Personal Finance

The Perfect Wedding Doesn't Cost Much

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Last updated on August 27, 2022 Comments: 39

This is a guest article by Sam, the author of the blog Financial Samurai and the founder of the Yakezie Challenge and Network. He writes a column for Consumerism Commentary every other Tuesday.

This past summer I went to my friends Peter and Stephanie’s wedding in Hawaii. Peter is 35, but looks 25, and works as a manager at a boutique strategy consulting firm. He probably pulls in between $300,000 and $400,000 a year, but you’d never know it by the way he casually dresses outside of work. Peter is a jeans and a t-shirt kind of guy and was once the quintessential super-motivated boyfriend. Stephanie is 31, but actually looks 22 and makes women jealous because she is so petite. Stephanie is also a manager at an accounting firm and earns between $100,000 and $150,000 a year with much better hours than Peter.

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With roughly half a million a year in combined income and no family to support, Peter and Stephanie are surely considered well-to-do, even in an expensive city such as San Francisco. One would think that Peter and Stephanie would throw a lavish wedding of 200 or more people at some fancy resort for $80,000 to $100,000 like every other couple I know who makes that much. Not so.

Stephanie is even more conservative in her spending habits than Peter. Stephanie’s favorite store is Target, where twice a year she’ll splurge anywhere between $100 and $200 on her favorite clothes. She’s not into jewelry and her biggest vice is collecting $2 magnets and used stamps whenever she goes on trips. Stephanie is as low maintenance and non-material as it gets — a guy’s dream!

Lest you think Peter and Stephanie are cheap, I assure you they are not. They donate more than $10,000 a year to a charity I’m involved with, and they don’t skimp on their vacation adventures abroad.

The wedding

After reading their backgrounds, how much do you think they spent on their wedding? How about $50,000, or just one tenth their gross annual income? Nope, not even close. Including airfare, they spent $2,050, or just 0.4% of their annual gross income! Let’s break down the costs:

  • Airfare for two from SF to Kauai: $1,100
  • Wedding ceremony with ukulele player and minister: $250
  • Photographer with CD of photos: $300
  • Beach venue: Free
  • Hawaiian lunch reception for 20 where Peter first took Stephanie out on a date: $400 after tip

Peter and Stephanie invited their immediate family and closest friends. They didn’t want to make their wedding a big spectacle at all. For those who were able to fly out, fantastic. For those who weren’t, they threw a 50 person house party for them upon their return.

The wedding was absolutely magical. There was no stress and such a casual way about everything. The sun shined warmly and you could hear the palm trees ruffle in the breeze as the ukulele hummed and the minister preached. I’ve been to around 20 weddings, and this one was the most memorable by far.

What’s with the massive spending?

I don’t really understand the point of spending much more than $5,000 on a wedding, no matter what your income is. Sure, you want your moment to be magical, but the magic is more about surrounding yourself with magical people than thousand dollar floral arrangements and lobster tail entrees.

Instead of spending $20,000 (the average cost of an American wedding), you can use the money towards a house down payment or new household items. Invest the $20,000 in your retirement or in your child’s education. There are countless better ways to spend $20,000 than on a wedding that lasts half a day.

Like my one-tenth rule for car buying, perhaps each of us should adopt the one-tenth rule for wedding expenses. If you make $100,000, spend no more than $10,000 on your wedding. The rule helps ensure that you focus on what’s truly important, while maintaining sound finances. If you want to spend that typical American wedding amount of $20,000, make it a goal and try and make $200,000 or more before you get married. Peter and Stephanie spent 0.4% of their gross annual income on their wedding; surely you can spend 25 times their percentage and still have a grand time too!

How much did you or would you spend on a wedding? Do you believe it’s right for a couple to ask their parents to pay if they can’t afford the wedding themselves?

Article comments

Anonymous says:

Our daughter got married this August. With all of the expenses (they paid cash for) the cost was just under 5000. The wedding was in Va Beach and to save money for the reception, they got married on a Monday evening. I was surprised to find the pastor charged 300.00 though. It was a most beautiful and elequent affair and relaxed and happy. The honeymoon was in addition to that figure. It was cut short because of Irene (Hateras Island) and they received a refund. They’re now saving for a house.

Anonymous says:

My boyfriend and I were looking at the costs of getting married(being that there were 10 weddings in his family last year) and we were stunned when we even had an idea of what they spent. Some were pretty well done considering there were over 200 people at 1 of the weddings(maybe around $7000) with great food and dancing but a lot of the accouterments were wedding gifts(one guy friend was DJ and he spun all night!) and then some smaller weddings <100 people were over $10000. Just depends on what you deem "necessary".

