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This wedding season, you are cordially invited to keep your mouth shut when it comes to all things financial, thank you very much. You don’t need an etiquette guide to tell you that asking a bride how much her big day cost is among the bigger wedding faux pas. As much as people revel in nuptial small talk—the venue! the guest list! the bridesmaids!—it’s rare for the chatter to veer into monetarily revealing territory.
"I think the biggest thing that isn’t talked about is parental money," says one recent bride, who we’ll call Meg. (For the record, the wedding was last year in San Francisco and it cost about $16,000, a third of which her mother covered.) "It’s very obvious to me when I go to a wedding where parents are involved with the money and when they’re not. Except nobody talks about that. They’ll talk about the cost of the dress, but they won’t say, ‘My mom gave me $35,000 to spend on my wedding.’"
It's all left to whispers and guesswork, raised eyebrows between friends and the annual wedding cost survey from that nonpartisan think tank known as The Knot. Even concrete numbers can only tell us so much—there’s also all the feeeeeeelings that go along with the money we spend on weddings. This is why Racked talked to more than two dozen women who got married in the past five years (agreeing not to use their real names, so they would give us the full scoop) about how much their weddings really cost.
Even anonymously, it wasn’t the most comfortable topic to discuss. "I was not joking when I said I kind of blacked it out," one bride, Nicole, insists. "Do I have to answer that one?" another newlywed, Charlotte, asks when I get around to inquiring about who paid for her event. Sasha tells me her parents contributed "90," leaving me to fill in the "thousand dollars" part. "I just feel like maybe some of my aunts, if they saw how much we spent and how it all went down, they would hold it over my head," Jocelyn frets. Then there was this request from a bride we’ll call Haley: "Please don’t make me sound like a rich, entitled asshole." No matter if their weddings cost less than $100, more than $100,000, or somewhere in between, nuptial spending tends to get emotional, to say the least.
It also often brings with it a unique problem: "Most people who are getting married don’t have experience getting married," points out Amanda, who tied the knot in Brooklyn last year at the age of 29. She and her now-wife spent $15,000 on the event, $9,000 of which came from family. (Her wife was a grad student at the time and contributed some of her student loan money to the wedding pot.) "So we’re just like, ‘Of course the food will be $50 a plate, right? That’s how much an entrée is when you go out to eat,’" she recalls.
"I think we went into it being kind of naïve, thinking, ‘We’re doing it at the barn, it’ll be super cheap, we’ll just backyard-style it,’" echoes Joanna, who ended up spending $28,000 (about half of it contributed by her and her husband's families) on her Massachusetts wedding last year. "The caterer alone blew that out of the water."
"For us, part of it was trying to adjust to ‘wedding money,’" remarks Alexandra, who got married in Westchester last year; her parents paid. "My husband used to say, ‘You have to think of it as Monopoly money. If you think of it as real dollars, you’ll drive yourself insane so quickly because everything costs extra zeros above what you think it ought to.’"
Once expectations have been adjusted, there is still the matter of cash flow. Mary, 33, and her husband spent $25,000 on their wedding in Alabama last year, foregoing the East Coast city where they live for the less expensive South. She remembers, "There was always kind of this feeling of, ‘We’re not gonna have enough by the time the wedding comes, we can’t pay bills,’ the ongoing anxiety of, ‘Will we be able to save up enough before the wedding actually gets here?’ At the end of the day, we were a little short, and ended up having to put some on credit cards."
Some couples feel safe assuming that no family contribution is forthcoming. "My husband had been married once before, so I think there wasn’t really a question of asking his parents," Michelle, married in Washington, D.C., last year for around $9,000, discloses. Or you can hit the jackpot like Kerry, who had a $100,000 Texas wedding last year at the age of 29: "Since I was a little girl, I knew my father would pay for it," she says. For still others, there’s the sneak-attack windfall. "I was kind of surprised," says Caitlin, whose 2011 destination wedding in Palm Springs came to $40,000. "When we got engaged, my parents—they’re pretty traditional people, so I guess I should have seen it coming—were like, ‘We really want to do this for you.’"
The bride’s family paying for the entire wedding is still "a thing," so to speak, but so are all kinds of arrangements, from splitting the cost among the marrying couple and both sets of parents to the bride taking on most of the financial responsibility herself. "Originally I had wanted to have me, my mom, and my fiancé all do a third," Meg tells me. "But after a month of trying to save, it became very clear that he wasn’t going to be able to do that. I was completely fine with it."
