For most couples, their wedding day is one of the most emotional days in their lives—and also a very expensive one. With so many Instagram and Pinterest feeds dedicated to gorgeous (and pricey) bouquets, cakes, and wedding details, it's no wonder so many couples end up going into debt to fund their dream aesthetic.
On this week's Money Confidential, host Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez tackles wedding planning to help 30-year-old Jane (not her real name) come up with a realistic financial plan for her celebration.
Jane is torn, balancing the financial burden of her wedding with the emotional experience of having all the people she loves in the same spot. "I don't want to spend however many tens of thousands of dollars on essentially a six-hour party, but we also don't want to sacrifice that really wonderful experience of having our families travel to Colorado and really get to meet one another," she says.
Jane and her fiance made a priority list to highlight their top five wedding must-haves (including great food) and turned back to that whenever they were faced with a tough decision. "I think that has been very helpful because then when we start to get stressed out or we start to butt heads about decision making, we're like, well, let's go back to our priority list," she says. She also talked with people who had gotten married already about what expenditures they were glad they made (like photography and videography), and which ones they wish they'd cut
To get even more advice for Jane, Stefanie turned to Jessica Bishop, founder of The Budget Savvy Bride, for insights. Bishop suggest trying to drown out the voices from what she calls the "Wedding Industrial Complex"—marketers who are pushing the whole "big day, special day" messaging that gets you to spend more. "It adds all of this pressure on that day," Bishop says. "And I really believe that messaging causes couples to feel compelled to spend more than they maybe would otherwise."
"I never hear a couple say, 'I wish I had done the big wedding. I wish I had spent all that money and not prioritized our bigger, more long-term permanent goals, like buying a house or starting a family.' It's more often the opposite, where they're like, 'Oh, we really spent a lot of money on that one day, and it was just a party and it was over in a flash."
—jessica bishop, thebudgetsavvybride.com
Bishop suggests couples come up with a budget—that doesn't involve going into debt—and prioritize what matters most to them, as our listener, Jane, did. "Having that to refer to, as almost like a north star, as you're making all of your different wedding planning decisions is so important," she says.
Bishop also advises lopping off 10 percent of your total budget right off the bat, to account for unforeseen expenses that inevitably crop up at the last minute. And she also recommends that couples focus on things that will give the biggest bang for the buck for their guests. "Your guests are going to remember the moments and the feelings of your day, more so than they're going to remember things like your centerpieces or your decor, your place cards, or those little paper details that kind of end up getting tossed in the trash," she says. "Those sorts of things are places you can easily cut." Instead, focus on the food, entertainment, and photography to help you capture and remember the day in the future.
When it comes down to it, there are only two wedding essentials—and they're on the cheaper side. "The purpose of the wedding is the joining together of you and your partner," Bishop says. "All you really need is a marriage license and an officiant."
Jane: Now we're planning a wedding and I'm just like first off, I don't even know where to start. I don't want to spend however many tens of thousands of dollars on essentially a six-hour party, but we also don't want to sacrifice that really wonderful experience.
Serena:My boyfriend and I have been together for over two years and we're planning on getting engaged later this year. So right now we're trying to save up as much as possible for a wedding, honeymoon, and a house down payment down the road.
Teresa: As much as we don't want to have to go into debt to pay for a wedding, it seems like that's turning out to be our only option if we also want to buy a house.
Harmony: Some people have this image of what they want their day to look like from a very early age, and some people just want to have an awesome party without being too outlandish with their spending.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: This is Money Confidential, a podcast from Real Simple about our money stories, struggles and secrets. I'm your host, Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez O'Connell Rodriguez. And today our guest is a 30-year-old listener from Boulder, Colorado, we're calling Jane—not her real name.
Jane: My partner and I have been together for nine years. We are in the process of planning a wedding.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Is this your first major purchase together?
Jane: Yes. I bought the house that we're in before he and I were together. I am very impulsive. I'm a quick decision maker and he is a lot more thoughtful and calmer with his decision-making. So I always think, oh gosh, when it comes time to buy a house, the both of us together, like, what is that experience going to be like?
