At the peak of our nation’s space program, NASA spent $36.4 billion to put a man on the moon. That’s a good chunk of change. But it pales in comparison to 2008, when our nation spent $62 billion…on weddings. What about inflation, you ask? In 2008 dollars, those $36.4 billion NASA dollars become $237 billion…or less than four years of weddings. That’s one small step for a bride, one giant splurge for mankind.
These enormous cash outlays have the same psychological roots. In the 60s, we had to keep up with the Soviet Union. Today, your fiancée has to keep up with Julia Roberts movies, her friends, her mom, and the staggering expectations from wedding-porn. The bride-race is the new space-race.
So the impulse of your fiancée, her mother, and her girlfriends–fueled by “idea”-filled magazines and wedding industry professionals– will be to spend more, do more, impress more, decorate more. Always more. They realize that in the history of weddings, no one has ever attended a reception, looked around and cooed, “Wow! This sure is fiscally responsible. What discipline! I looooove the austerity!”
This is why you need a wedding budget. Big or small, Glitzy or thrifty, the core principles of budget-making are always the same. You need to create one at the beginning and stick to it until the end. We recommend this (free) online budgeting tool that will help you make a proper estimate, based on averages for where you live.
Before we get to some ballpark costs, four quick things to bear in mind:
1) Size Matters
Almost every vendor—the caterer, the reception hall, the cake extortionist—uses head count to drive their quote. To really save bucks, you need to monitor your guest list the way an insecure, overweight girl watches calories. Use our free wedding guest list tool for information on how to do just that.
2) Location Matters
That goes for both geography and the reception hall. 30 guests at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra will cost more than 300 guests at your uncle’s Indiana goat farm.
3) Your Values Matter
Those first two variables are in direct conflict. So which is more important to you—size or location, guest list or extravagance? An idyllic wedding for a few friends…or a simpler wedding for everyone you know? It’s really that simple. Keeping this in mind will help guide your decisions.
4) Your Method Matters
Your budgeting “method” should be top-down, not bottoms-up. In the comically disastrous “bottoms-up” methodology, your fiancée selects exactly what she wants—the fantasy chapel, the fantasy Vera Wang dress—then adds all that nonsense up, creating a wedding budget. Don’t do this. Instead, go “top-down’ by starting with what you can afford, then determining your guest list, which will then determine your realistic options. This helps manage expectations and minimize bridal disappointment.
The “Average” Costs (circa 2008)
Total wedding: $26,800
How much should a wedding cost? The word “average” is fraught with ambiguity. There’s a high standard deviation. It’s like saying “Each NFL season, the average Wide Receiver catches 27 passes.” For every Randy Moss you have 10 Glenn Holts. Who’s Glenn Holt? Exactly. The typical New York wedding is $41k; in the Midwest it runs $21k. As we mentioned, the biggest driver of cost is the number of guests. Some industry stats by size:
Note: with the recent economic meltdown, these figures are less and less relevant. They’re not sacred. But use them as a rough, rough ballpark:
2008 Average Spending By Reception Size
Source: The Wedding Report, Inc.
Reception: $13,700 (50%)
The big-hitter. If you can tame the cost of your reception, everything else will fall in line. This includes food ($7,000), booze ($2,000), decorations and centerpieces (an unsettling $1,000), rental fees for the venue itself ($2,000), and the damn hunk of flour and sugar that is your cake—about $700—more than the combined price of a PS3 and Xbox 360. P.S., we’ll say it now, we’ll say it later: never ever try to cut costs by having a cash bar. Ever. There are better ways to cut the costs of your wedding.
Photography and Video: $2,700 (10%)
Maybe you’ll want your buddy Keith to snap pictures with his 3.2 megapixel Canon Elph. She’ll want some professional wedding photographer who charges $1,000 and gushes about the importance of “candids.” Guess who wins? Truth is, she has a point. Once the wedding is long over and you’re still wondering why you blew so much money on a single night, at least you’ll have great photographic memories to look at. Also? Get the video, too. You’ll want the toasts, dances, and roasts available for repeated viewing.
Ceremony: $2,300 (10%)
The rehearsal dinner gobbles up half of this ($1,300), the rest is the ceremony decorations, officiant’s fee, the wedding license, etc. Ironically, the only stuff that matters from a legal point of view—the license and the ceremony—is just about the cheapest part. So remember that a wedding does not, by definition, need to be expensive. The sizzle costs more than the steak.
The Rings: $1,700 (6%)
Wait, you think that the $1,700 covers the actual rock? That’s funny. No, sadly, this is just for the wedding bands—those little symbols of eternal devotion.
Attire: $1,800 (7%)
Can you imagine forking over a thousand bucks for a putter that you’d only golf with once? Welcome to the crazy-land of wedding dresses. Note: if you don’t already own one, now might be a good time to invest in a good tux. Chances are you’ll be going to a lot of weddings in the near future besides your own. Look your best at each one.
Other Stuff $2,600 (10%)
Flowery Crap $1,100 (4%)
Don’t try and fight it. Think of flowers like paying taxes—you don’t like it, you don’t believe in it, you know the government is gonna waste it—but you still have to pay it.
Music $900 (3%)
This is all you. As groom, you are expected to procure music that doesn’t suck. And this can make or break the reception. Not even lobster bisque tastes good when accompanied by the Jonas Brothers. If you’re looking for places to scrimp, this ain’t it.
Not even included in that $27,000 is the honeymoon. But you should bake it into your overall cost structure, this way, later, it won’t feel like a sucker punch to the gut.
Just when you think it’s over…
The tips. Not an exhaustive list, but just to give you an idea: caterers get 15-20% (should be in the bill already), same with barkeeps, limo drivers get 15-20%, ditto for waiters, and coat-check girls get a dollar or two per coat.
So those are the costs. Now, you need to find out who pays for what…