As the saying goes, “first comes love, then comes marriage.” While that’s all fine and good, what the classic phrase fails to mention is the massive debt that can come from celebrating that marriage.
According to The Knot, the average American wedding in 2016 set the happy couples back about 35,329 big ones. Just two years earlier, brides and grooms were spending $32,641 on their nuptials on average—almost 3,000 bucks less. If this is a sign of things to come, future spouses-to-be will continue to drop more money on their big days every year.
When you break down the expenses of the big day, it’s easy to see why brides and grooms are paying more to get hitched than ever before. Flowers, for example, can set you back hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Just the bridal bouquet itself can cost anywhere from $150 to $350. Factor in centerpieces, altar flowers, boutonnieres, and other floral necessities, and you’ve got a large price tag.
Wedding receptions are also a huge money drainer. On average, couples typically spend about $14,000 on their receptions.
You know what it really takes to get legally married? A signed marriage license, an officiant, and a few witnesses. You could do it in an afternoon. Heck, out of curiosity, we just got officiated online while writing this intro—get a friend to do the same, and you could probably get hitched on your lunch break.
But where’s the fun in that? We dream about our weddings from a young age, and when the date is set, we want the event to be perfect. That’s natural.
Still, since finances are one of the most common reasons for divorce, you don’t want to start your marriage on the wrong economic foot by racking up a wedding bill that could cover the expense of a house. Instead, learn from the costly mistakes of others. Here, we’ve asked brides and wedding experts what couples believe they wasted their money on (and where they are glad they splurged) for their weddings.
Pennies Saved and Lessons Learned: What Not to Waste Your Money On
Compromise is the name of the game when it comes to weddings (and marriage, as it turns out). You can still have what you love, so long as you know where to cut costs elsewhere.
“My job as a wedding planner is to figure out how much they want to spend and then help them allocate the funds in a way that best suits them,” says Raquel Shutt, owner of Wedding Savvy Wedding and Event Consulting in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Everyone always wants a 10-piece band, 180 guests on the water with swans swimming by, and filet and crab on the menu,” she says. “All of that costs a lot of money, so I ask which one is a priority. If they are dead set on something, we try to work out a way that it is affordable.”
One method is to save where you can.
Cut both corners and slices.
The cake is one of the main players in just about every wedding reception, but is it really worth the hefty price tag?
Sure, the cake makes for a great picture prop and the perfect opportunity for bit of face cake smashing, but many couples question if the sweet treat is really a necessity. Next time you’re at a wedding and it’s time to cut the cake, watch what happens next. Odds are, the guests go straight for the dance floor, and the married couple ends up with a four-year supply of cake in their freezer.
Wedding planner Erica Ota, who works in the Bay Area, told CNN, “Typically, most people spend between $700 and $1,000 [on a cake,] yet I find that only 60 percent of guests even take a slice. Factor in a $2.50-per-person cake-cutting fee and you’re looking at an expensive dessert.”
Our florist source agrees.
“The cake,” the florist says of another area to cut costs. “For the most part, guests don’t really eat that. It’s a huge waste. Guests are drinking and dancing at that point, and they don’t want to stop for a pound of sugared Crisco.”
Gay strongly advises against spending big money on a wedding cake. “People rarely say much about the cake. But put out a display of beautifully decorated donuts and watch your guests go wild.”
Ota points out that dessert buffets are cheaper, more fun, and full of choices. Gay agrees, telling Urbo that “guests prefer those types of desserts to boring cake that often doesn’t even taste that great.”
Couples who still want pictures of the traditional cake-cutting can buy a small show cake while saving hundreds or more.
Karma O’Neill, owner of KO Events, also in Annapolis, has helped brides and grooms plan their dream weddings since 2009, and she fully supports cutting costs by downsizing on cake.
Save money, but also save room.
When Sarah Price married her husband Brandon in April 2015, she knew she wanted to cut expenses by creating her own decorations. With the help of her mother, future mother-in-law, and bridesmaids, Price created the bouquets for her wedding party, along with the decorations for the venue.
Although Price was pleased with the amount of money she saved by making her decorations instead of hiring someone to, she’s also stuck with the leftovers.
“While overall I think this was a good idea, in practice, I ordered way too many materials,” says Price. “To this day—more than two years later—my mother’s attic is still filled with hundreds of fake flowers in various shades of blue.”
And although buying in bulk is typically more cost-effective, purchasing more than you need is a common pitfall.
