Between the friends, the full bar, and the dance floor, weddings make for a great party.
But the cost of weddings is out of control, and it’s unnecessarily hurting wallets, friendships, and even marriages.
Last year the average wedding in the US cost $31,213—not including the honeymoon. That’s as much as a down payment on a house, or a semester at a pricey private college (let’s not get started on that one).
It’s even crazier to spend that much on one day when you consider that unemployment is contributing to fewer Americans getting married than ever before. Part of that trend is due to a shift in how society views marriage. But for many—particularly young men with a high school education or less—it’s due to difficulty in finding work, while there’s still an expectation of “having a steady job” in order to be considered marriage material.
Unlike with housing and college, however, you can directly and completely control how much you spend on your wedding—and here are a few more reasons why you might want to:
The data is deceptive.
That $31,213 figure comes from a big survey done by leading industry website TheKnot. But it’s misleading, because big-ticket celebrations by millionaires and celebrities bring up the average cost, when really such splurges are outliers.
A more accurate estimate is the median cost (the middle number in a distribution of values), which came to $18,086 in 2012 and $16,886 in 2011.
So don’t feel pressured to throw a party that looks like $30 grand, because that is not what most couples are spending. In fact, by another estimate, many weddings actually cost less than $10,000.
In the planning for a wedding, it can be easy to forget that the wedding industry is… well, an industry—one that is more successful if you spend more money.
Of course, The Knot promotes the higher, average cost figure it because they hope to persuade couples to spend more. Whereas lots of other industries compete to sell cheaper products, the wedding industry taps into emotions and traditions about how “the happiest day of your life” is “supposed to be.” And who wants to be a skinflint when it comes to their happy day?
Unfortunately, many retailers use this to justify the higher prices on “wedding versions” of services like photography and catering. Vendors know that the bride- and groom-zillas of this world will eventually pay whatever it takes to have their “perfect” wedding—and this drives up the prices for everyone.
Despite all the online planning guides, it’s remarkably hard to find out how much wedding expenses ought to be. This is partly because wedding-related services are highly personalized, so they don’t come with a standard price tag. And this leads to lots of flabbergasted grooms and brides exceeding their budgets.
Wedding ≠ marriage.
If you’ve ever considered eloping to avoid the cost and pressure of a big wedding, you’re not alone; there’s even a wiki on how to go about it. However, a study has shown that having lots of guests at your wedding is correlated with a lower likelihood of divorce. But here’s the key point: the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely it is that you’ll get divorced—probably due to the stress of having spent all of your savings.
So the most promising situation for a stable marriage is to celebrate with lots of people you care about, without breaking the bank. Easy as pie, right?
Luckily, everyone from A Practical Wedding to Forbes to, yes, even The Knot, has good suggestions for keeping costs down, so that you’re not pushed into spending more than you want. Here are 5 of the very best tips:
1. Set reasonable expectations and be flexible.
We joke about excesses like ice sculptures and chocolate fountains at weddings, but the reality is that many of us will spend more on our weddings than we set out to, even without being intentionally extravagant.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth setting a budget and trying to stick to it, while making sure that the important things are still covered. Know what price you don’t want to go over, and do your research in advance, so you’re not shocked once the bill comes.
2. Pick an affordable (or even free!) venue.
Hipster field wedding, anyone?
The venue is often the most expensive item of the wedding weekend. Consider getting married in a local or state park, or even in your parents’ backyard. Or if you have your heart set on a particular venue, choose a date in the low season or in the middle of the week, when prices tend to be lower.
3. Borrow, rent, or go thrifting for your wedding wear.
It’s perfectly acceptable for men to rent a tux, right? I think it’s time for women to feel comfortable renting (or borrowing!) wedding clothes too, and it’s easier than ever with options like Rent the Runway and Borrowing Magnolia.
And don’t forget to consider thrift shops, when you’re on the hunt for your wedding outfit. I found my non-traditional wedding dress at a high-end thrift shop: it came to less than $100 after tailoring, and it was way easier to dance in than a big gown. I can’t wait to wear it again at other occasions, and be reminded of a really happy day!
4. Ask friends and family to help out—but only if you’re sure it won’t cause any tension.
I’m lucky in that my family happens to include an organic farmer, a photographer, and lots of talented cooks, who all donated their time and skill. We have a tradition of big family meals, so pulling off a DIY wedding feast was lots of work but also very rewarding.
Consider what skills your family and friends hold, and test the waters to see if they’d be willing to help you DIY your wedding. Just be sure that asking them won’t result in any hurt feelings—and don’t expect them to volunteer their skills for free just because you’re related.
5. Be considerate of guests’ expenses.
Attending a wedding is a cost for guests, too: on average, around $700 per person per event. It’s even more for members of the wedding party: over $700 for groomsmen, and a crazy $1,700 for bridesmaids.
It’s one thing to have a destination wedding in order to keep the party small; it’s another to place a financial burden on loved ones who don’t want to hurt your feelings. So consider having your wedding party pick their own outfits, and skipping the wedding registry and gifts altogether.
More than anything, your wedding should be a day of joy for you and your new spouse. And you shouldn’t have to call your wedding “minimalist” to avoid spending a fortune.
Have the wedding you want, and that you can afford. Or don’t get married at all. But don’t let misinformation or the expectations of others make that decision for you.
Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.