Focus on what really matters and you won’t feel like you’re missing out

By Daniel B. Kline

The Average American wedding costs $33,931, according to wedding-planning site The Knot. That’s a fairly stunning number when you consider that in 2018, the average American worker earned about $46,641 a year, according to data from the Social Security Administration. Median salary paints an even bleaker picture, as it comes in at $30,533 (less than the average couple spends on their wedding).

A wedding, of course, is a major milestone. A (hopefully) singular event that causes people to sometimes make less-than-prudent financial decisions. However, it is possible to have your cake (even if it’s not a super-fancy “wedding” cake) and eat it too if you make careful choices and forgo things that aren’t as important to you.

A couple and their guests dances at the couple's wedding.


That’s one expensive word

Weddings are financial minefields. While you’ll pay more money for anything that has the word “wedding” associated with it, you can save some big cash by being flexible.

“There isn’t one specific area where people are wasting the most money, because honestly, you could waste money on every single area of a wedding if you’re not careful,” said Halbert Hargrove wealth advisor Julia Pham, who answered questions from The Motley Fool via email. “I’d say that if you are inflexible, that contributes to wasting money.”

Being flexible may mean being willing to skip certain “wedding” items and instead choose similar alternatives. Traditional wedding cakes, as an example, can be expensive. “The starting price of a fondant wedding cake is usually about $5 per slice, while the starting price of a buttercream wedding cake is about $4 per slice,” according to WeddingWire.

Meanwhile, a decorated sheet cake that serves 75-80 people from the local grocery store could cost under $100. Both are cake, with one costing a whole lot more money. Or you could go with a cake made of doughnuts or trays of cupcakes.

The same logic applies to invitations, flowers, and clothes. Brides spend an average of $1,631 on a wedding dress (including alterations, not including accessories), according to The Knot. But being a little clever and buying a formal dress that’s not marketed as a “wedding dress” can save you hundreds. You can also buy a used dress, have a dress made, or be willing to look at last year’s styles, which are often sold at huge discounts.

Talk to your partner

When my wife and I got married nearly 20 years ago, my parents paid for the wedding so, in the areas that mattered to them (venue, caterer, invitations) we did not have to think about money. We did, however discuss what was important to us and those things included having the DJ play only music we both liked and for there to be a low-priced hotel/motel option for less-wealthy out-of-town guests.

We largely didn’t care about having a special kind of flower or the it caterer. My parents probably would have accommodated some expensive eccentricities, but even spending someone else’s money, it was important to us to focus on the areas we cared about (and let my mother handle the rest as she saw fit).

If you’re getting married and don’t have someone else generously paying for everything, the most important place to start is figuring out a budget based on how much you have to spend.

Once you know your budget, you can make other decisions. Having $10,000 to spend might get you a lavish dinner and an elegant ceremony for a small group of people, while it’s a pizza and beer budget for a wedding with 300 guests.

Consider what’s most important to both of you. If it’s having the most people included, then you may have to sacrifice in other areas. You might have to have your reception on a Friday night or a Sunday, for example, and skip the expense of booking a venue and services on a Saturday.

You can also save money by hiring a photographer who’s not primarily a wedding photographer. (Your local newspaper may have talented shutterbugs on staff who moonlight doing weddings for a flat fee that’s dramatically less than what a traditional wedding photographer charges).

You might find a non-traditional venue that allows you bring in your own beer/wine/liquor or cater from a favorite restaurant. Or consider not having an open bar and serving chicken or pasta rather than a traditional steak meal that costs more.

Communicate and enjoy

The best way to please everyone (or at least not anger any one person too much) is to have open communication and get everyone involved. You may find that your father becomes less adamant about having all his second cousins invited if he has to pitch in to make that happen. The same might be true when it comes to adding a sushi station during the cocktail hour or importing out-of-season flowers for the centerpieces.

However you plan to celebrate, try to keep a sharp eye on the finances. Talk to your partner a lot and make choices together that you can both be happy about in the short term as well as for your longer-term financial picture.

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