Before there can be wedding bells, there are wedding bills. Back in ye olde days, the bride’s parents typically covered the wedding costs, signing one last check before she rode off into the sunset as a Mrs. (Not to rain on the parade, but this benevolent tradition is mired in misogyny: Historically, the practice was for a bride’s family to give the groom’s a dowry for accepting the “burden” of a bride and providing for a woman. For a while there, weddings were sort of like Dowry Lite. Yikes!) But times have changed: For one, we’re all waiting longer to get married. In 1920, the average woman got married at the age of 21, and men at 24. Today, most people are walking down the aisle in their 30s. The Public Policy Institute of California reported in 2021 that the average age of first marriage for women had surpassed 30, while TheKnot.com published that the average age overall for Californians getting married was 33. It’s also worth mentioning that we “burdens” now represent 50.7 percent of the college-educated workforce, overtaking men in 2022, according to a Pew Research Center report. And often, the notion of “the bride’s family” doesn’t apply: Many weddings have no brides (or two brides).
So now who pays? Is tradition the outlier?
The older we get, the less financial support we receive. “Couples in their mid 30s tend to cover most of the wedding costs on their own [in Sacramento], where younger couples are supported by their parents. Couples that are older pay for the wedding themselves, no matter if it’s their first or second wedding.”—Sandy Stringer, wedding and event planner of Strings and Champagne Events (strings-champagne.com)
Whoever has the funds foots the bill. “It is more common for couples to be paying for their weddings themselves. In fact, the budget often becomes a collaboration of funds from the couple and each of their parents. Gone are the days of the wedding costs to be covered by an assumed party. To put it simply, the wedding events are typically paid for by the party who can afford to pay for them.”—Kate Whelan Pesci, president and lead event consultant of Kate Whelan Events (katewhelanevents.com)
When parents do contribute, it’s often a group effort. “I am still seeing contributions from the parents. I am seeing couples contribute to match what their parents are contributing.”—Kendall Erlenbusch, owner and creative director of Kendall Melissa Events (kendallmelissaevents.com)
So what’s worth splurging on?
Set the scene (and the table). “I would say that 40 to 60% of most budgets are spent on a combination of venue and catering: These tend to be the most important categories for a successful event.”—Pesci
Go big on fun and capturing memories. “Splurging on videography, music (DJ or band) and a great catering team would be my suggestion. There is no party without good music; the event will flow a lot better if you work with a great caterer; and a video just captures the day in a different way than photography—you can practically relive it.”—Stringer
Whatever you think is important is what’s important. “I always tell my couples to choose their top two things that are important to them and focus on that. Is it photography and food? Is it florals and entertainment? As we go through the planning process, if I find that my couples start focusing on something that was not part of their top two, I ask them to re-evaluate why they want to extend their budget, and if it is a ‘want to have’ or a ‘need to have.’”—Erlenbusch
No matter who’s footing the bill, there’s always a budget. Here’s how to keep it affordable:
Ditch the favors. “More often my couples are eliminating favors. Favors can be an opportunity to bring some personality or share parts of your story as a couple with your guests, but often personalized or monogrammed items are tossed aside and not worth the extra expense.”—Pesci
Make a guest list and check it twice. “Consider keeping your guest list small enough to host at a private dining space at a restaurant. Most restaurants will already have tables, linens, chairs, etc., and some even provide centerpieces. Some will not charge a site fee but instead have a food and beverage minimum. This means that your dollars will go further toward food instead of hard goods.”—Pesci
DIY, but don’t let DIY become D-I-Why Did We Do This Again? “[For my own wedding], I am crafty and have a vision, so I took on more DIY to create centerpieces that spoke to me and required very little help from an outside vendor. We thrifted our colorful goblets, thrifted our gold votive candles, and we made personal centerpieces that we intertwined with the garland and florals that the florist provided. We also made our own napkin rings and added a sprig of rosemary to the napkins. [To my clients], I always say you can thrift, find Facebook Marketplace deals, etc., but do you have the room to store these items? What will you do after the wedding? Are these items that you can reuse in your house? If the answer is no to all of the above, then I wouldn’t recommend that they try to DIY. Also, does your schedule allow you to DIY, or will you overstress yourself trying to get this done? A lot happens in the last month of the wedding, so if you have not prepared earlier to get these projects done, you will find yourself unnecessarily overstressed!”—Erlenbusch
Nature may be able to offer a better backdrop than anything you can buy or make. “What does your venue already have that you can lean into? [At my own wedding], we had spectacular views, so we didn’t feel that we needed to go overboard on florals to enhance the already gorgeous space.”—Erlenbusch
Jewelry company Jean Dousset surveyed 1,850 newlyweds in 2019 and found out that fewer than 1 in 5 weddings were paid for by the bride’s family, and nearly half of couples paid for the weddings on their own.
12,000 couples in the United States reported an average wedding budget of $30,000 in 2022. In California, that number jumped to $37,000.—TheKnot.com
1/3 of the 12,000 couples surveyed by TheKnot.com hired a wedding planner. The average wedding size was 117 guests in 2022 (up from 105 guests in 2021 and approaching the average pre-pandemic head-count of 131 in 2019).—TheKnot.com
Couple Profile: Liz and Jamie Cordis
Liz Cordis, 34, and Jamie Cordis, 34
Wedding date: Oct. 22, 2016 The scene: A high-desert boho lakeside ceremony in the Eastern Sierra tucked between the towns of Mammoth and Bishop: Think succulents, natural beauty and unfussy fun.
