Why Does a Wedding Cost So Much?

How can you budget for such a long list of costs?

Bride and groom cake topper on cake
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The average couple spends over $35,000 on a wedding, according to a 2016 report from The Knot. But many couples underestimate their wedding expenses, thinking that their nuptials will fall below the norm. After all, a $35,000 price tag sounds astronomical. What on earth could cost that much?

There's the ring, the venue, the food, the flowers, the invitations, the cake—and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a look at all the expenses involved with a wedding, just so you have an idea of how much, realistically, you might end up spending.

Major Factors to Consider in Your Wedding Budget

There are many costs to think about, but here are some of the most common expenses that can make or break your wedding budget:

  • Your guest list: You'll find most venues will charge you per guest for food and beverages, so more wedding guests can equal a significantly larger bill.
  • The venue: It matters where you get married. A wedding in New York averages over $80,000, while Alaska brides will spend, on average, less than $20,000.
  • Day and time: The priciest dates are during peak wedding season, and an evening reception will up your costs even more. Save your money and opt for a brunch or afternoon reception instead.
  • Style of wedding: Formal weddings often cost more because they up the ante with higher-end food, decor, cake, and entertainment.

    Ring

    The jewelry industry “rule of thumb” is that a ring should cost two months’ salary, though that seems like an extraordinarily high bar to meet. Nonetheless, a ring can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000 or more. In 2019, the latest trend is toward smaller, less-costly rings with alternative gems such as morganite, opal or pearl.

    Dress

    According to USA Today, the average bride spends $3,000 on her dress. Remember, in addition to the main gown, you might opt for a veil, shoes, and complementary jewelry. These can add up faster than you expect. The groom, meanwhile, has to shell out a few hundred dollars for a rented tuxedo.

    Invitations

    It may sound silly, but formal save-the-date cards, followed by official invitations, can add up to hundreds of dollars. Many couples choose to have a professional photographer snap pictures for the save-the-date card, which compounds the cost.

    You can trim this cost by designing your invitations on Gimp, a free software program that’s similar to Photoshop. Then head online or to the nearest copy center to print your invites, or buy a high-grade printer and some stock paper to print them at home.

    Planning for Your Reception

    The dress and ring may cost a significant amount, but there's more. From your reception venue to the food, drink, and music, you might be amazed at just how fast the costs add up for your reception, even if you're planning something fairly modest.

    Venue

    Renting a space for the ceremony, dinner, and reception can cost thousands of dollars. Furthermore, many venues demand that the couple use their in-house catering or dining services, which may add to a couple’s costs because they’re locked into those food and beverage prices. Some people, however, choose to save money by hosting their wedding at a friend or family member's home, or by reserving a free or low-cost space like a public park.

    Food

    Appetizers, dinner, and dessert can be costly. Many services bill “per person” or “per head,” so wedding planners sometimes advise couples to lower their wedding costs by cutting their guest list. Of course, that’s not a great solution for many couples who want their friends and family to be present on their big day.

    Alternative ways to lower wedding food costs include offering a buffet-style, self-serve meal (as opposed to having individual dishes served by a waitstaff), serving vegetarian food or low-cost meats like chicken, or skipping the salad course.

    Before-and-After

    Don't forget: you also have to serve food at the rehearsal dinner and the day-after brunch.

    “Day-Of” Wedding Coordinator

    The actual day of the event requires a lot of event management. You’ll have a less stressful experience if you have a “day-of” coordinator who can manage all the different moving parts: making sure the groomsmen know where to go, directing the videographer and photographer, and ensuring that the flower girl is in place, for example.

    Photographer

    You’ll want high-quality pictures of your big day. Wedding planners often advise clients not to cut the photographer budget since the photos are the source of your memories. Many couples skimp from other areas, like flowers or centerpieces, to make sure they have a good photographer or videographer.

    Decorations

    From flowers to centerpieces, from aisle runners to tablecloths, from chair covers to fancy menu cards, your wedding will involve a lot of decorative staging. Want lanterns? Candles? Need to rent silverware? It all costs money.

    Cake

    Creating a multi-tiered cake is a huge endeavor for a pastry chef, and couples are charged accordingly. Opting for cupcakes, which are cheaper and easier for pastry chefs to produce, can save you money. Alternatively, if your venue allows it, you can ask your friends or family to make the cake as a wedding gift to you (Just don’t expect it to be “professional quality” if you take this route).

    Drinks

    Ah, the open bar. Alcohol can add up quickly. Curb the cost by offering only a limited selection of wines and beer (Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw brand of wine, nicknamed “Two-Buck Chuck,” is a good option). If your venue allows it, you can also recruit one of your friends to be the designated bartender for the evening.

    Band or DJ

    Regardless of whether you book a music band or a DJ, prepare to spend between several hundred to several thousand dollars. After all, the band needs to compensate its members and cover its transit costs and any sound system rental; a DJ has to get paid for his time and compensate for his equipment costs.

    And you’ll probably use a music and entertainment booking agency to find the talent, which will also take a cut of the fee. You can trim this cost by putting together a playlist of your own music for the wedding and asking a friend to be in charge of the sound system.

    Guest Gifts

    Want to rent a photo booth, where guests can snap pictures of themselves? Want a popcorn or a cotton-candy machine? Want to give your guests little jars of honey as a take-home present? All these guest gifts cost a fair deal of money.

    Honeymoon

    Don't forget that pricey trip you take after the ceremony can count toward your wedding costs. Think carefully about whether you’d prefer a fancy wedding or a nice honeymoon. Some travel enthusiasts skimp on the wedding so that they can spend a week at a luxury resort in the Maldives. Others, however, reason that they can travel at any time, but they’ll only get married once, so they designate the bulk of their budget for the wedding and save on the trip.

    Wedding Budget Benchmarks

    Just for fun, this is how much brides are spending on average in various states. Notice, though, that within a given state, the cost also differs depending on the area. Also, look at some average wedding costs by spending category:

    States with the Most Expensive Weddings

    • New York: $82,299
    • Chicago: $61,265
    • Westchester/Hudson Valley, New York: $57,501
    • Long Island, New York: $56,950
    • North/Central New Jersey: $55,389
    • Cape Cod, Massachusetts: $54,334
    • Rhode Island: $50,266

    States with the Least Expensive Weddings

    • Alaska: $17,361
    • South Dakota: $18,890
    • West Texas: $19,261
    • New Mexico: $20,114
    • North Dakota: $20,211
    • Oregon: $20,456

    Average Wedding Costs by Category

    Expenses are followed by their average cost:

    • Ceremony site $2,089
    • Ceremony musicians $703
    • Groom’s tux/suit $269
    • Wedding dress $1,469
    • Wedding planner $1,996
    • Photographer $2,618
    • Videographer $1,824
    • Flowers/decor $2,300
    • Reception Venue $14,788
    • Reception band $3,833
    • Reception DJ $1,171

     How Can You Budget for This All?

    Weddings have an incredibly long list of expenses. Before you start spending money, review this list and number the expenses in order of priority. What's the number-one thing on this list? The dress? The photographer? The honeymoon? What's the number two thing on your list? And what are you willing to give up to ensure that you can save enough money to pay for your top priorities?

    Both parties should separately number this list in order of priority. Then compare notes to see how the priorities align.

    Budgeting is, at heart, the art of aligning your expenses with your priorities. The only way you'll be able to do this is by articulating which expenses take the number one position and deciding what you're willing to give up to afford it.