“If you aren't a flowers person, don't spend a ton on flowers. If you aren't a sweets person, don't spend a bunch on the cake. It all depends on you.” That’s one piece of advice from wedding planner Krystal Gardenia of Gardenia Weddings. And she is right—prioritizing your wants and needs is important because, as we well know, planning a wedding comes with a price tag.
This is why the editors at Brides decided to team up with our colleagues at Investopedia to discuss how couples are paying for weddings today. The result: Weddings & Money 2021: A Brides & Investopedia Study. Together, we surveyed 1,000 American adults—including people of all ages, ethnicities, income levels, and wedding budgets—who are currently and actively planning their weddings, meaning they must have a date set within the next two years, to get answers.
What we found is that the median budget for those planning a wedding is $20,000. Of course, a lot of different factors go into budgeting for a wedding, including where you live, who will be contributing, how many people you plan to invite, et cetera.
Meet the Expert
- Krystal Gardenia is the lead wedding planner and owner of Gardenia Weddings. She specializes in LGBTQ+ couples and offers wedding coordination, partial wedding planning, and full wedding planning.
- Elyse Dawn is the co-owner of The Wedding Planning Guide, a virtual wedding planning site she has run for eight years.
- Debi Lilly is the chief “eventeur” of the award-winning event planning and design firm A Perfect Event, which is based in Chicago and Nantucket.
“Do research on the price of weddings and what you want in the area you plan to get married in. Wedding costs vary greatly by region, so do some research online, and reach out for some quotes; then set your budget accordingly,” advises Elyse Dawn of The Wedding Planning Guide. “Knowing a realistic budget going into wedding planning will reduce stress and allow couples to focus on the fun aspects of planning.”
Knowing a realistic budget going into wedding planning will reduce stress and allow couples to focus on the fun aspects of planning such a great day.
And, speaking of stress, it’s normal for finances to cause a little anxiety—especially when sticker shock comes into play. “So many times we've seen a couple fall in love with a venue, or a dress, or a specific high-priced detail that really didn't work financially. It is costly to then revamp and you often lose a deposit," says Debi Lilly of A Perfect Event. "My advice is to work forwards, thoughtfully, not backwards.”
Setting a Budget: What Are The Big Ticket Items?
One way to get organized is to figure out the big ticket items that you’ll be putting the most money into. Experts agree that these are generally the venue and the food. And our survey supports this, 61 percent of our survey respondents who included a venue in their budget expect it to be among their top three biggest budgeted items, and half (55 percent) said the same for catering. Interestingly, wedding rings tied venue for most likely big ticket expense.
The median budget for jewelry and the venue is $3,000 each, and catering is $2,000. The other biggest expenses budgeted for are travel, wedding planner ($2,000), wedding attire ($2,000), and alcohol ($1,500).
While all these things are important aspects, experts also advise investing in a good photographer (the median budget is $1,000 for a photographer/videographer) and good DJ/band (the median budget for music is also $1,000).
“You don't have to get the most expensive photographer in your area, but you should definitely have someone other than Uncle Bob and his cell phone taking pictures,” Gardenia jokes. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime day for you and you want beautiful, professional photos to remember it.”
As for DJs, Gardenia says they bring much more to the event than just the soundtrack. “For some reason, a lot of couples think a DJ is the vendor to nix if you're on a tight budget," she admits. "This isn't a vendor you can just replace with a Spotify playlist! The DJ is largely responsible for making your ceremony crisp and heartwarming. They also keep your reception lively by feeling out the crowd and playing music that works and shifting accordingly.”
Of course, planners also agree that hiring a professional to help make your dream event become a reality is well worth the investment. Though Gardenia admits she may be biased on that front, she says, “Having a planner really helps alleviate a lot of stress because they can guide you in the right direction as far as money spending.”
At the end of the day, though, experts all agree that your money should go towards the things you find most important—and that can be different for everyone. If you don’t like cake, don’t pay for one. If you really want a huge wedding with 300 guests, maybe spend less on your dress. It’s all about prioritizing.
Planning Today: Has The Pandemic Affected Prices?
Wedding planners are seeing things get back to normal after a hectic year and a half of wedding postponements and cancellations as well as virtual and micro ceremonies. In fact, Dawn and Gardenia have both seen people up their budgets and guest lists because they’re so excited to finally have their wedding. Lilly has seen both ends of the spectrum with some couples continuing to opt for small, intimate gatherings while others are ready to “knock it out of the park in a way they may not have previously.”
Of the survey respondents, 23 percent said they plan to spend less on their wedding because Covid-19 has led them to decrease their guest count; while 16 percent said they plan to spend more because of Covid-19, citing an increase in prices. In fact, 70 percent overall feel that wedding products/services cost more simply because they are for a wedding.
