You Already Know: Weddings Are Ridiculously Expensive

My boyfriend and I are planning to get married in 2014 or early 2015. Even though I do not have a ring on the finger yet, I figured it’s never too soon to start wedding planning once general agreement on the year of nuptials has been reached. So I started to think about my ideal wedding. What would it be like? I’ve always assumed it would be bigger and grander than parties of my youth — my bat mitzvah and sweet sixteen. My Bat Mitzvah was a particularly expensive affair to throw for a twelve year old. But as I learned during my Bat Mitzvah, the party was as much for my parents as it was for me. I didn’t know more than half the people invited. Many were distant relatives I had never met or friends of my parents, and I barely had time to introduce myself. Was my dream wedding really like that but even bigger?

Approaching my 30s and settling into west coast life, my tastes have changed. Whenever I return home to a suburb outside of New York, I recall how obsessed many in the area are with the superficial, materialistic items compared to where I live now. Sure, I watch “Say Yes to the Dress” marathons more likely than I should and oogle the $5000+ dresses that the show makes seem reasonable. But then, the semi-frugal, personal finance blogger mind of mine ticks on and rolls its proverbial eyes at the commercial celebrations that weddings have become. Even though my father has committed $50,000 for the wedding, I can’t help but think that it’s ridiculous to spend anywhere near that much on one day, let alone five hours. $50,000 is one forth of my current networth, that’s not pocket change.

There’s definitely a part of me that wants to elope or have a small destination wedding, and keep costs under $15k. It wouldn’t really benefit me personally as my dad isn’t the type who would offer the remaining funds for, say, a downpayment on the house or the IVF fund I’ll likely need to procreate. I’m in a fortunate spot in that sense – my parents can afford a $50k wedding (for now), though certainly they’d hold this over me for the rest of my life should their own funds run out “we paid for your wedding!” Not that I would let my parents live on the street, but I’d rather be able to help out of the kindness of my heart, not guilt over their spending so much money on my special day.

It’s not just me that dreams of a large, magical wedding. With the list of my mother’s extended family, my preliminary 150 guest list suddenly became 250. My boyfriend and I don’t even have a lot of friends, but the list became quite a monster. Then I started wondering if I would want to invite colleagues or my boss. I read numerous etiquette forums which recommend inviting your boss, while others say to only invite coworkers if you consider them friends outside of work. While I get along with my boss (and other executives in the company) I’ve never envisioned them attending my wedding. It just seems too personal for a professional acquaintance to be there. Actually, there are some that have been colleagues for longer, back when our company was much smaller, and I’d actually want them there over never colleagues, who joined when our company had a more corporate environment. Also, there are a few colleagues who are starting to cross over into friend territory, and by the time I select a date and send out save the dates, perhaps I’ll want to invite a few colleagues. But if you invite one or two, it’s hard not to invite others, including those who probably don’t want to attend in the first place. Yikes.

Besides the guest list, I started to scope out venues. While my boyfriend and I live in California, we are considering having our wedding on the east coast, where I am from, since my grandparents are unable to travel and my father, ill from terminal cancer, may not be able to travel by the time we actually get married (knock on wood they will all be healthy enough to attend regardless of venue.) So I’ve been looking at venues in NY, NJ, PA and CT. I’ve discovered my dream wedding will be pricey, and likely impossible at $50k given the size of our guest list. Of course one can always cut back, but I’m an all-or-nothing type of person. I’d prefer to elope then have a wedding that feels cheap. Maybe I’ll get over that further into the planning phase (at some point every bride except perhaps Kim Kardashian has to.)

My dream wedding is set in a rustic venue with a beautiful outdoor garden, views of green mountains, with lots of organic architectural texture such as stone, wood, and brick, as this looks heavenly behind a white wedding dress. We’d have rental of the entire property of a private mansion with a barn for the weekend, where my close family would stay before and after the wedding. Food would be high quality and drinks would flow liberally, including a specially created and named cocktail for the day. And my dress would highlight my newly trim physique following a year and a half of hard work exercising and dieting. Guests would dance to music by a band or DJ, and one of my friends would surprise us with a musical number. Our photographer and videographer would have an artistic style and have a portfolio of work representing their quality and eye for composition, lighting and capturing moments. Meanwhile, close family would consider the wedding a three-day event, with a family baseball game the day following the wedding. Most importantly, I want to provide the time for his close family and my family to get to know each other.

