Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the current state of the economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This month, we're talking about rising wedding costs and how a non-wealthy couple can manage to afford a nuptial fête.
If you'd like, we'd love you to share your own experience with paying for a wedding, creative ways to cut costs, or ways you managed to save up for the big day.
My partner and I got engaged just before Christmas and are gearing up our wedding planning. We both make decent salaries and have some money in savings to help us along, but even the more modest venue estimates are blowing our $15,000 budget out of the water. Oh, and we are paying for the wedding ourselves.
Additionally, my partner’s grandparents live in a pricey area and, for medical reasons, cannot travel. Because of that, we pretty much have to choose a venue in one of the most expensive and desirable wedding locations in the country.
It’s looking like we are going to have to bump our budget up to at least $25,000, even after we slashed our guest list in half, opted to DIY our invites and flowers, chose BYO beer and wine, did away with extras like favors and place cards, and agreed to buy the dress from a department store instead of a bridal parlor (that cut out a good $4,000 alone).
We are going to have to get creative with saving for the final bill and we’re going to have to ask our parents if they can help out financially, though they aren’t exactly wealthy. Are there any lesser known ways of saving money month to month, especially given that we only need to do it temporarily leading up to the wedding? How do we talk to wedding venues about ways to trim the budget without being laughed out of the room? And how in the world do we broach the subject of asking our parents to pitch in a little something for the wedding?
Wedding Sticker Shocked
Dear Wedding Sticker Shocked,
You’ve done an excellent job thus far at finding ways to slash your budget. One of the biggest impacts on cost is guest count, so cutting that number in half surely had a significant effect. And the more you can prune the list, if that’s even a possibility, the greater the savings. As you probably know, taking a DIY approach is another way to save, while also adding a special and personal touch. Of course, it does mean you’ll need to put in more work or lean on your friends and family for help.
In case you haven’t explored these yet, here are some examples of ways I’ve seen couples DIY things. A bride’s aunt, who had a serious baking hobby, took on the task of baking a wedding cake. I attended a couple of weddings where the dinner was served family style, as opposed to a plated meal, which could certainly have an impact on cost. I’ve cut many a rug without the presence of a DJ; in their stead was a pre-made playlist. And, of course, I’ve seen folks ask their friends and family to help them with the photographs and videography.
All of these are ways to save money on a wedding, but there are tradeoffs that come along with them. When you aren’t working with professionals, you can’t expect to have the same experience or quality as a professional – unless, of course, the folks who are helping you out are professionals. So along with these hacks, I’ve also heard complaints. I know one bride who had a friend take their photos and now “hates her wedding pictures.” That couple I mentioned before, with the aunt who bakes, ended up with a cake that wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as they hoped. And I’ve heard many a story where the wedding party was supposed to help set up but ended up flaking or not having enough time, so set up was definitely stressful and rushed. Proceed with caution, and for the things you really value, it’s probably best to hire professionals.
For the vendors you do have to hire, shop around so you have as much price information as you can get before making a decision. I would also encourage you to negotiate with vendors. Beyond just asking for a discounted price, ask if there are options to remove or downgrade services to reduce the overall cost. If you’re still flexible on the date, you may also consider getting married in the off-season or even a weekday wedding. And lastly, you could consider a longer engagement, so you have more time to spread out the costs, shop around and save money. I’m not sure how feasible this is for you, but it’s at least worth mentioning.
Those are your options for reducing costs while still going the relatively traditional wedding route – as opposed to an elopement or a super small ceremony with just immediate family. The wedding world is a wild one that I am pretty familiar with because people around me work in the industry, and I get to see how the sausage is made. My bookkeeping agency handles the bookkeeping and accounting for a handful of wedding producers, so I’ve seen the economics of these events up close. And my partner has her own events business, so believe me when I say that your sticker shock is common. It isn’t until you do the research and start crunching the numbers, that you truly learn that the cost of putting on a wedding is massive and eye-watering.
But why are weddings so damn expensive?
According to a survey conducted by The Knot, the national average cost of a wedding in 2022 was $30,000, up $2,000 from the prior year. Of course, inflation and the steady increase of cost over time does play a role. But one major reason why weddings have gone from modest get-togethers in a community hall to elaborate multi-day events where the site fee alone is five figures is because of the wedding industrial complex. Yay!
