The average American wedding costs over $27,000 before taking the honeymoon--$53,000 if you live in Chicago like me. Most of us will entertain over 140 guests and have a wedding party of at least ten, all of whom will need a new dress, tie or token of some sort for the ceremony.
Over 2.3 million couples will get married this year, most of whom will compete for a Saturday in September. If they can't get that they're willing to settle for October. An average rehearsal dinner alone will cost more than $1,000.
Why am I telling you all of this? In part it's because these are all facts I didn't fully appreciate when I decided to propose on the first month of a year-long trip around the world. Laura and I had the brave idea that we would coordinate everything via Skype and e-mail from south Asia, which pretty quickly ran into the hard realities of planning a wedding in 2012.
In part, though, it's to reassure all those couples out there that they are absolutely not alone. Planning a wedding is complicated, draining and above all expensive. Fortunately, there are people who can help.
One of those people is Meg Keene, the founder and executive editor of the blog A Practical Wedding. On her site Keene writes about how to have a wedding in the real world, when issues like time, strength, cash and patience actually matter and conversations begin with "but can we actually afford it?" The site grew out of Keene's experience trying to keep her own wedding on a budget when everyone else just seemed to take the extraordinary costs for granted.
"I don't know if I would have started the site if I had been in a different job," she said. "But being in a really traditional working environment, people spend a lot on their weddings. It was either, because they had a lot or they had a family that was really well off, but it's tough when you're trying to plan a wedding within your actual income and everyone around you is planning a $100,000 wedding, and that's the expectation."
The first piece of advice Keene would give to couples planning their day is to not take those terrifying budgets too seriously.
"The numbers that come out every year about average wedding budgets aren't particularly accurate," she said. "There are two issues that go on. One is it's sourced through readers of Condé Nast publications, so it's a self selecting group. And two is it's not the median, so the numbers are all screwed up by a couple of million-dollar weddings. The median is much lower."
The fact is, for all of the fear-inducing numbers floating around out there, a lot of people manage to hold beautiful ceremonies for much less than the cost of a Ford Explorer. Part of the key can be opening yourself up to some non-traditional ideas.
"Part of the issue is that we've all over the years absorbed this idea of what a wedding is," Keene said. "We're sort of trying to live up to what we think is the minimum, but the problem is that now that minimum is dinner and dancing and a cocktail hour and a silk dress and nice invitations, and just that list alone racks up a huge bill."
Instead, she suggests, try a different mold. Rather than serving a full-plated dinner, consider hosting a buffet or an evening long cocktail reception. Look at hosting your reception in a restaurant where you don't have to rent equipment, or in a space outdoors that might not come with the multi-thousand dollar price tag of a traditional venue.
One new trend in particular is that more and more couples have learned not to be afraid of the courthouse.
"It used to be that running the site we just did not see a lot of courthouse weddings," Keene said. "We have recently had the editorial problem that we've had so many courthouse weddings coming in that we will actually have to break them up, [like] we just got eight we can't run them all back to back. I would say noticeably in the last year I have seen a huge shift in things that were once [nontraditional], say having a courthouse wedding then having a small party in a restaurant or in your backyard afterwards."
Bride and Groom Handle The Bill?
Part of the reason for this trend is simply that more and more couples are paying for their own weddings. Lauren Hously, a Chicago wedding planner and owner of RyanAlexander Events, says that she sees her clients increasingly taking ownership of their day by paying for it themselves.
"More and more my couples are really looking at their wedding more as an investment piece rather than a show up, shake it down and leave at the end of the night," Hously said. "[They] really value being able to personalize their day and with the world of Pinterest and inspiration boards, that doesn't always coincide with what the families are thinking. It's related to being able to control, not only monetarily, but being able to get exactly what they want."
This may get the bride's parents off the hook, but since most young people are still struggling to get on their feet and student loans off their backs, how can couples afford to foot even a modest bill? Hously suggests beginning with a list of priorities, and planning from there.
