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First thing’s first: Congratulations! Whether you’ve come here because you’re newly engaged, have been for quite some time, or simply hope to be, we commend you on wanting to plan a wedding in the first place. While there’s plenty to admire about solidifying your love, wedding planning can go from an overwhelmingly joyous occasion to straight up overwhelming if you aren’t careful. The secret to a stress-free planning process? Knowing where to start.

Let’s go back to the beginning. By now, you’ve told your parents, posted a ring selfie, insured said ring (very important), and took a well-deserved breather to soak in the excitement. Now what? It’s time to put the icing on the cake and kick your core plans into action.

While there’s no strict order to follow when it comes to planning a wedding, there are some immediate to-dos you’ll want to check off before diving into the details. To get the lowdown on the first essential steps, we took our most pressing post-engagement questions to Manhattan-based wedding planner Lindsay Landman. Her personal wedding planning motto? Don’t sweat the small stuff. “If there’s one thing couples might regret, it’s not focusing on enjoying the engagement and instead focusing on napkin folds,” she says.

Ahead, the seasoned wedding pro outlines five essential planning steps newly engaged couples should tackle first—no napkin folds included.

Step 1: Write out the guest list

“As unsexy as it sounds, the absolute first thing anyone should do is put together their guest list,” says Landman. Why? Almost all the other decisions you and your partner will make about the big day will revolve around how many guests you’re willing to host.

“You can’t select a venue unless you know how many people you need to accommodate, and a budget number isn’t really meaningful unless you know how far that money needs to go,” she adds.

Even if it’s just an initial approximation—the people you think might come—that’s okay. The important part is to get your list, your partner’s lists, and anyone else who has a say in the invites down on paper.  

Step 2: Determine your big-picture budget

Assuming you’ve spent countless hours watching Say Yes to the Dress, you probably know exactly how much you’re willing to spend on an outfit for the occasion. And while that’s a great exercise in decision-making, this won’t be the first, second, or even fifth check you’ll write once you start putting plans into motion.

“First, you want to think about your budget threshold: What’s the maximum amount of money you feel comfortable and capable of spending?” suggests Landman. “Breaking it down by how much you want to spend on photography or on a dress is not the way to go.”

Instead, Landman suggests getting comfortable with your big-picture number. What’s the number that makes you sweat? This is also the time to have conversations with anyone else who may be contributing to the wedding.

Pro tip: Your big-picture budget number should never be arbitrary. “Don’t pick a number based on what you think a wedding should cost—that’s not relevant. It costs what it costs. What you think it should cost is often different than what you’re capable of spending,” shares Landman.

Step 3: Find your wedding planner (if you want one)

If you have your heart set on a professional planner, the sooner you find your go-to person, the more value you’ll get out of every step of the process to come. Wait too long and you run the risk of overspending.

“Once you start spending, sometimes it’s too late to reshift your priorities and make different choices,” she says. “If a planner is in the cards, now is the time—before you’ve signed any contracts with anyone. That should be your first contract.”

Step 4: Nail down the venue

Now that you’ve drawn up the guest list, have an idea of a budget, and a planner as your partner, it’s time to start scouting out venues. If you’re wondering, ‘Wait, but I haven’t even set a date yet,’ there’s a good reason you should tackle this task before marking the calendar.

“If you have the ability to leave the date open until after you’ve selected your venue, it’s much more likely that you’ll have all the things that you want,” explains Landman. Committing yourself to a date before you’ve landed on a ceremony or reception space can cut your venue choices in half—or more. “When there could have been 20 venues at your disposal, now there are only three,” Landman adds.

As far as how far in advance you should seek out a venue, there are no hard-and-fast rules. In fact, Landman suggests it all comes down to geography.

“More popular destinations in New England, for example, book up incredibly far in advance—sometimes two years or more—because there are so few of them and they’re so sought-after,” shares Landman. “That timeline will look different if you’re in a metropolitan area where there are a lot of venues at your disposal and you can have availability within six months to one year.”

As a general rule of thumb, Landman suggests that nine to 12 months is plenty of time to make good choices and get everything on your wish list without ever second-guessing yourself.

Step 5: Pick the date and your priorities

In the process of locking down your dream venue, we’ll assume you were able to nail down your dream date. Now, you’re finally ready to start making plans for your plans—figuring out what’s on your must-have list and what’s on your nice-to-have list.

“Make a priority list of all the different things that are really important to you for your wedding. This will help you build your planning timeline and budget expenditure,” explains Landman. “If you really, really love stationary, you might want to make those choices first and spend more money on that. If videography is much lower on your list, you can save that decision for later. Even if you have fewer choices and less money to spend, you’ll be okay with it.”

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