The wedding industry is a multibillion-dollar industry. Its force is more powerful than any one person’s ability to negotiate a vendor down. The wedding industrial complex is a term used to describe the businesses, services, and products that cater to the wedding industry; from DJs to day-of coordinators, many people’s entire livelihoods come from putting on weddings. I also personally also benefit from this industry because of my proximity to it.
The wedding industrial complex also includes media, like wedding magazines and blogs entirely dedicated to weddings, that promote a particular vision of the "perfect" wedding. The industry is often criticized for creating unrealistic expectations and putting pressure on couples to spend large amounts of money. This is a vicious circle. Couples feel pressure about this big, “most important day-in-their-life” thing, which puts pressure on the vendors, which stresses out the couples. And the wheel turns on. This stress cycle is one reason for the hefty price tag. And the other reason everyone in the industry charges so much, if I can be cynical and critical for a moment, is because they can.
Critics of the wedding industrial complex — like me, although I do benefit from it — argue that it creates an unnecessary and excessive focus on materialistic aspects of the wedding, rather than on the commitment between the couple. It is often seen as a way to exploit the emotions and expectations of couples and their families and, as a result, drive up the cost of weddings. I’m not saying you don’t have any agency. But if you go this very traditional wedding route, it will be costly.
I just want to push people to zoom out and be critical of their big financial decisions. I want to encourage everyone to make these decisions with their eyes wide open because they do have a lasting impact.
Paco De Leon
Talking to your parents about paying for part of the wedding
Asking parents for financial assistance for a wedding can be a delicate topic. When you broach the subject, be clear and specific. Start the conversation by being upfront and specific about your financial situation and your plans for the wedding. Explain your budget, how much you've saved, and what vision you hope to bring to life. Be transparent about what you need financial assistance for and how much you hope your parents will contribute.
Do your best to choose the right time to have this conversation. Of course, avoid asking during a stressful or busy time for your parents, and choose a time when you can have a calm and focused conversation.
Remember that your parents may have their own financial obligations and limitations, so be respectful of their decision on whether they can or cannot contribute. Remember that any financial assistance they give you is voluntary. Prepare yourself for the possibility that they might be unable to help you and that you may need to consider alternatives.
Regardless of the outcome, be sure to express your gratitude to your parents for considering your request and for their support in general.
Saving up cash for the big day
When it comes to finding lesser-known ways to stack up the cash you’ll need for your final bill, at the end of the day, you’re trying to balance a simple equation. The amount you can save each month equals your monthly income minus your monthly expenses. Or your income equals your savings plus your expenses. There are different ways to express the same equation. And there are various ways to manipulate that equation. Let’s explore them.
One way to increase your savings is by reducing expenses. You can find ways to spend less by taking a closer look at your current spending. Cutting costs feels like the easiest way to save money because the impact is also immediate. Outside of canceling unused subscriptions, you might want to check in on some of your fixed costs and see about lowering them. One example is looking at your cell phone bill and calling your provider to see if you have options to lower your monthly cost. The most effective way to cut costs is to reduce spending on the things you spend the most money on. But this often comes along with changing your lifestyle, like, for example, going without a car or moving in with a parent (assuming these are even options).
The other way to save more and manipulate the equation is to increase your income in the months leading up to the wedding. This is commonly done by working more. For example, getting a second, part-time job. Again, this is an option, not a prescription. Examining this from a purely financial perspective, the extra income can go towards your wedding. For what it’s worth, as someone who works for themself, this is how I think about taking on additional or large, one-time expenses. I think about how my company can take on additional clients or how we can create entirely new revenue streams.
The last way to manipulate the equation, looking at this from a purely financial perspective, is to reduce savings. I don’t recommend not saving and investing for your future. I’ll say it again: please, continue to save and invest.
But here’s why I even brought this up: not having to save for an expensive wedding is an option.
All I’m asking is that you please consider your values and the true cost. Ultimately, if having a wedding is something you truly deeply and profoundly want, there’s no shame in it. Spend your money how you want to spend it, as long as you can afford it, and it doesn’t put you in a bad financial situation. I just want to push people to zoom out and be critical of their big financial decisions. I want to encourage everyone to make these decisions with their eyes wide open because they do have a lasting impact.
Best of luck to you two! May your cup overflow with love and joy every day of your lives.
Your friend in finance,