Guest list: 65
Splurge item: The catering and menu—people are literally still talking about the potatoes au gratin almost seven years later.
Was it worth it? Yes! (Carbs are always worth it.) How they saved money: Rather than renting plates for the evening, they thrifted mismatched vintage plates, and the groom’s mother put together the bouquets and the boutonnières. As a wedding gift, a friend who is also a photographer offered wedding photography services at a discount.
Who paid? The couple split the cost down the middle.
Their two cents for couples planning (and paying) for a wedding: “Don’t get caught up in other people’s feelings when deciding your guest list—the more guests you have, the more you’ll spend. A smaller guest list can help make your wedding more affordable. It’s difficult when distant friends or family get upset that they aren’t invited, but throughout the planning, you have to remind yourself that the day isn’t about them—it’s about you and your soon-to-be spouse.”—Liz
In hindsight, is there anything they wish they would’ve been able to splurge on, or would’ve rather done without? There were a few people they wish they could have invited. If money were no object, the guest list would have been much longer.
Couple Profile: Blair Salt and Brady Renner
Wedding date: Jan. 26, 2018
The scene: A glamorous Friday night at an old pickle factory converted into a venue space in downtown San Antonio, Texas.
Guest list: 110
Splurge item: Good wine (the bar was stocked with Crémant and Bordeaux red) and craft beer in kegs. The party didn’t stop at the wedding—the couple also splurged on a honeymoon to the Galápagos with a luxury yacht cruise around the islands.
Was it worth it? Yes!
How they saved money: They skipped traditional wedding rings, using their engagement rings (both bride and groom wore engagement rings) to exchange on the big day, kept flowers to just bouquets and, in lieu of wedding favors, made a modest donation to the two nonprofit animal rescues where they adopted their dogs. The pair also chose tapas instead of a sit-down dinner, and Blair baked their wedding cake: “That was not a budgetary choice, but rather a desire on my part.”
Who paid? The couple footed the majority of the bill, while their parents contributed around 20 percent as an unexpected gift. They did have a traditional wedding registry, so their honeymoon was partially funded by gifts from their guests via Honeyfund.com.
Their two cents for couples planning (and paying) for a wedding: “Do what is important or meaningful to you and skip anything you don’t care about, no matter how ‘traditional.’ And don’t invite people you don’t care about just because someone else thinks you should.”—Blair
“Don’t go into a ton of debt for it.”—Brady
“I’d say go into debt if it’s really important to you.”—Blair
“Just make sure it’s low-interest debt.”—Brady
In hindsight, is there anything they wish they would’ve been able to splurge on, or would’ve rather done without? Nope.
Couple Profile: Jacob and Elio Gutiérrez-Montoya
Wedding date: Sept. 2, 2017
The scene: A sharp black-tie affair at The Sutter Club. “People look at us and think we’re bougie, and we just wanted to lean into that all the way,” Jacob explains, laughing. Founded in 1889, it’s one of the oldest private clubs in California; theirs was the first gay wedding in the club’s history. (Swanky doesn’t mean stuffy, though: Instead of a champagne toast, guests celebrated their union with tequila shots.)
Guest list: 111
Splurge item: Flowers, including floral chandeliers overhead and flower vases on every table, plus the pièce de résistance: a dramatic flower wall, all designed by a floral designer whose resume includes—seriously—Oprah Winfrey’s events. “At one point, we were thinking about getting married at The Plaza in New York City, and a wedding held there had a flower wall, which inspired me to want this statement piece. I wanted there to be a fresh, live element.”—Jacob
Was it worth it? Yes!
How they saved money: They got by with a little help from their talented friends. People had suggested they hire a band, but the couple shares a performing background, and they have a long roster of pals with pipes. “We asked our friends to sing, and everyone killed it.”—Elio
Who paid? The couple paid for it themselves. “We had a rule: If we couldn’t pay cash for it, we wouldn’t do it. We didn’t go into debt for our wedding at all.”—Jacob
Their two cents for couples planning (and paying) for a wedding: “The guest list can be so stressful. We went through all of our contacts, and we didn’t invite people who didn’t know us as a couple. It was important that everyone there had touched our relationship at one point and could be there to celebrate our growth as a couple in that moment.”—Jacob
“It’s easy to get caught up in the details, but at the end of the day, you’re married! That’s the main thing. We never lost sight of that.”—Jacob
“I think everyone should have a wedding video. I would 100 percent encourage others to make sure they have a video. We watch our wedding video every year on our anniversary or when we’re feeling down. So if you’re thinking about no videographer, I would give it a second thought.”-Elio
In hindsight, is there anything they wish they would’ve been able to splurge on, or would’ve rather done without? When the time at the venue was up, they were asked if they wanted to rent the space for an additional fee, but it was beyond their planned budget. The group moved the party a few blocks away to a karaoke bar. It was still a blast, but an additional hour or two at the venue would be their only wish-list item. “I did have a small sense of sadness leaving The Sutter Club, because I didn’t want the day to end. It truly was one of the best days of our lives. Plus, I was sad to leave the flowers.”—Jacob