But my dream wedding may be best off as a dream. $50,000 is a huge amount of money. It’s half of my annual salary. It’s the amount I want to save in one year, only made possible by potential bonuses. But if we invite 250 people, even if just 150 attend, a $150-a-plate wedding brings just the reception venue and food to $22500, leaving $27.5k for everything else. That still seems like a lot, but it will go fast when all the other items are added in. And, thanks to tradition, my parents would foot the entire bill. I would normally push back against this (performing remnants of the dowry tradition claws at my soul) I’m fully aware that my boyfriend would be just as happy having a small yet lovely 50-person wedding in a park. It’s my giant family, and specifically my mother’s desire to invite every last living blood relative that makes our list overwhelmingly large.

Thinking back to other weddings I’ve attended, cost wasn’t the only factor in the quality of the experience, but I recall the weddings that were clearly cheap as a result of budget were actually really lovely, and the ones that had the budget to support a fancy wedding were nice, but those that tried to be more than they could afford and where corners were cut were the most awkward.

Wedding #1 — a public park in miami with low-cost catering and a homemade cake (budget guestimate: $2k)

This bride and groom had tied the knot in a courthouse a year earlier, and saved up for their wedding in a public park. Their parents did not have anywhere near $50,000 for a wedding. Instead, the wedding was about bringing the families and friends together. The bride wore a prom dress versus a “wedding dress.” The food was catered but nothing special, and the homemade cake matched the color of her dress. Raccoons hung around to eat all of the crumbs. There were very few decorations (perhaps a ribbon hung up in the covered area.) However, it was a lovely reception and provided time for friends and family to talk and enjoy the sun together. There was beer served and the event felt more like a barbecue than a wedding. It was very low-key and made sense for this couple. I enjoyed it as an attendee, but could not imagine members of my family finding such a gathering acceptable as a wedding.

Wedding #2 — a country club with full cocktail hour and reception inside, traditional ballroom (budget guestimate: $30k – $40k)

Back on the east coast, my good friend got married in a nice country club on a rainy evening. The ceremony, in a basic room with standard chairs and typical carpeting, was nice thanks to a live guitar player, and the love of the family. However, there was nothing special about the venue. After the ceremony there was a cocktail hour with a lot of appetizers and drinks. Then the reception was very traditional, in a ballroom with a DJ. I don’t recall if there was a fully open bar or not. The wedding suited the couple, however it was too traditional for my taste. And the venue was likely expensive without offering any unique architecture or design.

Wedding #3 — a botanical garden with an outdoor ceremony and the wedding in a rustic venue (budget guestimate: $20k)

This wedding began in a beautiful outdoor setting with great views. While it was warm in the sun during the reception, it felt the most organic and charming of the wedding’s I’ve attended. The reception had a DJ, but there wasn’t a lot of dancing. It was a small space and felt a bit packed with all the attendees. The bride seemed to really enjoy this event with her husband. The event occurred during the day and once it was over, guests could walk through the botanical gardens nearby, which was a lovely way to end the event. I wasn’t completely in love with the architecture of the venue, but enjoyed it’s organic and rustic feel. I find this very romantic.

Wedding #4 — a public park in Michigan with higher-quality catering and cupcakes made in a bakery (budget guestimate: $5k)

Much like my friend’s Miami public park wedding, my friend’s wedding in Michigan was held in a park. However, this park was more scenic and provided a small lakeshore where the ceremony was held. The bride wore an untraditional green dress made in China. The reception was held in a covered area, which was decorated by friends with a very DIY crafty look, which was charming and perfect for the couple. There was no DJ, so the event focused on conversations held at tables. As the sun set, many wandered off to other areas of the park, which were quite beautiful. The event felt very long as there wasn’t a lot to do, but it was so nice out it didn’t matter. Luckily the rains of the morning cleared up by the time of the wedding. This wedding was perfect for the couple, but I do not think it would be acceptable to my family’s standards.

