The Wedding Budget

by Amy Lahti

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Weddings are a billion-dollar industry in the United States, and the figures grow every year. How do you have the wedding of your dreams without waking up to a nightmare of debt the next day?

You hear the stories often about the couple who begins their married life saddled with bank loans and credit-card debt from their wedding (which usually gets added to existing debt), or the elderly couple who takes out a second mortgage on their house to finance a child's wedding. Weddings are about making dreams come true, but within every dream wedding, there is a reality of the cold, hard cash it takes to create the "perfect day" so many young women and men (and their parents!) dream about.

The average cost of a wedding in the U.S. is $28,000. For many people, that's a reasonable amount, or may even seem cheap. Magazines often feature spreads about celebrity weddings with tabs in the million-dollar range. But for the average American family, $28,000 is a lot of money. Think about all the things $28,000 can buy:

  • A nice down payment on an average-price home
  • A new Hyundai or similar family car
  • Several years worth of vacations in Mexico
  • An in-ground swimming pool or built-on addition to a house

So is it worth it to spend $28,000 on a wedding? It depends on each couple's own goals and dreams, what they can afford, and what their family can afford. Many couples believe that their wedding is the beginning of a bright and prosperous future; however, the reality is that money is finite, life is unpredictable, and there will almost always have to be trade-offs when a couple opts for an expensive wedding. Here are some questions couples should ask themselves when they're building their wedding budget:

  • Is having my "dream wedding" more important to me than owning a home, buying or replacing a vehicle, traveling or paying off debt?
  • How much debt do we have right now? Do we feel comfortable using money for a wedding when that money could also be used to ease the financial burden of our debt after we are married?
  • How much money will it take each month to service our joint debt after marriage? If we end up adding to our existing debt paying for the wedding, how much debt could we add before the monthly payments became unmanageable?
  • Are we planning on starting a family right away? Is one of us in school or planning on going back to school soon? Would we like to purchase a home in the near future? Will we need money after the wedding to furnish our home or apartment? Do we have enough money to cover these plans and an expensive wedding? (There probably will not be enough money to cover everything.)
  • After the wedding is over, will we still have money left for emergencies that may occur? (Many a couple has come home from their honeymoon to find a burst water pipe or blown transmission, and unless an emergency fund remains after the wedding, more debt gets added on to the total.)
  • Do we have a full understanding of the fact that most people do not receive enough cash or gifts as wedding presents to fully offset their wedding costs (and that guests are actually not obligated to give us any gift at all, much less one that "covers the cost of their meal" or some other amount)?
  • If our parents are offering to pay part or all of the wedding expenses, where will they get the money? Are they going to have to raid their retirement savings or leverage their assets? Will I be comfortable providing financial or other support for them later on if they end up in need, and have less savings or extra debt because of my wedding?
  • What are the most important aspects our wedding has to have? Is it more important that we have sumptuous food, an elegant location, and classy attire, or is it more important that we are surrounded by as many friends and family members as possible? Would I be satisfied with a more expensive location and food and fewer guests? How about with a less expensive location and more guests?

Of course, parents are usually heavily involved in wedding planning also, and there are some questions they should be asking themselves as well:

  • What is the real cost of financing this wedding going to be, once we factor in lost interest income on our savings or investments or the interest we will have to pay on the debt we incur?
  • Where will I withdraw funds from? How much will the penalties cost me if I use money from a retirement account to finance this wedding, including the tax liability that may result if I have to declare the withdrawals as income?
  • Where will I borrow from, if I do not have available cash? Will borrowing money for this wedding affect my credit score and make it harder for me to obtain credit further down the line?
  • Am I willing to cut back on the number of guests I want to invite in order to bring the cost of the wedding down, or would I rather pay more so all of my friends, family and acquaintances can attend?
  • What major expenses are on the horizon for me? How close am I to my desired retirement age? Will I need a new car or extensive home repairs soon? Will I need extra money to cover healthcare expenses for myself or my family members?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Every situation is different and what some people find affordable, others do not. But here are some things to consider when making critical decisions about wedding spending:

  • Couples who are married at the courthouse with minimal expense are not any less married than people who have a $50,000 wedding. The ceremony and vows are what transforms a couple from Mr. and Miss to Mr. and Mrs., not an expensive party.
  • There are many options for saving money on weddings. Despite the beliefs perpetrated by the wedding industry, there are many brides who have worn second-hand dresses, been married in a VFW hall or the home of a family friend, and carried silk flowers rather than fresh ones and have lived happily ever after all the same. Don't give up on finding ways to save until you have exhausted all options. There are many books and websites devoted to finding wedding bargains.
  • At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you and your husband will be married and ready to begin your lives together. The day after your wedding, you will wake up and all that's left of the wedding are the photos, the gifts, the leftover cake and the beautiful memories. Do you need to spend a lot of money to create beautiful memories?

The last thing any family wants is for there to be strife and bad feelings created over wedding expenses. Often those bad feelings linger throughout the marriage and compound into greater problems between the couple and their extended family as time goes on. If all parties (the bride and groom and their families) are honest with themselves and each other, a wedding can be the event everyone has dreamed about, and not be clouded by financial nightmares.

Updated September 2013

A. M. Lahti is a wife of five years whose wedding cost under $3,000. She and her husband are living happily ever after with their two dogs and two cats in New Mexico.

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