For Saya Hillman and Pete Aiello, it was important to have an "us" wedding.
No pomp and circumstance. No upholding tradition for tradition's sake.
And when Saya read that the average Chicago wedding costs nearly $50,000, according to a 2012 survey conducted by TheKnot.com, they also realized it was important to be frugal. Pete wholeheartedly agreed.
"If Saya had wanted a big, extravagant wedding, I think we would've had a problem," Pete said, somewhat jokingly.
Thanks to connections that Saya had with her business, Mac & Cheese Productions (which specializes in organizing events that bring total strangers together to network and/or socialize), she had a long list of vendors she could hire. But in an effort to economize, she came up with a better idea: Why not barter instead?
Her base-level barter offer was publicity, either via social media or in the newsletter she sends out to her clients. Pete, who is director of financial aid at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, offered to conduct improv comedy workshops or lead beer and bike tours, two services he offers through his own side business called TeamPete.
Of all the vendors Saya approached with barter offers, most of which were locally owned small businesses, 17 accepted and only two declined. Barters covered the costs of the photographer, videographer, wedding invitations and her hair and makeup stylist, to name a few.
When Saya, 35, and Pete, 34, married Sept. 1, there was no wedding cake, no wedding party and no head table at the reception. Pete wore a shirt from Wal-Mart, Old Navy pants and flip-flops. Saya wore a $129 dress from Macy's, a splurge compared with the ones she liked from Dress Barn ($25) and Marshall's ($29). A friend officiated, and other friends played music.
"We (took) this artificially constructed moment and chose to have a cool, meaningful thing come out of it with the people we care about," Pete said.
The couple married in a patio garden owned by Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen, which was appropriate considering how Pete and Saya first bonded. The pair met in December 2009 at a dinner party Saya held at her Ravenswood loft, officially called a "mingler," one of many such events that Saya hosts through her company.
"At the end of the night, he came over. … And he mentioned how he and a friend had created a spreadsheet ranking all the barbecue restaurants in Chicago," Saya said. "And if (there are) two things I love, it's barbecue and spreadsheets — good food and efficiency."
Pete sent Saya a thank-you email and mentioned that the two should grab barbecue together sometime. "It was as close as I could come to asking someone on a date, because I'm not very good at that," he said with a laugh.
Saya accepted his offer. A few weeks later the pair attended a lecture about neurofeedback and had plans to grab a meal at Smoque BBQ, but after encountering a wickedly long line, they opted for drinks elsewhere. This could be considered their first date, depending on which one you ask. At first, Saya saw Pete purely as a cool new friend to hang out with, whereas Pete was love struck right off the bat.
Eventually, Saya came around, and the two began dating. About six months into their relationship, they traveled to Europe. The fact they managed to survive without constantly being at each other's throats reassured them it was meant to be.
"The Europe trip is what made me realize I wanted to live with him," Saya said. "There were definitely moments of tension, but the fact that we had those moments and dealt with them in the way we did, it made me realize … OK, we can do this."
When they got back to the U.S., Saya told Pete they should live together, whenever it felt right. Eight months later, Pete moved into the Ravenswood loft.
Pete said the fact there were no big surprises or changes after they moved in together was yet another confirmation of their compatibility.
"Eventually, when thinking about the future, I naturally started to think of 'our' plans rather than 'my' plans," Pete said.
It's evident Pete and Saya are best friends. She enjoys his highbrow humor and laughs at his endless stream of jokes. He admires her confidence, determination and ability "to be unfazed by what-ifs."
In May 2012, Pete proposed to Saya on top of a mountain in Asheville, N.C., during a vacation. He gave Saya three engagement rings, all the same design but different sizes, purchased for $20 each on Overstock.com. (Saya had requested a MacBook Air in lieu of a fancy ring. "Much more practical," she said.)
The couple gradually began to plan their special day. Of course, they created a spreadsheet to track possible venues. After months of fruitless searching, they realized that one place appeared in the document twice, only under different names. Turns out it was the Secret Garden at Honky Tonk BBQ. The couple went to check it out, loved it and booked it right away.
Saya took charge of the wedding planning process and delegated certain responsibilities to Pete, ones she knew he'd excel at. "I took full and total ownership of the alcohol," Pete said. Honky Tonk allowed the couple to supply their own booze, which dramatically cut down on costs.
The wedding day finally arrived. Pete and Saya walked down the aisle pushing their matching bicycles. Once at the "altar," which was really a stone-paved patio, they sat down in two lime green chairs and listened as their first reader began.
The day was a success. The cost of the rehearsal dinner and wedding ended up totaling $24,000, according to Saya's calculation. But thanks to their bartering skills, that dropped to $11,000.
Then family and friends began to voluntarily chip in monetary gifts.
"Neither of us come from families with a lot of money, so we never would have asked, and we never would have thrown a wedding where we needed help," Saya said. "People were beyond generous with giving us money."
Overall, Pete and Saya came out paying a grand total of about $200.
"We might actually end up making money on this wedding," Saya said with a laugh.
Asked to give advice to other couples in the planning stages, Saya said, "Don't compare your wedding to everyone else's."
Pete said to be honest about what you want your wedding to be, with yourself and your future spouse. "It can be exactly the thing you want, and it shouldn't be anything else."
Asked to give advice to other couples in the planning stages of a wedding, Saya Hillman said, "Don't compare your wedding to everyone else's." She shares more details about her wedding, including photos and a cost breakdown, on her blog, macncheeseproductions.com/petayawedding.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun