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Wedding Cash: How I Accidentally Spent It All

04/29/2014 02:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014

On my first date with my now-husband Mike, I was full of nerves, stammering away while getting to know him. He was the cute bartender I'd met on Bleecker Street in Manhattan.

We shared stories of our families, our upbringings, our favorite books and the characters we'd met in the city. He was a New Yorker, an old soul who seemed to know everyone in the Village. When he kissed me on the walk home, I knew I'd stumbled upon something special.

After we'd been living together just over a year, he got down on one knee on a sidewalk in SoHo -- the same patch of pavement where we'd shared our first kiss two years earlier, in front of my old dorm room at NYU.

Planning Our Dream Wedding
That same night we began to plan what was meant to be a small affair -- "intimate," I remember saying.

We had initially contemplated a destination wedding with a family-only guest list -- something whimsical and dreamy. A year before Mike proposed, an old editor had tossed me an assignment writing about Italy's Pontine Islands. Something about the story had stayed with me, and I'd spent countless hours imagining myself saying "I do" alongside majestic seaside cliffs somewhere on the Mediterranean. It was all so terribly romantic. But the plan quickly proved to be more difficult to get off the ground than we thought.

For starters, my sister became pregnant with her second child shortly after we were engaged, making it difficult for her to travel. And with aging grandparents and financial constraints of siblings and other close relatives, the idea of a small wedding on the Amalfi Coast quickly evaporated.

Mike and I were living in Manhattan at the time, but our families were spread out between New Jersey and Florida. My father, who was always tight with his checkbook (think Steve Martin in Father of the Bride), made it clear from the start that a big New York City soirée was not in the cards.

I was in my early 20s, freelance-writing here and there while waitressing at an Irish bar in Midtown. Mike was still in the Village, making money bartending and putting on comedy shows he'd written for various clubs throughout the city.

My parents agreed to pay for the wedding if we kicked in the cash for the honeymoon, travel expenses and bridal party gifts. That offer sounded more than fair, and we decided on a back-home Florida wedding -- nothing too crazy, just a small gathering of friends and family on Tampa Bay. We didn't have much in our savings at the time, but what we were making at the bars was enough to cover our part.

It wasn't long before I was in full wedding mode. Linens, centerpieces, invitations, food tastings... my mother and I ran away with ourselves. The guest list grew a bit larger than we'd intended, rounding out at about 115 people.

Not wanting to break the bank for my parents, we made small sacrifices. Mike still carries on to this day about having to cut the antipasti from the menu. ("$800 for pasta!" my dad had moaned, and I couldn't blame him.) Even still, the event was shaping up to be a lavish affair. Lavender mojitos, Tiffany wedding bands, champagne toasts at sunset. But more than anything else, what I looked forward to most was being Mike's wife.

My wedding day came and went, a Catholic ceremony followed by an open-bar, dance-all-night reception. Even my Nonna was on the dance floor. Tequila shots floated through a sea of cousins, friends and co-workers. A few bridesmaids stole kisses from groomsmen as the Beastie Boys echoed from the sound system. I screamed playfully as my uncles and brothers hoisted us up on chairs for the traditional Tarantella dance. It was a big Italian shindig that was everything I'd ever wanted.

I'd Never Seen So Much Money
We woke up the next morning in a top-floor hotel suite overlooking Tampa Bay. We were slow to rise, still giddy from the night before, our heads still foggy with drink. Laughter overtook us as we verbally replayed the highlights in bed. Were we really married?! It all felt so surreal. My left thumb did nothing but twirl my wedding band.

A few hours later, we were back at my parents' preparing for the post-wedding pig roast. (Yes, a pig roast.) I remember sitting at the kitchen table, going through all the gifts with Mike. They were mostly envelopes. Checks here, wads of cash there. I spread it all out on the table and began a tally of who gave what, completely in awe. I had never expected such a collection.

Between my Nonna, uncles, aunts, Mike's boss and others, we raked in some $8,000 in cash gifts from the reception. While we had registered for household items and other gifts prior to the wedding, my registry was mostly fulfilled after my bridal shower.

I was 24 at the time and had never seen so much money, all piled up on the table like a scene out of one of the wise guy movies my dad was always watching. We swiftly deposited it into our joint savings account with every intention of investing the money after our honeymoon. (What we were "investing" in was beyond me, we hadn't really discussed it in detail.)

In all truth, we hadn't a clue. The idea of buying our own home, preparing for children and saving for retirement all felt so very abstract. Surely those things would work themselves out over time.

