Figuring out your wedding budget is no easy feat. Your wedding will likely be the biggest party you’ve ever hosted—and the priciest. The average U.S. wedding costs $44,000 for 167 guests, according to the 2018 Brides American Wedding Study. Nearly 27 per cent of couples cover the entire expense themselves, while about one-third of them pay for at least part of it. But here’s the kicker: Almost half of the couples go over budget. Make sure you’re not one of them by setting a realistic wedding budget—before you start fantasizing about venues in Italy, booking expensive vendors, or trying on designer dresses.
To make a budget, you’ll need to tally up your savings, maintain a detailed spreadsheet, so you don’t go over during the planning process, prepare for unexpected costs, as well as make meaningful cuts if you do exceed your total budget. It’s hard work, we know, but putting in the time and energy now ensures you’ll live happily ever after (wedding-debt free). Here’s precisely how to set a wedding budget you can stick to.
Set a realistic budget
Even though you’re on a personal finance site like IWT, you’re still human. That means that your wedding will most likely be much pricier than you originally thought. The best way to not fall into debt when the day you sign a check to vendors arrives is to anticipate and plan for it.
“Set a budget,” Sarah says. “People often think they can just handle each contract with a vendor as it comes up and deal with the costs on a case-by-case basis. However, that often results in the client spending way more than they wanted to spend and more than they would have spent had they considered the overall big picture from the beginning of the planning process.”
So sit down and make a realistic budget of how much your wedding might be priced. The back-of-a-napkin formula for it is simple too. Simply take into account:
- The average age at marriage, which is about 31 for men and 29 for women.
- The average wedding cost, which is about $35,000.
If you’re 21, you should each plan to save around $3,500 a year or $292 a month.
And if you think that’s unreasonable, I have two things to tell you:
- Even if you can’t save that much now, any amount you CAN save will add up down the road. Can you afford $50/month? If so, that’s $50 better than you were doing yesterday.
- If you work towards earning more money, you’ll be able to save this much eventually. Keep reading, and I’ll give you the exact resources you can use to get there.
Of course, this will change depending on how old you are and how much you want to spend on your wedding. Here’s a great wedding cost calculator you can use to give you a rough estimate of how much you should save based on what you want for your big day.
Count Your Cash
How much you have to spend on the wedding is directly proportional to three sources of money: you and your fiancé(e) ‘s individual savings; the amount you can set aside from your current income; plus any contributions from parents or loved ones. Here’s how to approach each:
Your savings: This isn’t as simple as checking your bank account. Ideally, you and your partner each have three months of living expenses set aside in case of a job loss or health setback (separate from retirement funds). Subtract that in-case-of-emergency amount from your total balance in the bank, and that’s how much you could put toward wedding costs.
Your monthly income: After you’ve made payments for existing debts, like student loans, set aside up to 10 per cent of your earnings each month. “Establish direct deposits into a separate account for wedding expenses, so it isn’t just leftovers that get saved,” says Erin Lowry, a personal finance expert and the author of “Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together”.
Any contributions from your parents: “Never assume your parents or other loved ones are willing and able to help cover the cost of a wedding,” says Lowry. “But it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.”
Track Your Spending
Create a spreadsheet with three expense columns: Estimated, Modified, and Actual. Amounts under Estimated will be driven by the research of costs in your area (check sites like Weddingwire and Thumbtack to find local averages for venues and vendors), proposals from the vendors you choose will go in Modified. The final amount you pay them will go in Actual.
Adjust your estimates after calling in vendors’ costs. Start with the venue because it’s the biggest piece of the wedding pie and a major factor in determining guest count. When vendors give you estimates, verify if tax is included. If not, do the math yourself with state and local tax rates to adjust the proposal.
Add a column for the estimated tip. Write “included” if gratuity is factored into the vendor’s price. (For example, caterers automatically tack on 15 to 20 per cent of the total, which you pay in advance.)
Add a line item called Extras that equals 15 per cent of your total budget to cushion for things you’ll likely forget (invitation postage, parking valets) or won’t anticipate in advance (corkage and plating fees). Never spend this money upfront; you’ll need it throughout the planning process as incidentals arise. Trust us.
No matter how tempted you are to boost your cash flow with credit cards, don’t go overboard. “Never charge anything that you can’t pay off in 30 days,” says financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money podcast. That is unless you qualify for a card with a zero per cent purchase APR, which lets you skirt interest payments as long as you pay your entire balance within a certain time frame (usually 12 to 15 months). Torabi advises mapping out a plan for how you intend to do that before swiping the plastic. For example, register for cash gifts that you can put toward a portion of the wedding and create a savings plan to cover the rest. If you do use a credit card, choose one with a generous cashback program.
Find Ways to Save
Over budget? These ideas will slash your spending in a meaningful way.