Wedding #5 — a hotel in an east coast seaside town, with the ceremony on the beach and the reception in a traditional ballroom area (budget guestimate: $40k)

This wedding was held in a historic hotel in a seaside town, right on the beach. The ceremony on the beach was beautiful, despite the chill and grey skies. Unfortunately no one could hear the vows as the wind made for challenging acoustics. Yet in a way the fact that no one could hear the vows was romantic, as you could see the bride and groom talk to each other, but what was spoken was private (why should everyone have to hear these personal exchanges of love and devotion?) The wedding reception was held in a split ballroom with a large room for tables and another room for the dance floor. There were also bars in the hallway that were open for drinking. I didn’t like how the guests were so split up during the event, though it was nice that the older adults who didn’t want to be right in the action with loud music were able to escape and have conversations with each other, but then that made the event feel much less intimate.

Wedding #6 — a private estate in wine country with the ceremony and reception outdoors (budget guestimate $30k)

This was my favorite wedding of the ones I have attended in recent years. I was in the bridal party and the bride was a very close friend. The venue was absolutely stunning. Most weddings of this quality would cost more but my friend has so many friends and family friends who I think offered free or discount services for the event. From her makeup artist to her cake baker to her floral designer, these were all friends of the family. I think she may have only paid full price for the dress and DJ. It doesn’t really rain in wine country the time of year she held her wedding, so it wasn’t necessary to have an indoor or tented option in case of weather issues. There was a beautiful small house with a dressing room for the bride and her bridal party, but the rest of the event was outside in two distinct areas — the garden area where the the ceremony was held with a beautiful view of vineyards, and then the seating area which featured long tables under strung lights, a small dance floor, and space for a “take your own photo” area, as well as a full open bar. The party went until dark and seemed to end at the perfect time. The entire event was magical, and suited the couple. I would be happy if my wedding could be like hers, but there are a few things that my mother would not be satisfied with. She would want more traditional table settings and a sit-down dinner versus buffet. I am not sure how many guests were at this wedding but it was fairly big, something like 150, so similar to the numbers that I would invite, so a good comparison to what I’d like to put together for my own wedding. However, if I were to get married on the east coast, I would need an indoor option in case of rain, which adds to costs.

Wedding #7 — a secluded area in a park in the bay area, with the ceremony and reception outside (budget guestimate: $8k -$10k)

Good friends of ours held their wedding in a local park. The ceremony was held under tall redwoods in an intimate area. Most guests did not attend the ceremony. It was a little too informal for my tastes, but it suited the couple. The reception was held in an outdoor area without a lot of shade. It was quite warm that day, so this was a little bothersome. The couple had a live band who could sing a range of music, and there was some dancing under a covered area. During the cocktail hour the food was swarming with bees, which was unnerving.The food was family style at each table. The couple had a special drink designed for the event. Booze was reserved to beer, wine and the special drink.

Wedding #8 — a country club with the ceremony outdoors and reception indoors (budget guestimate: $20k – $30k)

This wedding began with a lovely outdoor reception with a beautiful golf course view. There were flower petals laid out creating a lovely organic, romantic feel to the event. After the ceremony, the reception moved indoors. The decorations were home-made and gorgeous (the bride is a designer so she did an amazing job on the DIY decorations.) The room was a bit tight for the total number of attendees but I liked that it kept everyone together and made for a more intimate-feeling event despite a large number of attendees. I think she served wine and beer only with a cash bar for other options. At the end of the event, she had karaoke after party for her guests at the venue. I loved the after party that started naturally at the conclusion of the party for those who wanted to continue the revelries.

Wedding #9 — a winery with both ceremony and reception indoors due to rain (budget guestimate $20k – $30k)

This wedding ceremony was forced indoors due to rain. The barrel room where the reception was held was very beautiful and rustic, which was a great backdrop for the bride’s colorful Indian wedding gown. However the space was very tight and made me feel claustrophobic for the number of people attending. The dance floor was small but seemed to be big enough for the people who wanted to dance. A frozen yogurt sundae bar for dessert was a nice touch. I cannot remember if the food was served or buffet style – I think it might have been buffet. The wedding seemed to suit the couple well, it just needed a slightly bigger space.

