful walk through the city streets than the one we had that morning.
Woman B: Book a photographer! And make sure you have something celebratory planned for you and your partner afterward.
Woman C: To help save you time and energy, opt for a service like Paperless Post to send wedding invitations and track responses while also encouraging people to visit your online registry (we used Zola). Livestream your ceremony so your friends and family can feel included and you can feel their love even at a distance, but make sure your wedding venue (1) allows for you to livestream in their space and (2) has a strong Wi-Fi signal before you do so.
You may also want to look into Zoom or Google Hangouts as alternative options. Instagram is an exciting way to livestream because you can also post photos of your romance and people can comment and interact with your photos and videos. You can also post relevant updates and information in real time.
11. Is there anything else you want Cosmo readers to know about courthouse weddings?
Woman A: Weddings are shifting in the wake of COVID—they’ll be smaller for a while. Even if a courthouse wedding isn’t your first choice, it’s still romantic and substantial—and you can always plan a bigger party down the line. When it’s safe to gather for a larger wedding, your community will be so full of gratitude to be together again. It won’t matter that you’ve already done the legal part.
Woman B: Your wedding should be done your way. Make sure you honor your love for each other above all, no matter how you choose to get married. The day is about your decision to choose each other legally and formally—make it yours!
Woman C: We did not visit our venue beforehand, but I would suggest you have a “dress rehearsal” of your wedding day and get a tour of the courthouse venue in advance. There is often security to maneuver and it can be difficult to find the correct administrative offices, etc.
Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.