That aforementioned survey from The Knot found that "on average, the bride’s parents contribute 43%, the bride and groom contribute 43%, and the groom’s parents contribute 12% of the total wedding budget (others account for the remaining 2%). Only 12% of couples pay for the wedding entirely themselves."
In the absence of a flush savings account or a sizable family contribution, one way to come up with the money is through old-fashioned sacrifice. "We cut down a lot on eating out," says Lola, 28, who got married last year in Chicago. "We bought groceries religiously, the same time every week, packed our lunch. We didn’t go to as many concerts. He and I love to travel and take road trips and we did none of that for a year." With $7,000 in gifts from Lola’s parents and in-laws, the couple was able to scrape together $25,000 for the ceremony and reception.
"I was so stressed out," Meg says of getting together the cash to reserve her venue, a restaurant in San Francisco. "They needed the deposit to hold the date, and if someone else wanted the date, they would give me 48 hours to come up with the deposit. For months, I wasn't sleeping because I was so worried that someone was going to get that date. I was saving on a weekly basis, so I just didn’t have the upfront $4,000 or $5,000 to give them."
Some brides who didn’t have family help confessed to feelings of jealousy. "I have a lot of affluent friends, and I’ve been to their weddings, and I just didn’t want our wedding to look like we were trying to be something that we weren’t," Meg admits. "It made me feel really bad about myself. I don’t want to be that person." This, of course, is endemic to the whole wedding industry, family money or not.
Alexandra recalls, "Even if you are spending tons of money on something that’s going to be absolutely beautiful, you’re always kind of made to feel as though you’re not doing everything that you could be doing. There’s always some other add-on option that you didn’t take. You can always spend $10,000 more on flowers, and is it really going to make a difference at the end of the day? Probably not, probably no one would notice. But you’re always made to feel like, ‘Ugh! You’re not doing a full cupola of roses? How could you not?’ There’s a lot of pressure to do that stuff. I think my parents maybe succumbed to that a little bit more than I did."
That’s another thing about family contributions—they often come with strings attached. Mary says that the only help she and her husband received was $5,000 from her stepmother. "Unfortunately my dad is passed. My stepmother mentioned that she wanted to do something, that she wanted to help in memory of my father. We sat down and kind of talked about the logistics, what that would mean," she explains. They never did nail down whether the money would be a gift or a loan; Mary’s still not sure which one it is. The couple hasn’t paid the stepmother back, and she hasn’t asked.
For Alexandra, her parents’ covering the cost of her wedding meant constant mediating between them and various vendors. "One of the things that frustrated me the most is that my parents refused throughout the entire process to ever give me a firm number," she laments. "Instead, every single little tiny decision had to be run through my parents, which slowed things down and caused a lot of stress."
Other brides reported parents who demanded guest list additions, church approval, and even specific music. After all, it was their money. "I remember my dad and I had a huge fight about how the return address was going to be formatted on the envelopes," Alexandra recalls. "My mom got a little intense," Amanda adds. "It’s so minor, but she wanted this one song by Darius Rucker, who I despise. I refused to put it on the playlist. She was like, ‘You have to put it on the playlist, we gave you money.’"
Spending your parents’ cash willy-nilly can certainly lead to things getting out of hand. Amy was 28 when she got married in 2013. Her parents paid for the wedding, and they originally budgeted $70,000 for her Palm Beach, Florida affair. It ended up costing $100,000. "There was definitely some mixed emotions," Amy says. "Personally, from the beginning, I would have been fine doing a smaller wedding, but I knew my parents were interested in doing something like this, and I certainly wasn’t opposed to it."
It’s not that these brides regret how much money went into their weddings, exactly. Naomi got married almost five years ago, in her early 20s; her parents and in-laws split the cost of her $50,000 suburban New York wedding. "I’m older and wiser now," she says. "I’m not saying I regret it because I loved my wedding, and it was so beautiful. But because I was young and stupid, I expected such a fancy wedding, and I didn’t even ask my parents where they were financially. They just gave it to me."
It’s situations like these that make some recently marrieds relieved to have avoided parental involvement, and for many, there is wisdom that comes with age. "Having the confidence to make really hard calls about where to cut the budget was something that only someone who has a lot of self-assurance is capable of doing," Meg, who got married when she was 31, says. "I don’t think me in my mid-20s would have had the same confidence to make those decisions."