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Well, I think you're going to get a quick preview of that when you're wedding planning here.
Jane: Totally. Money conversations have always been very top of mind personally, for me. We brought the topic of finances into the conversation more seriously when we moved in together, and it's actually been a very fun bonding experience planning our futures together.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I love that you describe it as a fun experience. What is it about that conversation that feels exciting?
Jane: We'll block it into our calendar quarterly, and have our money talk and we get takeout from our favorite restaurant and we just sit at the dining room table and we're talking, 'Okay, like, what do we have for savings? Are we investing what we want to be investing? What were surprise expenses that we've had recently?' And how we're navigating through that.
And now we're planning a wedding and I'm just like first off, I don't even know where to start. I don't want to spend however many tens of thousands of dollars on essentially a six-hour party, but we also don't want to sacrifice that really wonderful experience of having our families travel to Colorado and get to know our lifestyle and really get to meet one another.
So it's this fun kind of balance that we're in now of okay, how can we keep being money conscious, fiscally responsible, but splurge a little bit to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
We don't know what we don't know, so we're kinda like all, let's talk to other folks. Where did they spend money that they regret? What are things that they might've skipped out on that they wish they put more money toward?
What are items that you could actually DIY that ended up costing however much thousands of dollars again?
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: According to The Knot's 2019 Real Weddings Study, the average cost of a wedding in the U.S. is $33,900. But even during Covid as couples scaled back their original wedding reception plans to include smaller celebrations like microweddings and elopements, costs like professional photography and wedding attire still put wedding price tags in the several thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.
And while these costs certainly can be high, there's nothing wrong with splurging on a wedding celebration - as long as it fits your budget and aligns with your values.
Jane: So folks that I've talked to so far is, you don't want to skimp on photography because you're, you're capturing such special moments or videography if you want to opt into that.
One of the things I have heard from a couple of friends and colleagues is flowers are wicked expensive and they don't necessarily need to be so try to get creative with that. We're actually getting married at a flower farm where they're providing a lot of flowers to us and I'm like, yeah, but I'm like not crafty.
So who can I find to put it together? And then I had a friend say they have so many, like, classes for just hobbyists. So maybe talk to one of those instructors and see who are the top students and help them build their portfolio in that sense.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Okay. So you're already kind of thinking through what are some of these expenses that I can hack rather than just give up?
Jane: Yes. 'Cause It's like now you're sacrificing something and it's supposed to be this very special experience. So you don't want to have to sacrifice anything, right?
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Yeah, totally. I think one of the things that really struck me about wedding planning was just watching things add up on my balance sheet, especially as you get closer and closer to the day.
'Cause that's when the stress is really, really mounting and the caterer sent over the bar bill. And they were like,' oh, and the ice is going to be like an extra hundred dollars.' And that was the tipping point.
I was like, forget it, I will provide my own ice. And then I'm running around three days before my wedding, going to different grocery stores around New York City to see who will deliver ice to my venue.
And then the day of the wedding ice is showing up 10 minutes before people are supposed to arrive and my friends are carrying these bags of ice up the stairs of the venue. And they're dripping all over the place. And I remember thinking I should've had just paid for the ice, these are the things that, to your point, you just don't know what you don't know.
Most of us have never planned an event, for even 30 people, 100, 150. It's an enormous undertaking.
Jane: Well, it's funny. 'Cause one of my best friends is getting married this summer and she's taking a very DIY approach.
So from my perspective, I'm like, yeah, but what's your time worth?
Do you really want to buy champagne flutes and a Cricut machine and make all of your champagne toast glasses for a hundred people versus just spending maybe 30% more on what it have cost to have them specially made.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I think it's a really good insight too, because I do think that making sure that you perceive that time cost as having value is one of the most important things people need to be taking into their wedding planning - that said there are ways to DIY that are not time consuming.
So for example, I bought my dress secondhand and I sold my dress after my wedding. It was a designer dress and I wound up spending a couple hundred dollars on it, and it retails for over $3,000. And that was not really time consuming at all.