Change the venue: Raw spaces like barns and lofts seem like a steal, but you could spend a lot making them wedding-beautiful. “You may have to bring in tables, chairs, china, glassware, silverware, kitchen equipment for the caterer, even restrooms and AC or heat,” cautions Sara Fay Egan, a partner at Jackson Durham Floral and Event Design in Dallas. Before you commit, estimate the total price of a wedding at that space versus one that includes all the basics.
Edit the guest list: Each attendee costs far more than his or her meal when you consider the invitation, welcome bag, transportation, slice of cake, and favour. “Never have a B-list, and be ruthless with your A-list,” says Clark. For the average 135-person reception, shrinking the guest list by 15 people saves you approximately $1,300.
Go off-peak: Have a winter wedding. Choose a Friday or Sunday. Or celebrate with mimosas over brunch instead of hosting a four-course, wine-paired dinner.
Build-in time: To save for the wedding they want, 57 per cent of brides said they were willing to prolong their engagement. “Negotiating is a lot more difficult when vendors know you’re in a time crunch,” says Torabi.
Host the ceremony and reception in the same place: Doing so could save as much as $4,000 on transportation for the wedding party and guests.
Forgo a live band: The big-name ones can charge upwards of $30,000, while a DJ will cost a few thousand bucks.
Order all of your paper items yourself: This means ordering or creating your wedding invitations and appropriate inserts. Later, you’ll be ordering place cards and table numbers and maybe programs and other things, too. Technology has made it easy to do a lot of this stuff on your own at home. The newlyweds-to-be choose the appropriate paper (most companies online will send free samples) and print them on their own printer, then assemble, stuff, and mail them. Even if you choose to order printed materials through a stationer, be sure to do it yourself. When you have your wedding planner assist or do it for you, it will cost you more, whether through her markup or because she’ll likely be getting a thank you commission from the shop. Don’t be afraid to have her proofread them; just do the creating, ordering, and assembling yourself.
Address your own invitations: Paying for calligraphy is not cheap. If you must have calligraphy on your invites, consider buying a calligraphy pen and practising until you get it right. It’s not that difficult. And only an expert would notice it wasn’t done by a professional. As a starting point, there are tons of tutorials online.
Go to the salon to get your beauty services done instead of having the stylist and makeup artist come to you: Whenever you have stylists come to your wedding venue or where you’re dressing, you pay a significant outcall fee, and the prices are usually higher, too. You’ll want to schedule it a little earlier in the day, but there’s no reason why you and your bridesmaids can’t get your hair and makeup done at a salon and then head to your venue to dress.
Say no to upgrades at your wedding venue: Another key strategy for how to budget for a wedding is saying no to unnecessary upgrades. Take what comes with the package, or the least expensive option you can stand. Couples sometimes add thousands of dollars to their budgets because they don’t like the design of the white-on-white tablecloths, for example. Or they can’t stand the chairs provided for the ceremony. Reality check: Nobody will be looking closely at the linens because they’ll have a beautiful tablescape set on them with your centrepieces and the china, silver, and glassware. Post-wedding, no couple has ever said: “We wish we’d spent the extra $1,000 on fancier chairs.”
Save money by using fewer vendors: If your DJ also offers lighting services for your venue or your cake lady also offers edible wedding favours, consider hiring that vendor to provide more than one service for your big day. You’ll always get a better rate if you’re getting more from one vendor, plus you won’t be paying multiple setups or delivery fees, the way you would be if you had hired separate vendors for each individual task.
Prioritize the important things
If your budget seems a little bit intimidating and you want to find areas to save, don’t worry. You can always prioritize aspects of your wedding to help you cut back.
“This depends on what the couple’s priorities are. Everyone’s a little bit different,” Sarah explains. “Couples can save by choosing one or two areas to splurge on and then being cost-conscious for everything else.”
It’s human nature to want the best for our wedding day, and we need to be realistic about that. However, you also need to be realistic about the fact that you can’t always have the best of everything. That’s where prioritization comes in.
Being Too Scared to Figure Out Who’s Paying for What?
Yes, it’s awkward, but the conversation has to happen. Talk with your families about who will pay for what: Some brides’ families still pick up the entire tab (as is “tradition”), but it’s more and more common for grooms’ families to participate too. How do you bring up the conversation? For many couples, talking to each family separately is the best way to have truly open discussions. When you do talk, here are strategies for determining your initial budget.
Ask both of your folks if they’re planning to contribute to the cost of the wedding. If so, have them commit to a specific dollar amount, and then add up all the contributions to create your budget. Alternatively, it may be easier to ask each set of parents to finance a particular aspect of the wedding (such as the ceremony, honeymoon or catering) instead of just committing to a dollar amount. Decide how much you two can contribute between now and the wedding (89 per cent of the couples we polled in the “The Knot 2017 Real Weddings Study” say they’re planning to contribute financially to their wedding in some capacity).
Consider the cost
If you’re planning on a formal candlelit dinner in the grand ballroom of that amazing hotel downtown, your budget is going to have to be much bigger than if you’ve sketched out an afternoon tea and dessert party in your parents’ pretty backyard. In general, several major factors will really affect what you’ll need to set aside.