A Bad Habit Begins
After the wedding, we returned to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where we were spending nearly all our income on rent and living expenses. Mike and I were bringing in decent money from the bars, but business began to slow after the economy tanked in 2008. Fewer customers were coming in. Parties were being cancelled. Shifts were being cut. Rent was going up ($1,750 for a teeny one bedroom).

It was only a matter of time before we gradually began pulling money from our savings to cover odds and ends: Plane tickets to see family in Florida for Christmas. A phone bill here. A grocery trip there.

When I went back to school for my Master's in education seven months into our marriage, this habit became even more routine. I began working at the bar less and taking on fewer freelance writing projects so I could focus more on school, dipping into our wedding money (still chilling in our savings account) more and more frequently.

"I'll put it back," I'd say. This became my mantra: I'll put it back when I get paid on Friday. I'll put it back with my birthday money from my mom. I'll put it back when I finish grad school.

Welcoming Two New Additions
It was about a month after our first anniversary when we learned our first child was on the way. I was teaching at an elementary school while Mike moved up to managing the bar and bringing in extra cash doing more comedy shows. Between several thousand in student loans, credit card debt and living expenses, my teacher's salary wasn't stretching as far as we needed it to. Again, the wedding money was our safety net.

We quickly outgrew our one-bedroom apartment when our daughter was born, which meant a large withdrawal from our savings to cover moving expenses to a larger space about 10 blocks south.

The public school system also wasn't paying me for my six-week maternity leave. My only option was to borrow paid time off from the city and then repay them in automatic deductions from my paychecks.

Still, I felt encouraged about our financial future after we settled into the new apartment. It was time to get serious and finally start saving. Not counting the ever-dwindling wedding cash, what we had in our savings account at the time was nothing substantial. We began budgeting more, vowing not to touch that money. We cut coupons and began shopping at big-box stores. We accepted hand-me-downs for my daughter and pretty much eliminated date nights.

Then when the baby was eight months old, we discovered I was pregnant again -- a huge surprise that derailed our plans for financial security. Again, another big move. (This time to Queens.) Again, another unpaid maternity leave.

Now it's been six years since I walked down the aisle, and the cash gifts from our reception are long gone. The worst part is that I'm not even entirely sure where it all went. It wasn't like we were blindsided with some big catastrophe. Instead, it was more that life just happened. All of the little expenses added up to one big financial hit. Looking back, I can't help but wish I'd been smarter with that money.

How I Wish We'd Spent Our Cash Instead
After the honeymoon was over and the giddiness of our big day subsided, Mike and I had found ourselves staring down a little bit of debt. Not enough to really knock us off our feet, but our first order of married business should have been to use our wedding cash to climb out of the hole -- and to set (then stick to) a more realistic budget that didn't involve adding to our debt.

If we had moved out of Manhattan sooner and focused more on debt repayment from the start, we might have had an easier time managing it all. Years later, when we began fighting over which card to put diapers on, I swallowed the fact that we were in over our heads with the credit cards.

And not only would canceling out our debt with our wedding money have been a huge relief, but it could have set us up to tackle another important financial goal, too: socking away money for our emergency fund.

Let's face it: Emergencies happen -- and life threw us a few curve balls (in the form of back-to-back babies and unpaid maternity leave), and that's all it took to knock us down financially. LearnVest advises saving six months of take-home pay in an emergency fund. Stacy Francis, Certified Financial Planner and C.E.O. of financial planning and wealth management firm Francis Financial, suggests placing this money in an online savings account, which tends to have higher interest rates and can be less accessible when you want to spend your savings on last-minute purchases. Had I followed this advice, we could have bounced back with ease after baby number two.

Another regret? Not using whatever cash was leftover to invest in our futures. Grad school was a Plan B for me, after I had a tough time finding steady work with an undergrad degree in journalism and creative writing. Being a married grownup, I had to pay for this investment on my own. So I took out student loans to cover the costs -- another $10,000 that I'm still paying off now. Earmarking some of our wedding cash to apply to my grad school tuition probably would have lessened that burden.

But for all our regrets, I'm confident Mike and I got one thing right: We used our wedding cash to splurge, just a little. Yep, you read that right.

On our honeymoon cruise, we spent a smidge of the money on drinks, spa treatments and fancy dinners on the ship. We were young, in love and kicking off the rest of our lives together, still blissfully unaware of the real-life expenses that come with sharing your life with someone. Looking back, I don't think the couples' massage on the cruise was the worst financial decision we ever made. It's what came after that I wish I could wipe clean and have a second go at.

This story originally appeared on LearnVest.

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