Jane: So I love that insight. One of the first venues we toured, the person there asked us what are your priorities? And he and I looked at each other, we're like, I don't know, like to have fun. And she goes, 'Well, think about the weddings you've been to. What did you like about them?
What did you hate about them?' And start, start thinking from there. So we wrote down each of us, like a list of our top five priorities, like, bomb food. We wanted it to be very fun and interactive for our guests that they don't feel like they're sitting around waiting for the next thing on the agenda to come up.
So we were able to take those lists and create a priority list, which I think has been very helpful because then when we start to get stressed out or we start to butt heads about decision making, we're like, well, let's go back to our priority list. And I love that idea about the dress, because that was one of my questions is do I really need a new dress that I'm gonna wear for like a few hours?
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I think this is the hard thing with wedding planning advice is that it's hard to be prescriptive because everyone really does have different values.
I returned my engagement ring. Because for me, jewelry is not a high value, but for some people it is. And I would never say just because I did this, that's the smart choice. And I think it's the same with the dress and it's the same with everything else.
I got married in New York City. It's not like I wasn't willing to splurge, but I think it was really about being conscious of okay, what is the thing that I'm going to splurge on. And what does that mean for where I'm going to cut back elsewhere? And I'm wondering if there are any of those trade-offs that you're just like, not even sure about how to make that decision.
Jane: I would say a little bit, so, like a day-of coordinator. You know I'm a planning person. I have spreadsheets. I have everything built out like in a Google drive to stay organized. But on the day of the wedding I don't personally want to worry about running around and like making sure all of our vendors are getting checks. I don't want to have to be herding humans from point A to point B, because I'm going to be over here having a cocktail, hugging on some family members for the first time in way too long. So it's those decisions where I'm like, okay, well, if it's going to ultimately benefit the experience of us and our guests and it's in line with our priorities and our values, then yes. It's worth the splurge. I'd say.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Yeah, absolutely. I think we have to imagine the day of our wedding, there is a crisis, something goes wrong, something always goes wrong.
If that is happening, do you want to be the one who's responsible? And I think for a lot of people, the answer is no. And so for me, I was like, yeah I'm going to have a day-of coordinator.
And then I negotiated with that person to really define what the scope of that work was because I didn't need somebody to plan from A to Z, but I needed somebody who could really just be there on the day.
So then understanding that then I could work with that person to figure out, okay, what can I do to get the most value based on what I think my need is going to be? Are you in a venue that is coming with any of this stuff already built in?
Jane: No. It is - Here's a field. Here are the beautiful mountains. Here are a couple buckets of flowers and that was one of the things I'm like, wait, I need generators. Like we need a tent.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: You need a bathroom, do you need port-a-potties? Yeah. Okay. You definitely need a day-of coordinator.
Jane: Yes. And of course my very New England opinionated mother is like, I can't believe you're having both sides of the family get on a plane for this, and you're going to make them use port-a-potties, and I was like, mom, first off, they're called restroom trailers. Porta-potties are like at dirty music festivals.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Oh man, the peanut gallery. Family pressure. Are you feeling that?
Jane: A little bit. I'm an only child. My parents have been super thrilled. I think they've been planning it longer than we have. But then at the same time, I have a mother who taught me how to be cost-conscious at a young age.
And yes, she is an opinionated woman She's got a lot of good feedback. It's just the delivery is a little harsh sometimes, you know?
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I think where weddings really become so untenable in terms of expenses, like we start from our perception of what the standard is, and then we kind of see everything that we're not doing as a sacrifice as opposed to starting from zero and building up from there.My marriage license. That's what I need to get married. And then everything else is extra.
I know for me, it was much more of a sustainable approach. I didn't have any kind of transportation to my wedding. I took a cab.
Jane: I love it.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I wore shoes I already had. I didn't have any kind of fancy decor.
We went to the flower market the day before the wedding and put together some bouquets and some cheap vases and threw it all together. And none of that felt like a sacrifice.