Anonymous says:

People think too much about the wedding, and not nearly enough about the actual marriage. How much money you spend has no bearing whatsoever on how good or lasting the marriage may be. (If there’s any correlation, it’s probably inverse.)

My wedding cost less than $500. Twenty-two years later, we’re still happily married, financially solvent, and debt-free. (And believe me, $500 was incredibly cheap for a wedding, even way back then.)

If you want to throw a huge tacky party and play princess for a day, just throw a huge tacky party and play princess for a day. Don’t get something as important as marital vows all mucked up in that insanity.

Anonymous says:

PS: We paid for the entire wedding ourselves (as poor college students), precisely so no one could tell us who we had to invite. If you’re not taking a dime from anyone else, then nobody has the right to tell you squat. And if you can’t pay for your wedding yourselves, then you’re not enough of a grown-up to be getting married in the first place, no matter what age you are.

Anonymous says:

Our wedding last year was about $700 for ~30 people. Add in another $200 of gifted items like the honeymoon and cake (really wasn’t expecting the cake to be free, but the bakery department at my wife’s store provided the cake as a wedding present).

Our ceremony was at the park with a barbecue afterwards for the reception, DJ’ed for free by my brother and photographed by, well everyone. Largest single expense was plane tickets to fly my parents out to Colorado for the ceremony. I wore my suit, and my wife made her own dress.

Anonymous says:

Definitely an inspiring story. More people should aim for this approach. We spent close to 10K. Based on our incomes that was very doable. But in hindsight I wish we would have spent less. Our justification, if you will, was that it was the biggest party we’d ever throw, so why not make it a blast.

Anonymous says:

How much you spend on a wedding is pretty much a personal choice based on what you want out of your wedding. Of course everyone could save a lot of money by just going down to the courthouse. But thats not what most people WANT out of their wedding. A wedding is a once in a lifetime event (at least thats the plan). I don’t think its very reasonable to set arbitrary limits on how much people should spend on a wedding. If one couple is happy with 20 people and a cheapo beach wedding then great for them, but if another couple wants 300 people and a big church event then thats their choice. Of course you shouldn’t spend too much that you go into debt and there are ways to get more wedding for your money. We spent about $5k on our wedding but I wouldn’t have had a problem spending $25k if thats what my wife really wanted.

Anonymous says:

My ex-parent-in-laws insisted on a lavish wedding for my ex-wife and I – $60,000 all said and done. We divorced less than six months later. True story.

While they aren’t bitter about it (as far as I can tell), it literally makes me sick to my stomach to think about the insane amount of money they just HAD to spend in order to impress their friends and family.

Anonymous says:

Oh wow. Sorry to hear. What happened that resulted in such a quick departure?

Anonymous says:

I’m recently engaged and planning my wedding. The average cost of an American wedding is actually $30,000. I’ve coordinated weddings, and have seen people go all out, spending half a million at one point; just ridiculous! I don’t plan on spending more than $10,000, and it’s looking like it’s going to be about $7,000 (half of that being the catering). Found a beautiful venue for half the price I budgeted for, which allowed me to go a little over my dress budget. I have coworkers who will be doing the photography. My good ol’ iPod will serve as the DJ. There’s so many ways to save on a wedding, it’s ridiculous.

Anonymous says:

Our wedding, which had 40 guests and was in our parent’s huge gathering space in the basement, cost us about $2,000, mostly due to all the food and wine. The most expensive item we ended up paying for was the wedding cake, which was $300. We felt it was a bit of a rip-off, though, considering we could’ve bought much better smaller cakes from a European deli, and just stacked them ourselves 🙂

Anonymous says:

Wife and I spent $2,500 on the wedding and $2,500 for the 7 day, all-inclusive honeymoon. It was awesome!

Anonymous says:

So wait, they’re praiseworthy because they made a bunch of people spend money to fly to Hawaii for their wedding? How is this laudable to raise the cost of everyone else’s vacation?

Also, who cares how much people spend on a wedding?

Anonymous says:

The bride’s side of the family was from Hawaii and 4 people flew out from the groom’s side.

Anonymous says:

Oh boy, where to start with all of this!

This is one of my favorite topics when it comes to personal finance and family dynamics, because this one little thing – the act of getting married – can tell you SO MUCH about a person.

First of all, I’m guessing that you pulled the “the average wedding in America costs $20,000” quote out of thin air, because you’re not even close. The number is actually about $28,000. Even worse. However, that number is complete bunk, because $28,000 is NOT the cost of the average wedding in America. It’s the average cost of ALL weddings, and as all of us (should) know: Averages are a terrible predictor of just about everything, because of their susceptibility to outliers.