Erin got married at 28 in 2011, and she and her husband did the whole wedding in Brooklyn for $13,000. "I really wanted to have complete control," she says. "Some parents are super hands-off and ours totally might have been, but I didn’t want anyone to be able to say, ‘Yes, we want this sort of food’ or ‘No, we don’t think you should do that.’ It was totally our party and our event and everything was organized the way that we wanted it to be and I think it was better for that."
While some people opt for cheaper weddings because they would rather put their resources elsewhere (on a honeymoon or a mortgage, for instance), others do so out of necessity. Jackie was 22 and her husband 24 when they got married in the D.C. area; with some family help, they managed to do the whole thing for about $7,000. They used a family friend’s farm as the venue, which had the advantage of being free, and ate off paper plates—"the classiest paper plates of course," she adds.
The couple tried not to get bogged down by wedding one-upmanship. "I don’t think we ever really worried about what our guests would think of our wedding," Jackie tells me. "We thought it would be a perfect reflection of our relationship together and just how our wedding should be. We definitely wanted it to be a celebration for our friends and family as well, but I don’t think that we really ever worried like, ‘Are our guests going to care that they have paper plates?’"
Nina, who got married in 2013, agrees: "Our love, it’s like, there’s no dollar sign on it. We didn’t need to prove anything." She and her husband used $3,000 from Nina’s father and spent an additional $3,000 of their own to pull off an intimate Southern California wedding.
For the few who are lucky enough to be able to afford their dream weddings on their own or who have family help that is non-intrusive, there’s still the problem of making sure your consumption isn’t too conspicuous. Because when you get married, it’s not just your or your family’s money—it’s also your guests’.
Haley was 31 when she got married in 2013 in New York. The wedding cost over $100,000, $30,000 of which came from her parents. "I was aware of the fact that my then-fiancé and I had more financial resources than a lot of my friends," she says. "I really, really wanted us to be able to have a really fun, really indulgent, really elegant, slightly over-the-top, super cool, enjoyable experience without anybody feeling like we were asking them to pay for the privilege of celebrating our wedding. So when it came to my bridal party, it never crossed my mind for a second that I was going to ask any of them to pay for anything."
Haley made sure that the $10,000 she spent on hair and makeup for herself, her bridesmaids, her mother, and her mother-in-law came out of her personal pot. "Mostly it was just that I wanted to be ridiculous about my hair and makeup, and I didn’t want them to have to suffer because I decided that my princess moment was having someone who does hair for W magazine do my wedding hair."
Having to travel to attend a wedding can be a major cost for guests. When she was first considering doing a destination wedding in Palm Springs, Caitlin says she and her husband "asked a ton of people, maybe like 30 of the guests, if that would be fun for them. They were all like, ‘Oh yeah, do it.’"
They also made sure that there was a range of hotel options beyond the pricier Ace, where they were doing the ceremony and where the bridal party was staying: "There are a lot of really affordable hotels along the strip. Some people stayed across the street if they couldn’t afford staying at the Ace. It really worked for a lot of people’s budgets." This is a consideration not everyone makes. "I probably have spent more traveling and going to these weddings and giving gifts than I spent on my own wedding," Erin guesses.
It’s also worth remembering that even at the highest levels, there’s always going to be someone spending more. Celia's 2013 wedding at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel cost $215,000. She and her husband paid for it themselves, mostly through savings and his healthy salary. "We joke all the time that we were the poorest couple to ever get married there, because you see all these foreign royal families that have their weddings there, or so-and-so owns this sports team," Celia says.
And in the end, people do wind up more or less happy with their decisions. "Even though it sounds like such a crazy-ass number, even to me, the quality of what we got on everything was amazing," Kerry tells me. "We always just wanted to go ahead and do it, even if it cost a fortune," Amanda recalls. "We’re both the first gay people in our families to get married, so it was really important for us to get everybody together and see that it’s normal and we’re loving and we’re very happy and melt their hearts with our vows."
"I thought it was great. It was the best day of my life," Meg remembers. "Seeing all of our friends and family together having a great time even though they’re from all different walks of life, nothing has made me more happy, ever. Plus, I looked super hot."
Editor: Julia Rubin