If you do get closer and you see yourself creep past that budget, how do you feel about that prospect?
Jane: Oh my gosh. Like mad at myself that I have failed with budgeting. I know that sounds so irrational, but I'd probably be almost disappointed or ashamed in myself because it's this challenge of, here's what we're trying to work with. And we're very fortunate that it's not like it's going to bankrupt somebody in our family or us, if we go over budget a little bit, but it's a fun little challenge to say, this is what we've allotted, and this is what we're going to work with.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I think the fun challenge is great. I just think the problem is it's not fun if going over budget means you're calling yourself a failure.
Jane: Well, maybe not failure. Okay. Thank you. Disappointed. So it wouldn't totally break us, but I know it would be something where we're like, ah, dang. And then we'd have to go back and look like, okay, well, why are we over budget?
Where could we have saved?
Now it's going to be the, what ifs? Well, what if we didn't do this? What if I didn't buy a new dress? What if we did a different venue instead of this one?
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Given how much thought you're putting into this and the fact that you have set a budget and that you are doing this research.
I think there is a trust that has to happen, like, I am doing the work and making the best decisions I can with the information I currently have. And if it doesn't go perfectly with the numbers on the page, I need to give myself a little bit of grace.
Jane: I like that.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: And enjoy it. And if things pop up, they pop up, but it's not because of something you did or didn't do.
What should I DIY? How can I budget for the unexpected? What's worth skipping and what's worth splurging on? The hardest part of answering these questions when it comes to wedding planning is that there's no one right answer, because ultimately, your wedding celebration is going to depend on your budget, your priorities, and your plans as a couple. So while DIYing flowers, skipping the engagement ring and splurging on an NYC penthouse hotel suite made my wedding feel like a great value, none of those things might make sense for Jane.
After the break, we'll speak to founder of The Budget Savvy Bride and host of The Bouquet Toss podcast, Jessica Bishop, about how each couple can approach wedding planning in a way that maximizes their budget while honoring their personal priorities.
Jessica Bishop: Hey, I'm Jessica Bishop. I'm the founder of thebudgetsavvybride.com and author of The Budget Savvy Wedding Planner and Organizer.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I feel like the million dollar question of wedding planning is, how do you balance the reality of a once-in-a-lifetime day versus it's just one day?
Jessica Bishop: Yes. This is such a common struggle that every couple deals with when they're planning, right? Because you get all of these messages from what we like to call in the industry the wedding industrial complex, which is basically this big marketing machine that feeds you this line of it's your special day, your big day.
You only get one chance at it. It adds all of this pressure on that day. And I really believe that messaging causes couples to feel compelled to spend more than they maybe would otherwise.
Your wedding budget should be dependent upon your personal set of circumstances, your personal set of values, priorities, and what you and your partner find to be most important. And as long as you're not going into debt to pay for your wedding, I have no problem with you spending whatever you can actually afford.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Well, the other piece of this is also balancing the wedding budget against everything else you want to do in your life.
Jessica Bishop: What's been interesting for me over my 15 years of working in the wedding industry is like more often than not, I never hear a couple say, like I wish I had done the big wedding. I wish I had spent all that money and not prioritized our bigger, more long-term permanent goals, like buying a house or starting a family or whatever. It's more often the opposite where they're like, oh, we really spent a lot of money on that one day.
And it was just a party and it was over in a flash. Of course you make amazing memories. And I'm never going to tell people not to have a wedding, obviously. I'm in weddings. But I think there is a balance you have to strike. And it's so personal at the end of the day, depending on each individual couple and what your priorities are.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I think the thing that was so helpful for me, when I initially sat down with my fiance to think about our wedding, was contextualizing the wedding. I was thinking, 'Oh, we're not going from engagement to wedding as our timeline, we're going from today after our engagement to the rest of our lives, as our timeline, and that reframe really forced us to consider our wedding and our wedding budget in the context of the rest of our lives and everything else we want our money to do for us, like travel, like continuing to live in New York. I think that's a trap we fall into when it comes to wedding planning. We think sometimes of the wedding as the end goal, rather than the beginning of the marriage.