For example: Lets say we’ve got 100 couples in the midst of planning their weddings. 99 of them have budgets of $10,000, but one has a budget of $1,000,000. The AVERAGE cost that they’re spending on their weddings is just shy of $20k, but in reality, NONE of them are spending that, and the overwhelming majority (nearly all) are actually spending HALF of that.

That $28,000 number that’s often batted around is not only misleading, but also dangerous, because the moment someone hears that the average wedding in America costs $28,000, they immediately begin to believe that that’s what they’ll need to spend on their own wedding in order for it to be “good.”

That number is ALSO bunk because it’s based on data that comes from vendors in the Wedding Industrial Complex – namely wedding planners. And wedding planners typically deal ONLY in weddings with generous budgets.

A much more accurate figure to look at is the MEDIAN cost of weddings in America, which is about $15,000.

My husband and I spent about $3500 on our wedding in the summer of 2009, which sounds bargain basement-esque when taken in the context of “what weddings cost.” We did it by limiting our guest list to only those who know us best and love us most – which meant immediate family (parents and siblings) and good friends, which put the final tally around 40 people. No extended family, no coworkers, no drinking buddies. We also saved a mint by having a casual backyard BBQ, foregoing traditional catering companies and a DJ (we hired a friend of a friend to handle the food and used our iPod for music), and abandoning ourselves of the notion that photography should be our #1 priority “because when it’s all said and done, the pictures would be all we’d have to show for the day” (a completely backasswards and ridiculous idea in my opinion by the way).

Anonymous says:

I totally agree that weddings say a lot about people! Brides and grooms who have the “it’s my big day” sense of entitlement often use it as justification for big spending, ridiculous demands and treating people inconsiderately.

The best weddings I have been to are the ones where the couple are focussed on celebrating with loved ones and having fun, not on everything looking and being perfect. You can tell when a couple and their bridal party aren’t happy!

Incidentally, happy people look better in photographs too — no matter who takes them 🙂

Anonymous says:

I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.

Let’s see, since you are the wedding authority and know that $28,000 is the average, and $15,000 is the median, guess what 28 + 15 / 2 is? Pretty darn close to $20,000!

Maybe I am a genius actually! You do make some good points on expectations.

Anonymous says:

While I think it’s irresponsible to go into debt to throw a massive party, whether or not to spend $20k or more on a wedding is a personal value. Some people prefer to save for a house or fund their children’s education. Great, but neither is better than the other – these are *value choices*. People shouldn’t be criticized for spending their money as they wish, any more than your friends should be criticized for being so stingy as to invite only 20 people when they obviously could afford to allow all their friends and family to witness their commitment to each other.

Anonymous says:

I agree, people can spend their money as they wish and should t be criticized unless they start complaining why they don’t have enough money.

So why do you turnaround and criticize them Amber by using the word “stingy”? Hypocritical, no?

Anonymous says:

SHe wasn’t calling them stingy. It was an example of what shouldn’t be done.

The words “any more than” are important there.

Anonymous says:

Jim, re-read please:

“any more than your friends should be criticized for being (s)o stingy as to invite only 20 people when they (obviously) could afford to allow all their friends and family to witness their commitment to each other.”

See words used in parenthesis.

Anonymous says:

No. You’re taking it out of context or you’re not seeing their point.

They start with:

“People shouldn’t be criticized for spending their money as they wish, any more than your friends should be criticized”

They are saying that people should NOT be criticized for spending money as they wish ANY MORE THAN your friends should be criticized. SO they are saying that people should not be criticized for either.

Its like saying : You shouldn’t drink beer any more than you should smoke pot.

It doesn’t mean that you shoudl smoke pot. It means you shouldn’t do either.

Anonymous says:

Sam, Another one of my favorite topics 😉 For our wedding, my casual summer dress cost about $100, reception was horsdoerves, and wine. Total guests about 125 (frankly, if it weren’t for my parents, I would have invited less). My 20+ year marriage is wonderful and the wedding day was fine, but pales in comparison to the ensuing years. I consider it insane to blow a hunk of cash on ONE DAY!

Anonymous says:

Sounds awesome Barb! Keep it real!

Anonymous says:

I think the 1/10 rule is hilarious considering all the news surrounding the Royal Wedding at the moment. Talk about having to meet other people’s expectations!

Anonymous says:

Beth, I’ll write a post just for you on my site that’ll be up tomorrow on this subject. West Minsiter Abby it is! $50 million is CHEAP!

