Why Wedding Budget Calculators Don’t Work—And How to Do It Yourself

How to make a realistic estimate on your own.

Updated 10/26/17

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Wedding budget calculators can be very frustrating to work with if the bride and groom want a realistic guestimate of what their wedding expenses are going to be. The problem is that the costs of planning a wedding vary dramatically based on where you’re getting married, when you’re getting married, and what kind of wedding you want to plan.

Multiple sources offer budget calculators, not just wedding websites. There’s a general consensus that most are weighted in favor of the publisher’s own interests, not necessarily providing the best budget estimate for the average couple trying to calculate their expenses.

For example, a wedding budget calculator published by a photography source weights the percentage you should be spending on photography and videography considerably higher than a large music company providing the same calculator resource. Good for their business, but bad for couples who are trying to figure out what they have to spend, versus what they could get away with spending, on any particular category.

Not long ago, an industry colleague contacted me for help with a blog she was writing about budget calculators, asking me about how much money I think should go into each category. I told her I couldn’t even make a guess. I explained that I could give solid answers for a destination wedding in Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands, but that when I plan stateside, the numbers are vastly different. Not only that, the numbers vary dramatically from state to state, too. The amount allocated to specific wedding vendor categories in the Florida Keys, is not the same as that for a barn wedding in Vermont.

If you choose to use a budget calculator to guide your spending decisions, keep the following six things in mind:

  • Wedding venues cost more in major cities, and require a bigger piece of the budget.
  • Some areas have venues that offer substantial discounts for weddings not planned on Saturdays, but those discounts aren’t available in every region. Some places have high and low seasons, with vastly different price points for each.
  • Flower costs vary by the bride’s taste in flowers, where she is getting married, and when. To tell a bride she should be budgeting $X with no idea what kind of flowers she’s asking for, how big her wedding party is, or whether those blooms are readily available where she’s getting married at the time of year is irresponsible and inaccurate. That would be an imaginary estimate with no basis in actual numbers.
  • Catering costs are vastly different depending on where the wedding is being held. It’s nearly impossible to have a nice reception for less than $75 per person, in food alone, in most major cities. But brides planning weddings in small towns, or more rural areas, may get bids to feed their guests for as little as $35 per person.
  • Bar rates vary dramatically by region and by venue. In some places, you can get a rate of $X per person for an open bar all night (bar levels vary). In other venues, you pay $X per person for the first hour, and $Y per person for additional hours after that. The second way is much more expensive.
  • Photography pricing varies wildly depending on whose pictures you like. There are photographers who offer a minimum package of five hours for $1,000, and there are other photographers who don’t have any packages smaller than $3,500, with eight hours of coverage. Brides and grooms have to choose their photographer based on their taste, style, and budget. But trying to plug info into a budget calculator to figure out exactly how much is right for that their particular wedding will not necessarily net them a photographer they actually like.

If you DON’T want to use a calculator online, here’s how couples can plan a realistic budget—the old-fashioned way.

Start by making a list of everything they have to pay for, and fill in what they think it’s going to cost. If they don’t know how much it costs, they need to find out to complete the chart. None of these numbers will be final, and they may not be the vendors you will ultimately hire, but it gives you a good idea of how much money you need to set aside for those elements of your wedding planning.

Some wedding items are fixed expenses, and some vary based on headcount. The cost of the band or DJ doesn’t vary if you have 50 or 100 guests. But the cost to rent tables, chairs, linens, décor, and then feed and water all of those people is dramatically different if you have 50 more guests than you’ve budgeted.

If tackling the wedding budget numbers still seems daunting, try using my suggestions below to get yourself started:

  • Figure out how much money you actually have to spend before you start working on your wedding budget. If you don’t have the money to spend, it doesn’t matter how you allocate it. Don’t assume your parents will contribute a certain amount unless you have a conversation about specific numbers, and everybody is in agreement. If you haven’t had that conversation, please do so before attempting to create a budget.

Make a list of all the budget categories you’ll need to tackle (generally speaking, this includes wedding gown, invitations, venue, catering food and beverage, cake/dessert, photography/videography, music, flowers, rehearsal dinner, marriage license, minister, etc.). A generic wedding calculator will provide a fairly comprehensive list of categories, if you want to make sure you’re not forgetting anything.

Estimate your catering costs based on the number of people you have on your rough draft of your guest list (it’s a rough draft until you actually mail invitations—after you’ve figured out how many guests you can afford to invite). If the venue you’re considering has in-house catering, you should have a menu to play with. You can also request catering menus and pricing from outside vendors you’re considering.

Fill in any other fixed costs associated with the reception–is a tent a requirement? Do you need to rent tables/chairs/linens/lighting? Use your tentative headcount to calculate your estimates.

After plugging those initial numbers into a spreadsheet, a coupe can clearly see what they’ve already spent on things they can’t avoid before they even begin to consider the arbitrary expenditures such as live music versus a DJ, and whether they need videography. It won’t give you a hard and final budget number to work with, but this system will help you create an estimate that has more realistic numbers to work with than something created by a generic calculator with pre-conceived notions about what percentages you should spend on each vendor category.

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