Jessica Bishop: There's actually an article, I think in the New York Times about, like, post-wedding depression, the post wedding blues. Because you've built this thing up in your mind to be this one big, incredible special top of the mountain type of day. And then you're like, 'okay, now what?' It's almost like a little bit of a letdown or like, you don't have that big thing that you're working towards anymore.
And so I think this ties into a lot of important financial conversations that couples need to be having, as they head into their marriages of like, what are our five-year goals, our 10-year goals and financially, what do we want our life to look like? And so having those other things to work towards and also finding a way to make that exciting is important too.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I actually think that really aligns with a lot of what our listener this week was saying, because she really is thinking about the big picture. She and her partner are already having money conversations.
They're in a really good practical head space. So it's not so much for her about not being aware of the wedding industrial complex. I think for her, it's a similar struggle to what I had, which is when you're planning a wedding, you just don't know what you don't know.
Jessica Bishop: I really love to recommend setting your vision. And also contextualizing that in terms of how much you're willing to spend and how much you can afford to spend really helps to guide your decisions along the way. And so you can still go and you can get your inspiration from Pinterest or from different wedding inspiration accounts on Instagram or whatever you want to follow.
But being able to refer back to that outline of what you are willing to spend or able to spend. And also the feeling that you want to have on your day, I think is so important and so helpful, just having that to refer to as almost like a north star, as you're making all of your different wedding planning decisions.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: One of my favorite resources on your site is that you have weddings categorized by budget. So real weddings of what people spend by, okay, this is a $5,000 wedding, a $10,000 wedding, $20,000 wedding. And I think for me, that was really helpful because it forces you to confront what things really cost.
Jessica Bishop: I think there's a lack of cost transparency in the wedding industry. But I mean really honestly, wedding planning, it takes a lot of research.
You have to call around and get accurate quotes because year after year vendors are raising their prices. It's a lot of work wedding planning, you know.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: That brings me to my other point, which is the time and energy cost of wedding planning is no joke.
And that was another thing that I feel like I learned through the process of doing was, what's the value of my time and how do I measure that against just paying more money to have it be done with and be off my plate. And I think it's really hard to conceptualize that at the outset.
Jessica Bishop: Yeah, you see that a lot at the end, you're just like throwing money at things to solve a problem. Right? I think for a lot of couples who maybe aren't able to spend as much on their wedding, maybe they do have more time and they want to DIY some things to cut costs. And that's a great option if you do have the time, but in a lot of cases, you might not have a lot of time or a lot of money, or maybe you just don't want to spend over a certain amount of money. And so in those cases there are options for that too. You can elope, you can have a microwedding, keeping it intimate. There's so many different avenues to fit your set of budgetary circumstances and your values.
And it's such a big part of wedding planning because you are managing not just like what you and your partner want from the day, but also both of your sets of parents.
And they're going to have opinions, especially if they're contributing financially to the celebration. And so I think it's really important to start having those conversations early with your parents, even before you potentially get engaged. If you're hoping to have financial contributions from them and I just think, you know, keeping the expectations clear. Ask like, are you willing to contribute? How do you want that to look? Let's talk about timelines. Are you going to give us a lump sum that we're going to then allocate to our liking? Or does this contribution come with strings attached? Do they want veto power over some of your decisions because that does come at a cost and you might weigh that against what you could potentially be giving up the control of what actually matters to you in favor of what your parents want because they're contributing.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I do want to talk about specific budget categories within a wedding. I know this is tough because everybody's different, but I'm wondering if there are some things that you've consistently found over and over again where people are like, I wish we did this.
I wish we spent less here, more here, et cetera.
Jessica Bishop: Yeah I do think that at the end of the day your guests are going to remember the moments and the feelings of your day more so than they're going to remember things like your centerpieces or your decor, your place cards, or those little paper details that kind of end up getting tossed in the trash. Those sorts of things are places you can easily cut and don't ultimately provide the return on investment per se, when it comes to what you're spending on your wedding.