“The problem started when I sought the convenience of Amazon and the bulk shipment discounts from their sellers,” says Price. “The good intention of buying an assortment of flowers for variety, coupled with my obsessive concern of not buying enough, led to a massive overestimation of needs.”
Don’t spend on a hidden accessory.
You can’t rock an amazing wedding dress without an equally amazing pair of shoes, right? After all, donning anything less than the best with your gown is like serving gourmet food on paper plates: it just doesn’t make sense. Or does it?
Think back to all the weddings you’ve been to. Now ask yourself how many times you saw the bride’s shoes. Chances are, you’ve seen them rarely, if it all.
Instead of spending cash on fabulous shoes that are probably going to inflict pain and remain under cover the entire ceremony and festivities, go with something that is comfortable.
“Wedding high heels usually get taken off anyways,” says O’Neill. “And if your dress is long, no one sees them!”
We understand: You don’t want to offend anyone. But remember that your wedding price tag increases exponentially with every attendee at your wedding.
“Don’t invite people you don’t care about,” says our florist source. “You know, if I invite my cousin, I have to invite his kids and their spouses and it all gets out of control so fast.”
How much could you save by restricting the guest list? Obviously, that depends, but HuffPost estimates that catered food costs about $68 per person. While that number might be hard to stomach for some people, that may actually be a low estimate, since some caterers charge more than usual for weddings.
One of the most effective ways to afford a high-quality meal is to limit the number of guests that are noshing on your expensive dinner, says Shutt:
So in lieu of inviting the babysitter you haven’t seen since you were in preschool, only ask the people you’re close to now to come to your wedding. You’ll save money (and potentially some awkward conversations) by doing so.
One of the traditional experiences of newlyweds is commiserating on how much they spent on programs, just to see them littering the floor of the venue when the dancing was over.
“You wouldn’t believe how many favors [and programs] I clean up after weddings that are left behind,” Gay tells Urbo.
Skipping out on extra paper goods not only saves you money, but it helps out the environment, too. Tiffany Hayden, owner and principal coordinator for Detailed Weddings, wanted to have a “green” wedding. That meant skipping out on paper versions of save-the-dates, programs, and menus.
“We designed our own [save-the-dates] online for free and emailed it out to our guests with a link to our website that had more information,” Hayden says. “[It was] super eco-friendly and cost effective! It also helped to get a few immediate RSVPs.”
If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know just how valuable those early RSVPs can be—they might not save you any money, but they certainly make the planning process much easier. This brings us to our next point.
Know which flowers to prioritize.
Fresh flowers add a lot to any joyful event, but don’t overspend. Keep your priorities straight. Unless you have a huge budget, decorations should be low on the list.
Believe it or not, even our unnamed florist source agrees that you don’t have to splurge on flowers to have a great wedding.
“As far as flowers go, if you have a limited budget, spend where you’ll get the most,” she tells us. “Spend on centerpieces because people sit at the tables talking over them at dinner. Spend on the bridal bouquet because that’s going to be in all the pictures you look at forever.”
That’s true, assuming you take our advice and pay for pictures that you’ll actually want to look at (more on that later). The lesson here is that, with fresh flowers, a little bit goes a long way.
A 2014 survey from wedding site The Knot found that couples spent an average of $2,141 on florist services, which includes centerpieces and other decorations.
We’re not saying to avoid the florist entirely—just spend intelligently.
Don’t Save for a Cloudy Day: Make It Rain Right Now
Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to save money. Cutting corners can mean cutting quality, and you may regret not spending where you should.
Say “yes” to the…well, just guess.
In theory, weddings should be about both of the people saying their vows. Many agree, however, that when there’s a bride involved, it’s really all about her.
As such, choosing what to wear on the big day is a major feat, especially when the bride wears a dress. And although the dress is one of the biggest expenses of the wedding, many wives agree it is one area in which it is okay, and even expected, to splurge.
Nikki Poole became a bride in July 2017 when she married her long-time partner Ryan in a ceremony on the beach.
Although she made her wedding as cost-effective as possible, there was one thing Poole didn’t mind splurging on: the dress.
“Obviously, I stayed within my means,” says Poole. “But I also waited a long time for this fool to propose so I wanted to treat myself. Even if you wear it one day, it’s one day that you are the most special and beautiful version of yourself.”
There’s nothing worse than a boring wedding reception. After all, guests can only dance and eat so much. Prevent your reception from becoming a total snooze fest by splurging on some entertainment, like a photo booth.
Who doesn’t love cramming into a picture while holding silly props? Along with providing mementos of your wedding, photo booths also provide a place for fun, laughing, and getting a little wacky. And bonus points: you can also use the pictures as favors for your wedding.