"I think that it's most important when you first get engaged to sit down and talk about what's important to the two of you, because then you can go through and personalize your budget to those things," she said. "When you sit down and think about your wedding as a whole, what are the top three things that are important to you? Everything else, once you've made that list, everything else can fall by the wayside if it has to."
Largest among those expenses is almost always the food.
"The biggest expenses are going to be the catering," Hously said. "I have clients that come to me and say, 'Food isn't really that important to me and we have 400 people.' Well, 400 people still need to eat whether food is important to you or not."
Keene agreed, suggesting that couples who want to serve a meal to their guests at least find a place where they can bring their own alcohol. Often the liquor is where a vendor will make a lot of its money, so stocking the bar yourself stands to save a considerable markup.
Expect the Unexpected (Costs)
In addition, couples should prepare for the unexpected costs along the way.
"Every expense, whether it's large or small, adds up so it's really important for couples to consider what their starting budget is and what their maximum budget is," said wedding planner Sharokina Pazand, founder of CityGirl Weddings. "Cake cutting fees, corkage fees, bartender fees, wedding insurance--if required by a unique space)--even things like wedding dress alterations that can cost between $300-$600... can be something the bride and groom haven't initially budgeted for."
Two huge expenses that Pazand says couples rarely prepare for are taxes and gratuities. Often couples will simply see the price tag for an item and move forward, forgetting that might not include sales tax and almost never accounts for a tip. The difference can be hundreds, even thousands, of dollars depending on the cost of your event.
That's a lot of sticker shock just when you thought you were free and clear.
One way to deal with the unexpected, Pazand suggests, is to keep an Excel spreadsheet of all spending. Tracking every expense in real time can make sure the little things don't sneak up on you, and is a great way to help couples stay on budget.
Another important tip is to remember that those little expenses are just that: little. And you get to decide what that means.
"They say that buying and selling a house is one of the most irrational, emotionally driven large purchases you make, and I think that weddings are sort of like that," Keene said. "The wedding industry knows it. Everything with a wedding feels symbolic, every part of it, including who pays. And I think it's one of those things that people look back on it and realize it wasn't that big a deal... but in the moment everything feels so emotional and symbolic."
It's important to keep perspective. At the end of the day, aside from acts of God, nature or matrimonial warfare, you will end up married. The rest is just how you decide to celebrate that fact, and simply isn't as fraught with the lifelong peril we all seem to assign it.
Can we cut Aunt Matilda to Keep to Budget
Pazand says she sees more and more of her clients abandoning that traditional, often expensive, symbolism in favor of making the event their own. She says her clients often just "want their guests to enjoy the party and not feel bogged down by the 'must haves at a wedding because that's how it's supposed to be' mentality."
Of course some of those must haves are easier to reject than others, like your Great Aunt Matilda.
Managing a guest list is at the same time one of the easiest and most complicated ways to save money at your wedding. With guests often costing more than $100 per person, cutting names means cutting costs, but those savings come with a price.
"It sort of sadly comes down to a wrestling match between the couple and the family," Keene said. Often parents will have lists of friends or extended family members who mean nothing to the couple but everything to them. When price is a priority dropping names off that list can seem like a great idea, but how do you decide between that second cousin who grew up with your mom and a college friend you call every week? After all, you may be the one getting married, but it's your family's day too.
One way to solve the problem can be to set the guest list and then plan the rest of the wedding around that.
"We talk a lot on the site about putting your guest list first and then coming up with your vision afterwards," Keene said. "The people that are there are both sort of emotionally and also practically what makes the party... I think having the world's prettiest wedding and not having the people you want to be there kind of ruins it."
Treat the list as an immovable object and it might become easier to plan the rest of your day, since you can now make all plans around a fixed price per person. Otherwise, it helps to think of people in terms of that price point. It might sound mercenary, but asking "is it worth $150 to have this person there" can help make some tough decisions. After all, you have to start somewhere.
Above all, remember you're not alone. If nothing else, remember there's a writer in Chicago who's trying to remain calm when people say the words "cake cutting fee." No matter how crazy the process gets, someone else has been there before and is probably willing to offer some advice.
And at the end of the day, it will all be worth it.
Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.