Things like live music, entertainment, whether it's a live band or a good DJ, or even a great playlist, you don't have to spend a ton of money. Don't get me wrong. I think those are the things that create the moments at a wedding more so than just the aesthetics.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Wedding planning is such a visual practice.
And what you're talking about is recalibrating so that it becomes planning out an emotional experience.
Jessica Bishop: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, at the end of the day, that's what the purpose of the wedding is the joining together of you and your partner. And going back to your point of all you really need is a marriage license and an officiant, but obviously like the Instagram of it all people love the aesthetics.
They love making things beautiful so they can show it off on social media and everything else. But at the end of the day, like, are those going to be the things that you remember? No. You're going to remember dancing with your grandfather or your niece being your flower girl and dancing on the dance floor, or like your first dance with your partner
It sounds like a cliche, but it goes by in a blink the day is over and anything you can do to extend that time that you have with your loved ones who are there to celebrate with you, I think is such a worthy investment.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Are there a few key things that you think everybody needs to start with?
Jessica Bishop: Location is obviously a big one—where you plan to have it, whether it's local to you or a destination.
Number two, definitely size. How many people do you picture being there? Do you want a big raucous party or something more intimate where you're going to get quality time with each of your guests?
I think season is another important one and that plays into the timeline obviously from the time you get engaged to when you want your wedding to be, if your engagement is going to be six months or a year or a year and a half, potentially, maybe even longer.
And style is another big one, you know, like what kind of vibe do you want it to have? How do you want to feel? What kind of ambiance do you want? So all things to really keep in mind and discuss with your partner when you're trying to outline that vision.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: And on the flip side of that, I think another thing that came up in my conversation with our listener was really struggling to anticipate what are going to be those last minute things. How do you budget for miscellaneous and tipping and all of those things?
Jessica Bishop: Yeah we always recommend keeping like a 10%, at least, buffer in your budget. And so right off the top, if you look at your total budget, cut 10% of that off and know that that's going to be needed at some point towards the end of the process for those overages, for tipping and things like that and really look at allocating what you've got with that 90% that's left.
What I see our couples prioritizing most tends to be the photography, because at the end of the day, that's the thing that you have to look back on and relive the day. You know, through that lens of those photos and videography has also become like a much bigger priority to couples just because I think there's something so powerful and so meaningful to be being able to watch you and your partner say those vows to one another, even if you just have a videographer for your ceremony, I think that's a really powerful thing to have on film. You can rewatch it on your wedding anniversary, each year, and again, like I'm kind of like a sentimental softie. So like that's the thing that I would probably recommend.
The best advice that I would give to any couple who's planning their wedding is really to just get clear on what you both value and what your priorities are when it comes to the wedding, like, what is most important to you about that day? Is it having a huge group of people around you?
Are you going to like maximize whatever you can to allow those people to be there?
Or are you more valuing something like your music, your entertainment, or like an epic, like, dinner. You want to have like a seven-course meal for an intimate group of people, because you're both huge foodies.
There's no one right way. And that's the thing is like, you really just have to get clear on what matters to you and do what you want to have that satisfaction at the end of the day.
Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: For Jane, and anyone else at the start of their wedding planning process, remember that one of the most powerful things you can do as a newly engaged couple, is to start imagining and planning your future as a team. That future doesn't end at your wedding day. In fact, legally speaking, that future starts on your wedding day. So when having conversations around wedding planning and budgeting and costs, be sure to keep that full picture in context. Because how much you spend on your wedding, will impact how much you can or can't spend on everything else you want to do afterward - whether that's buying a home, starting a family, taking a sabbatical, planning an around the world trip, or anything else.
Once you and your partner have come to a shared agreement around your budget, consider your vision for your wedding and how you ultimately want it to feel, prioritizing whatever expenses are going to facilitate those feelings, and cutting out, DIY-ing or finding affordable alternatives for the rest.
This has been Money Confidential from Real Simple. If, like Jane, you have a money story or question to share, you can send me an email at money dot confidential at real simple dot com. You can also leave us a voicemail at (929) 352-4106.