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Who Pays for the Wedding—and Other Hurdles!

A Modern Bride Magazine Trendsetter Award Winners’ Perspective


I remember the money talk when I got engaged.  My now-husband and I each made good money, but we were only 25 and 26 when we met—hardly time to build a financial stockpile.  We both wanted a real wedding, no question about it.  We also knew the expense would be great.

Even in our best-case scenario (our parents were each still happily married after 30+ years), I had no idea whether my parents were interested in paying anything towards my wedding day.  Ask any wedding coordinator or wedding vendor and they will agree that wedding etiquette is all but gone.  Almost anything can be done these days and at best, wedding etiquette is a quickly moving target as new trends override former wedding taboos (such as registering for a honeymoon or having a “man of honor” on the brides side.)  Prior generations often can’t keep up with today’s fast-moving wedding etiquette changes.  The result can be great conflicts between the generations around money and the wedding itself. 

 

Because of increasing wedding costs and differences in family expectations, it’s crucial to figure out what money means to you as a couple.  Here’s how we suggest moving forward.

 

Step One: The Couple Decision

My fiancé and I talked and agreed that we could either afford to buy a house OR have a wedding, but couldn’t do both.  There was no question, however, that we were going to have a wedding.  It is just who we are.  Our values were around family and community embracing us at the start of our marriage.  We had to be prepared to make the wedding happen on our small budget and to hold no resentments.

 

Step Two:  The Approach (or Non-Approach) to the Parents

 

With the potential for apartment dwelling for years to come, I approached my mom during a casual time together. This is often how things go in our family. “I can’t believe we’re finally engaged! Mike and I were talking about money.  We realized we can’t afford a house and a wedding so it is one or the other, but we really do want the wedding.”  The unspoken question was “are you able to help out?”  I said my words casually, conversationally, without a hint of “Woe is me.”  In other words, I knew my parents well, I knew our family dynamic, and I knew this would the best way for me to approach the subject with my family. 

 

You and your parents have your own unique family dynamics around conversations, money issues.  Trust your gut on the best way to approach the topic.  Perhaps like me you start with one parent first to let them talk with the other parent in a non-conflict mode and then come back to you, as my mom did, with their decision on what, if any, dollars they’ll put towards your day.  She also had time to talk with her friends and get a sense of how much weddings cost, so the amount my parents were comfortable with was realistic in today’s wedding world.

 

Most of the wedding advice out there suggests sitting down and asking both parents if, and how much, they can contribute.  That can work well in some families.  Just keep in mind simply asking “Can you help pay for the wedding?” won’t resolve the subtleties of who, how, and when the topic of who is paying for the wedding should be broached in different families.  Some parents need to know everything down to the final dollar amount before they will open their wallets.  Other parents have a ballpark range, and still others are going to hash out old money resentments with an ex-spouse and play off whatever that person is willing to contribute. 

 

In any case, if money is coming out of their wallets, have you discussed how decisions will be made about each wedding task, what power they have or don’t have over the end decision, and what their expectations are?  My parents gave a ballpark range and trusted me to make it happen.  My in-laws had already told my husband at his sister’s wedding that they will be paying for his rehearsal dinner.  Things were clear enough for us, but for other families this may be a really bad way to approach.  There is no one right way to handle this sticky money topic.

In your family it may be wise to not even approach your parents about money, and instead proceed with excitement and no bitterness about paying the entire thing yourself.  Should they wish to contribute they can speak up when they feel comfortable.

 

If you can predict your parents’ reaction, plan your approach accordingly.  If they have no money but a lot of pride in being the parents of the bride, then you know they may very well take offense at you deciding to pay for your own wedding.  You also know your vision may not fit their budget.  This is one of many potential landmines in wedding planning that requires the diplomacy of a United Nations ambassador. 


If your parents are awful with their money, break promises often, and encounter unexpected shortfalls on a regular basis, be aware that their wedding money may never actually surface.  Don’t act surprised, hurt, or angry a month before the wedding when their contribution falls through, as it has so often in the past.  The safest bet is to thank them for their generosity while never expecting to see a dime.  Plan the wedding accordingly and if they surprise you with cash, that’s a wonderful bonus.  You could also ask for money at certain key points, such as having them write the checks for the deposits so at least that money is taken care of and they can’t backpedal later. 