Unfortunately, postponing weddings has also led to some financial strife for couples due to non-refundable deposits and other factors. Our survey found that the median loss among couples who had to reschedule their wedding was $2,500.
Splitting Costs: Who's Paying for What?
There is a longstanding tradition in our culture that the bride’s family pays for the wedding. But, of course, times have changed. Our survey found that couples, on average, plan to pay for 56 percent of their own wedding. And, when family does get involved in paying, 83 percent of people said it’s their parents who are dishing out the cash, with siblings and grandparents coming in second and third place.
While it can certainly be nice for family to chip in and help pay, experts agree that it can also complicate the matter as the parents or other family members paying might feel entitled to make decisions on behalf of the couple. “This can create major drama, hurt feelings, and, as we've seen personally, doors slamming when things go off the rails,” shares Lilly.
“If the family member has a strong opinion on something, the couple will almost always go for it without even questioning,” adds Gardenia. “Even if it is something they really don't want, they will still agree with a smile because they feel obligated since that person is the one paying. They are constantly concerned about coming off as ungrateful.”
She also notes that it can affect the guest list; when parents are paying, she says, the guest list is often full of family friends and distant relatives in contrast to close family and friends of the couple. But, on the flip side, having all or some of the financial burden lifted can help the couple feel less stressed throughout the planning process, offer the wedding planners of The Wedding Planning Guide.
“When couples pay for most of the wedding themselves, they may feel more aware of each dollar going out. But, they get to make all of the decisions on their own. There are definitely pros and cons to both scenarios,” says Dawn.
Covering Expenses: How Are They Paying?
According to our survey, the average U.S. wedding budget is $20,000. Most respondents (74 percent) plan on using savings to pay for their wedding, with $7,250 being the median amount contributed from savings. The remaining budget tends to be financed, borrowed, or funded by financial products, with tax refunds, loans, selling investments, and stimulus checks among the methods of payment mentioned. One in five U.S. couples will use loans or investments to help pay for their wedding, while 41 percent plan to use credit cards, with $8,000 being the median amount those planning a wedding put on their credit card.
For those planning on paying by credit card, 83 percent said they planned to pay off the wedding within a year, and 17 percent said it would take longer than that. Only 13 percent said they’d pay it off immediately.
According to planners, social media pressure is one culprit causing couples to get into debt paying for their weddings. The planners of The Wedding Planning Guide suggest couples pick one to three areas to focus the décor on, rather than go Pinterest crazy and try and make every single aspect of the wedding an Instagram moment. Of course, that ‘grammable photo is important to couples these days, though Lilly says it isn't always just for show. “I believe people love to create the most beautiful moment possible for themselves, and their own memories—or feed—more so than to keep up with others,” she says.
But, Gardenia has also seen the latter. “Sadly, sometimes the wedding can become less of a true reflection of the couple this way," she says. "A past bride of mine told me she doesn't really like flowers but she still spent almost $10,000 on floral costs in order to give an elegant look to impress her guests!" In fact, for the 27 percent of respondents who "think a wedding is not worth a big financial investment," one of the top reasons was, “It’s basically just for show.”
Is the Investment Worth It?
As mentioned, 27 percent of survey respondents said "a wedding is not a good investment," citing reasons like, “It’s a waste of money that could be used for a mortgage.” And, In the case of Gardenia’s example, spending $10,000 on flowers was not worth it because it wasn’t what truly made the bride happy. So, experts agree that in order to make your spending worthwhile, you have to focus on what brings you joy on your big day.
“Don't sacrifice what is really important to you. If there is something you would really be crushed if you didn't have it at your wedding, then make it happen. Just know you may need to cut back in other areas in order to make it happen,” says Gardenia.
Overall, 74 percent of respondents think investing in a wedding is worth it, especially for the memories. “We want to have a memory that we can carry for the rest of our lives,” one respondent said. Other things that make it worthwhile: “It's our future together.” “It’ll feel good to be married into a family.” “It's an investment for the experience.”
I will only have a wedding once, and I will make it unforgettable.
Even one person who said a wedding is not a good investment, had a soft spot: “I think it’s a rip off how expensive it is. However, I will only have a wedding once, and I will make it unforgettable.”
The Weddings & Money 2021: A Brides & Investopedia Study was fielded online to 1,000 U.S. adults between July 30 and September 14, 2021. Respondents are planning a wedding, have an event date within the next 24 months, and are involved in the wedding planning process. Quotas were used to ensure the survey sample represents the U.S. Census estimates for gender, race/ethnicity, and region.