Wedding #10 — ceremony at a mission in carmel followed by a lunch buffet reception indoors (budget guestimate $10k – $15k)

This ceremony was held in a historic mission with a catholic priest. While I’m not religious, I felt the ceremony was charming due to its venue. The reception was a buffet-style gathering. There was no DJ or dancing. The reception was on the short side, which made sense since there was no entertainment beyond guests talking amongst themselves. After the wedding, the bride and groom held a bonfire at the beach to continue celebrating. This was lovely as it provided time for guests to bond with each other in a more informal environment.

One thing I’ve learned recalling the weddings I’ve attended over the past few years is that my favorite weddings were generally outdoors and in non-traditional or unique historic environments. Very few of my friends likely spend over $30k for their weddings and most kept costs relatively low by opting for a public park, buffet-style or family-style food, and refraining from a full open bar.

I’ve also realized that I am going to have to be very careful to ensure this wedding is something that suits myself and my boyfriend, and doesn’t become a nightmare due to my mother’s unrealistic expectations. Her mother planned every moment of her wedding down to the dress, so she thinks it’s her time to take charge. On one hand, it would be nice to have her involved in the planning – she will be on the east coast (where she lives) where I’ll be on the west coast except for the occasional visit, so she could do all the things that require one to be on location to plan for the wedding. And she has all the time in the world and loves to organize events. I just don’t think the two of us will see eye-to-eye on this event, starting with the guest list. I understand why it feels like we need to invite all of the distant relatives as we usually receive invites to their weddings, and chances are they won’t come, but what if they do? It could get out of hand fast.

And I know my boyfriend and know he will feel very uncomfortable in a traditional wedding environment. I think we can come to a compromise on an event that we both love, but it’s going to be hard to please my mother. My father will have his opinions as well (as he’d be the one footing the bill unless I make a decision to pay for the entire event myself) and I’m a little concerned he won’t understand the rustic aesthetic (but I don’t think he cares enough to argue as much as my mother over it.)

All of this leads me back to the question of whether I should have a wedding in the first place. Wouldn’t it make more sense to convince my father to provide us the $50k for a downpayment on a house, or to have my parents keep this money for their medical issues and retirement? Or for grad school should I want to get an MBA? I just can’t fathom spending that kind of money on one day… or even part of it… when that is much more than pocket change.

Still, there is a reason that the wedding industry exists. People like to have nice weddings. A lot of people do spend $50k or even more on their wedding day. People do buy expensive dresses and splurge on dream venues for their special day. Why should I deprive myself of that moment? Would I regret it? Can I find a middle ground that makes everyone happy? These are all questions I’ll have to find answers to in the next two years.

But first things first, my boyfriend needs to propose!

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2 comments

  1. Executioner says:

    My wife and I had a small wedding. My wife wanted to elope, but I couldn't imagine not having my parents at my wedding. So we rented an inn and paid for all of our guests to stay there with us for a weekend. There were the two of us, plus 11 guests (mostly family), and in the background the officiant, the photographer, and the inn staff (which I think was 3 folks).

    My wife bought a white dress to wear for our wedding, but it wasn't a "wedding dress". It cost around $100. I rented a tux. We splurged and spent $250 on a cake and $250 on the photographer.

    Even counting weekend lodging and food for ourselves and our 11 guests, the total bill for our wedding was around $4000. And we had a great time. My dad and my father-in-law have both told me many times that our wedding was the best wedding they've ever attended as a guest.

    We saved our money and used the rest of it to start our lives together. It was a great decision.

    Good luck making your own decision about how much or little you want to spend on a party. Because really the wedding is just a party. The marriage is what counts.

  2. Jessica N says:

    My wedding nearly left us broke. It must be nice for those couples whose parents can help out. My husband and I had to save up for a whole year, and have the ceremony at a small church in order to afford it. It was fine with me because I wanted a small wedding filled with only the closest of friends and relatives, but with the size of my husband's family it was a little inconvenient.

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