Consider the guest list size
There’s a per-head cost for food and liquor, and these two are typically the biggest expenses of the whole wedding, so changing the guest list size is the surest way to increase or decrease your costs. On top of that, the smaller the guest list, the more you’ll save on all your other details, including décor, stationery, favours and rentals, because you won’t need as much of everything.
Consider the setting
Some cities and towns are just more expensive than others. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are the obvious culprits, but small towns and remote destinations can entail greater costs if things like flowers and talent have to come from afar. Tourist towns can also up your wedding price tag during peak season. Likewise, certain venues are more expensive than others. Some—such as a city park—come with no (or low) fees, while others, like a grand ballroom, might cost you the equivalent of a year’s college tuition. Also, be aware that many popular locations have headcount minimums, meaning they won’t host a wedding that’s too small, and some may also have a per-head minimum that requires your event to be a certain size.
Consider the date and time
Highly sought-after seasons and days of the week are pricier for obvious reasons. An evening reception is usually more expensive than a brunch or afternoon reception, not only because of higher catering costs for dinner, but also because people tend to drink less during the daytime, and many couples choose to go more low-key on elements like lighting, music and décor.
Consider the wedding style
The more formal the affair, the more expensive, because you’ll have to match the site, food and musical entertainment to the overall upscale tone. The outlay for a full six-course meal is typically greater than for a cocktail soirée with mostly hor’s d ‘oeuvres; the fee for a 12-piece band is greater than that for a DJ or quartet; all-out décor like lighting, specialty linens and dramatic floral displays also will run up the bill. Plus, fancier affairs tend to be larger.
Breaking Down the Costs of a Wedding
There’s no shortage of moving parts to a wedding, and some of those moving parts can really pop a dent in the household pocketbook.
Consider these average wedding costs, again from The Knot:
- Venue – $16,107
- Photographer – $2,783
- Reception band/music – $4,156
- Florist – $2,534
- Videographer – $1,995
- Wedding dress – $1,564
- Groom’s attire – $280
- Wedding cake – $582
- Ceremony site – $2,197
- Ceremony musicians – $755
- Invitations – $462
- Transportation – $859
- Favors – $268
- Rehearsal dinner – $1,378
- Engagement ring – $6,163
- Officiant – $278
- Catering (price per person) – $71
- Wedding day hair care – $119
- Wedding day make-up – $100
Your wedding costs may vary depending on how many guests you’re inviting, the quality of the engagement ring, and how formal of an occasion you want your nuptials to be.
Geography matters, too. Getting married in New Mexico only costs, on average, $17,000 according to The Knot. But if you get married in New York City (Manhattan), expect to pay around $76,944.
Your headcount matters regardless of budget. The cost of a larger wedding, with 100 people or more, is significantly more than that of an intimate wedding.
According to the website CostofWedding.com, 50% of couples keep their wedding costs below $15,000 by opting for an intimate wedding. Yet invite 100 or more guests for a larger wedding, and you’re looking at costs totalling twice as much (or more, if you’re getting hitched in a big city like San Francisco or New York City).
Traditional Wedding Cost Splits
Wedding traditions, at least from a financial point of view, haven’t changed much over the years.
Exhibit “A” is having the bride’s family pay the most for the wedding. According to The Knot, the bride’s family pays 45% of all wedding costs. Right behind the bride’s mom and dad are the actual newlyweds, who contribute 41% of wedding costs. The groom’s family pitches in, too, paying 13% of total wedding costs.
While traditions remain strong, figuring out who pays for a wedding can be somewhat complicated, given that so many people are getting married (and remarried) later in life.
Historically, here’s a list of who pays for what in a traditional wedding. It’s an important piece of knowledge, considering that you’ll need to set up a wedding budget beforehand, and you’ll want to know who’s paying for individual wedding costs.
Get Smart About Wedding Costs
Wedding planning is pressure-packed enough without having to shoulder the burden of a $30,000 wedding.
The fact is, you don’t have to dig so deep for a decent wedding experience, and the money saved can be put to better use, like for a down payment on your dream house or saving for junior’s college education.
And you’ll still have the memories of a great wedding in the process.
If you find it necessary to negotiate, do it carefully and respectfully. “You don’t want to nickel-and-dime a professional person who has set their rates the way that they’ve set them for a reason,” Bishop says. She adds that vendors just starting out in the business usually charge less than those with more experience.
If you have a wedding planner, he or she should know what’s reasonable and where to find wiggle room, Moody says. “If you can find a place where they can do the wedding as well as the reception, then they should be willing to give you a break on the price,” she says.
You can also lower rates on your own. Consider asking vendors to cut back on what’s included in their packages. For example, ask the photographer to work a few hours instead of the whole day, or find out if the caterer can limit guests to one or two drinks instead of offering an open bar.