Bride Nikki Johnson wasn’t sold on the idea of having a photo booth at her wedding this past May, but eventually, her family convinced her, and she was glad they did.
Eat, drink, and be merry.
It’s been said that there are only two details of a wedding that guests actually remember: the food and the music. It’s up in the air as to how much truth this anecdote holds—after all, different people pay attention to different things—but what many wedding frequenters know for sure is, food can make or break an event.
In order to give your guests the fuel they’ll need to dance the night away to that amazing music, you’ll have to fill their bellies. The best menus feature food that is tasty and memorable, and splurging is often the only way to achieve that.
“The best occasions in my life seem to involve food,” says Price. “We made sure not to cut corners on that and to this day still get compliments about the lobster bisque.”
You don’t have to spend most of your budget on the food; you can still provide fantastic fare by playing it smart.
When it’s worth thousands of dollars, and words.
In the photography world, you truly get what you pay for. These days, everyone with an iPhone will volunteer to do your wedding photos. Then there are the “fauxtographers,” who think they’re professionals just because they own a DSLR (that they operate on auto mode). While smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras have come a long way, you shouldn’t let a non-professional handle this critical task, even if they would be considerably cheaper.
Photographers on the lower end of the price spectrum often fail to provide photographs of the same quality as those who have a higher price point. What this means for some brides and grooms is botched wedding pictures.
If you spend money on one thing for your wedding day, let it be the photographer.
Wedding photographers may look expensive at first glance, but it’s important to pay enough to guarantee quality results. Too many married couples have tried to cut corners on photography, only to end up with wedding pictures they hate. Plus, if your mother or co-worker takes the job and you end up with a disappointing wedding album, you can’t exactly ask for a re-do.
“One thing to not skimp on is the photographer,” Hayden tells Urbo. “I’ve had negative experiences when a friend of the couple or discount photographer comes on board. Photos are how you are going to remember the day for the rest of your life, so pick someone you like as a person, has the style of work you like, and is the best you can reasonably afford.”
How much is too much? That really depends on where you live, but wedding photographers might charge anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000; wedding site Women Getting Married recommends allocating about 10 percent of your total budget to photography.
That doesn’t mean that you should throw your money at the wall. When evaluating your options, ask to see plenty of samples. You might even ask for references—after all, this is a huge expense.
And despite having to spend such a large chunk of your wedding budget on photos, many couples don’t mind spending extra on this expense. Says Poole:
One last tip: When the big day comes, keep your eye on the clock. Most photographers will give you an eight-hour package, and if you go over, you could end up paying extra.
The Takeaway: How to Make Your Wedding What You Want
The lesson here, brides- and grooms-to-be, is to do what makes you happy. If you want to spend a majority of your wedding budget on a reception, then do that. If you’d rather use your cash for a memorable honeymoon, give your travel agent a call, pronto. If you want it all, work with someone who can help you figure out the best way to divide your funds to make it happen.
It’s your day, make it as special and personal as you can, while working on a budget that both you and your future spouse can agree on.
Ultimately, it’s up to each couple to decide what they want. The wedding-planning industry has plenty to say about what you absolutely must spend your money on, but getting caught up in that noise is ultimately the biggest mistake married couples cop to.
Whether a couple wants an intimate but laid-back barbecue in someone’s backyard or they’re looking for a black-tie affair at the hottest hotel in town, it’s important that every couple plans the wedding they want.
Our florist—whose own wedding was a pretty low-key ceremony—tells us about a couple that seemed to spend extravagantly without regretting any of it later: “[One couple’s] ice sculpture really sticks in my mind, because, my God, they nickel-and-dimed me on the flowers. Then I get to the venue and there’s a f***ing ice sculpture. When I went to pick up the glassware, there it was, melting on the lawn.”
But, she muses, “People who spend a lot, I don’t think they regret it.”
In other words, do what makes sense to you. If you’re running low on cash (or you’d rather spend that money on a honeymoon or a downpayment), don’t feel bad downsizing. Again, the average wedding costs around $35,000, so if you cut even some of those expenses, you may be able to start your married life from a comfortable position, financially speaking.
On the other hand, if you want a huge soirée and have the funds to afford it, don’t let anyone make you and your spouse-to-be feel bad for having the party of your dreams. There’s something to be said about throwing an awesome bash with all of your closest family and friends in one room.
You can even take comfort in the fact that you did your research and took the time to hear the stories of married couples who have been through the wedding roller coaster themselves.