Step Three:  How are decisions made and who is a stakeholder?


A big trap for many couples these days is to think that it is – no matter what – 100% their day, anything they want, nobody else should even express an opinion.  At its extreme there is a name for it: bridezilla.  We are sympathetic to couples who think the day should be all about them since that is the strong cultural message today.  There is little wisdom on how to do the negotiation dance while keeping your stand as the central figures in the big family drama of the wedding.

Money itself is just a piece of paper.  What money stands for is the important question.  In your family and your fiancé’s family, money may represent:

 

  • Showing what is important

  • Having choices

  • Making it as a successful person

  • Saving as much as you can

  • Impressing other people

  • Having beautiful things around you

  • Security

  • Pride

 

No matter who pays, wedding planning decisions you make reflect on your parents because they are the ones who raised you and instilled the values in you today.  This means that no matter who pays, if you are acting in a way that your parents find troubling, they likely are going to speak up (or feel very tense from not sharing their real feelings.)  This doesn’t mean they should always win a disagreement.  It is in your best interest to listen, reassess your decision, decide if it’s a key value in your wedding planning, and then let some things go so they reflect a part of the people who raised you and will be there for your big day.

 

In our wedding we did not want a reception line after the ceremony.  There were many reasons for this and we were adamant.  Our parents did not have a problem with this, but they felt very strongly that our guests should know the flow of events and where to go after the ceremony was over.  After much discussion whether this was a valid concern (and silliness on my end since they have been guests at dozens of weddings while I had only seen a handful), we compromised.  We put a note at the end of the program letting guests know to proceed immediately to the reception and after our photos we would greet them.  I might not have found it necessary but it made my parents happy, and I’ll admit – it is a nice gesture to let guests know where they should be next without everyone standing around in confusion.


Step Four: Expected the Unexpected


It’s very easy to get caught up in wedding planning.  A technology term that applies well to wedding planning is “scope creep.”  This happens when you state a simple wish or plan and end up much deeper and with a lot more complexity.  Every home-owner can relate to scope creep.  We wanted tile in our bathroom and ended up with not just new tile, but a new cabinet, which meant a new sink, which meant new fixtures, which meant new lighting.  One simple tasks ends up quite complicated, time-consuming and expensive. 

 

At the start of my wedding plans, I didn’t think invitations, food, or location were “key” elements.  The tone, emotional atmosphere, size, guest list and music were more important for us.  We did not want to succumb to the wedding madness that we saw around us.  Surely we were above it all.  But of course, we weren’t.

 

One scope creep in our wedding started with the idea of printing off my own wedding invitations.  Just simple, classic wedding invitations off our computer was all I thought I needed.  But then found the most gorgeous invitations in a magazine ad.  They turned out to be 40% of my entire wedding budget, ouch!  Those invitations touched something in me that made me “need” to find really nice, unique invitations.  My simple $30 wedding invitation budget had suddenly swollen to hundreds of dollars.  Welcome to scope creep.  A throwaway decision ended up involving hours of research, hundreds of dollars, and a rearranging of our wedding costs.

 

Because most people are only part of planning a very small handful of weddings in their lives, opinions and notions of what you want and how much they cost almost always result in a bulging budget, disagreements on where things should be spent, and stubbornness about refusing to pay for things that seem too expensive.  And let’s not forget spending hundreds of hours on do-it-yourself projects that end up “costing” you more than the dollars you saved.

 

Whether people are putting actual money on the table or are simply watching their adult children plan a wedding around the values they were hopefully raised with, the question of who pays is ongoing and always fraught with emotion.  Never assume one conversation, early in wedding planning, is all that you need.  There is going to be a constant reassessment, a constant need to review your values and vision for the big day, and a constant need to clarify who is really paying for this day through their wallets or emotional stake. 

An early decision today could have major impacts on the budget later or on other decisions that strike key emotions in family members.  Haven’t we all heard of the bride who is just about ready to send out invitations and her parents or in-laws start sending her handfuls of new names to invite?  The reception is booked, there is no more space, and who in the heck are these people I’m going to be shelling out $40 a plate for at the last minute?  Conversations had clearly not happened way early in the process to clarify who should be at the wedding, how much things cost, who is paying and what decisions do they get to make.

 

We wish you all the best for your wedding and marriage.