It's the simple things that matter

The courtship of Josh Venner and Brianna Bennett spanned many years and thousands of miles. So when they became engaged, the couple didn’t let anything hinder their union – not even when they discovered they would have to plan their wedding on a shoestring budget.

In 2001, Brianna was a second-year interior design student at Sacramento State when she signed up for a secret pal program at her dormitory and was matched up with Josh, a political science major. “We were both kind of shy, but I thought he was very sweet and nice,” Brianna recalls of the day they met. “He definitely gave me that butterfly feeling.” The pair became fast friends and spent time together frequently until Josh graduated and, inspired by the events of Sept. 11, decided to enlist in the Army.

In 2005, Josh visited Brianna at Sacramento State while he was on leave from his post in Georgia. By the time they parted, the pair had finally acknowledged their feelings for one another. They continued their long-distance relationship, even as Josh served two tours of duty in Iraq.By 2009, Josh was discharged from the Army and working in Virginia. “There was no doubt in my mind that it was the right time to get married,” he said. “I wanted to get started with my new life and I wanted her to share it with me.” So in February 2009, when Josh visited Brianna,who was living in Hayward, California, he suggested they take a drive to the San Francisco Jewelry Mart to go ring shopping. Brianna happilyagreed. Later that weekend, the pair visited Brianna’s mother, who lives in Arroyo Grande, and her father, who lives in San Luis Obispo. Josh formally proposed while the couple was strolling down a country road near the house where Brianna was raised. “It wasn’t any big surprise, but that didn’t keep me from being nervous,” said Brianna. “It was a very exciting day.”

Sticking to a budget

Although the proposal wasn’t exactly unexpected, the circumstances of the engagement were. Just a month before, Brianna was laid off from her job as an interior designer. The couple knew they would have to keep a careful eye on expenses. Their budget of $15,000 was covered by the couple as well as their respective parents. By most standards, it was a small budget, but they weren’t discouraged. “We decided, rather than having a big hoopla with tons of attention on us, we’d focus on what’s important to us – having the vows we wanted, sharing a meal with our family in a beautiful location, and letting everyone relax and celebrate,” said Brianna.

Brianna knew she wanted to be married near her hometown of Arroyo Grande. Although Josh grew up in several cities, including Barstow and Cincinnati, several of his family members live in Southern California. Brianna moved to Arroyo Grande to stay with her mother while planning the wedding. Meanwhile, Josh was still living and working in Virginia. The desire to finally be together after years of separation influenced their decision to marry as soon as possible. They set the date for July 25, 2009. The couple wanted a venue that reminded them of the rural area where Brianna grew up. They knew they had found the right spot when they first set sights on Tiber Canyon Ranch in San Luis Obispo, an olive orchard surrounded by an oak and manzanita woodland.

Brianna adroitly scouted out bargains wherever she could. She received a 20 percent discount by purchasing her wedding gown off the rack at a Paso Robles wedding boutique, A Heart’s Desire. She used her graphic design skills to create the wedding invitation and seating cards. For fresh and funky centerpieces, she scouted thrift stores for assorted wire objects, then spray-painted them white.They opted to have a 1 p.m. wedding followed by a lunch reception, which is less costly than serving dinner. They kept hors d’oeuvres simple – they rented a popcorn machine and served bottled sodas instead of alcohol, saving both on beverages and the cost of hiring a bartender. They also skipped the D.J. and instead loaded favorite songs onto an iPod to play as background music at the reception.“We knew our family members aren’t dancers, so why pay for a D.J.?” said Brianna. The biggest cost-saver was keeping the guest list small. They invited about 50 individuals,mostly family members. “Neither of us have huge families,” said Brianna. “In the end, everybody who was really important to us was invited.”

Incorporating personal touches

Although the couple had just five months to plan their wedding, the details came together quickly, and before they knew it, the day had arrived.On a sun-drenched afternoon, the couple was wed in a secluded clearing, encircled by oak trees. “No one else had been married in that spot before,” said Brianna. “Several guests commented that the two trees we stood between had intertwined branches above our heads. They thought it was very poetic.” Brianna walked down the aisle to a favorite bluegrass song, played on the guitar and mandolin by her uncle and a family friend. After the ceremony, guests enjoyed lunch on a patio area near the olive oil tasting room. Personal touches made the day more meaningful.

Josh and Brianna asked San Luis Obispo caterer Roasted Red Pepper Chef to recreate a favorite restaurant meal of Caesar salad, spicy sausage lentil soup and chicken topped with goat cheese. Guests dined on china borrowed from Brianna’s mother and grandmother.During the reception, Brianna’s uncle and friend played favorite songs from her childhood. And the topper (literally) was the intricately-detailed bride-and-groom that Brianna’s mother and a close family friend created out of clothespins for the wedding cake. Candy apple favors from A Sweet Shoppe Named Desire in Arroyo Grande added a lively pop of color to each table. Brianna was pleased at guests’ delight with the simple yet unexpected gift. “For me, It was more important to be able to say I had something unusual at my wedding than it was to say I spent a ton of money,” she said.

The couple spent their wedding night at Sycamore Mineral Springs in Avila Beach, then flew the next day to Anchorage, Alaska (flying instead of taking a cruise was another cost-saver). After their honeymoon, the Venners flew directly to their home in Virginia where Josh is a military contractor, performing cultural analysis for the Army on Iraq. Brianna is an assistant special events coordinator for the city of Hampton, Virginia. Looking back on their brief engagement, the couple is confident they did the right thing. “Having planned it in such a short time, I now think that’s the way to go,” said Brianna. “It forces you to really make decisions. The longer you have, the more time there is to worry about things and change your mind.” They’re also proud of what they accomplished on a limited budget. “Brianna took a very realistic and rational approach, and she was able to come up with something very impressive,” said Josh. “There were things I would have liked to have had if we had more money, but in the end I feel really lucky,” Brianna concluded. “The one thing that we really wanted was our family to be able to come and to have a photograph to document the day. The rest of it was just icing on the cake.”