Anonymous says:

lol! I went through a “I want to be a princess phase” with I was younger, but one of the advantages of being an “older bride” (when I finally tie the knot…) is that people’s expectations are lower! 🙂 My family and friends have had their fill of traditional weddings, so I hope when my turn comes along that something different will be welcome!

Anonymous says:

We spent roughly $12K with our honeymoon, rings, etc. included, and paid for it ourselves. There’s some costs missing above (Did they exchange rings? Did they get married naked? Was everyone invited via e-mail? Did the 50-person house party just involve standing in a room or was there food and beverages?) but if they still managed to get married inexpensively – swell. A full third of our budget was for our photographer (two of them, actually); I don’t think I’d feel comfortable spending $300 there. We stayed stateside for our honeymoon. We bought “discount” for many things. We didn’t served alcohol. We did a lot of things ourselves, including the flowers and invitations. We certainly didn’t have thousand-dollar floral arrangements and lobster tail – those things aren’t showing up at your “average $20K” wedding. I could go into the logistical costs of planning a wedding (and just saying the word “wedding” to the guy renting out the tables or providing the venue often incurs a steep mark-up), but not everyone wants to get married on a beach, or at city hall, or in their parents’ backyard – and their priorities aren’t less valid because you don’t understand them. Many people often have to deal with family requests as well (because parents still foot big chunks of the bill in many weddings) – everything from the location to what food is served to the number of guests. There is no “right” answer here.

Anonymous says:

She had a $100 wedding from Target. Perhaps the house party cost another $400-$500, not sure. Do people generally throw in their wedding dress cost, and parties afterwards as part of their wedding? What about honeymoon? Is that generally what’s a part of the average? Curious to know.

Yes, I got an e-mail invite.

$12K sounds cheap for yours too if you include everything!

Anonymous says:

When I calculated my wedding costs, it included everything that I wouldn’t have spent otherwise: rings, wedding clothes, flowers, hotel cost (I also had a destination wedding), transportation to or parking at the airport, honeymoon….

Even if you add those costs to Peter and Stephanie’s wedding, it was still done inexpensively.

Anonymous says:

Oh yes… you totally have to add in the cost of wedding attire! Some of my friends have paid $1000-$2000 for the dress, plus $200-$300 in alternatives, plus the tiara, plus the veil, plus the shoes, plus the supportive garments (think bustier/girdle) for UNDER the dress… Well, you get the picture!

Then some brides throw in all the spa treatments too in addition to hair and make-up done by a pro…

Let’s just say it can really add up. Some of my friends and family have been pretty smart about keeping costs down though 🙂

Anonymous says:

OK, good to know. B/c they were going to Hawaii anyway, as they always do during the winter holidays because the bride is from there. So I was being generous including the $1,100 fee b/c they pay that every year anyway.

Anonymous says:

Sam, most people I know don’t want to spend $20K on a wedding but are forced/deeply encouraged to invite everyone in the extremely large family they’re marrying into. Feeding and providing drinks for 400-500 is NOT cheap – and I live in Kansas City, one of the cheapest cities in the country.

I know people say “oh, just go away somewhere and get married!” For one, I can’t do that because I want to get married in the church. For another, the families that people marry into often want you to celebrate your marriage with them. And you don’t want to piss off the in-laws that early into the marriage! 😉

Anonymous says:

Hmmm… I’ve never heard of someone being “forced” into spending $20,000! Must be some scary people doing the forcing!

Who is paying for the wedding?

Anonymous says:

We’re being forced to invite 400 people. Our parents helping us pay which is why they get a say in things. In our big Catholic families, there really is not choice but to have a huge wedding and invite everyone. So even though they’re helping, we’re still shelling out dough, too.

I’m just sayin’ every wedding is different and not all weddings can be pigeon-holed into a secular ceremony on a beach somewhere. 😉

Anonymous says:

That is very true! If they are forcing you, then they should chip in!

If it was up to you, how many people would you invite and how much would it realistically cost?

Anonymous says:

Agreed. 🙂 If it were completely up to me, I’d invite no more than 150 people and it would cost $6-8K.

Anonymous says:

Well, technically, you DID have a choice. No once forced you to accept the generous financial support of your families, and if you hadn’t, then you likely wouldn’t feel the same pressure to take their input into consideration.

Anonymous says:

Maybe forced is the wrong word. Basically there was never a choice as to how many people my fiance and I would like to invite. We were given an guest list and that was that. Either way, in many weddings, you have to invite more people than you would really like to. AND if you want to start things off on the right foot with your in-laws, Michele, you better at least compromise with them.