“A Haverford landmark for sixty years was the Haverford Hotel, built of brick in 1913. Its stately white columns supported the roof over a wide and gracious porch entrance. Many wedding receptions, balls, other parties, and meetings were held there.” *

As your common sense guide to planning and enjoying your wedding, let me introduce myself with a story.

Up the steps. Across the porch. Through the big doors and follow the noise to the ballroom. First things first: I looked for the bride. She was always at the center of things, her beautiful billowy white dress, her happy smile, and all the conversation that whirled around. Then, I sought out the cake. If my timing was right, the cake was already being served.

In the late-1950s, I lived right around the corner from the Haverford Hotel in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For a brief period, at the age of about eight years, I frequented the hotel on Saturdays. I figured out that if I put on a party dress and showed up around five-ish, I would somehow blend in. People would think I was someone else’s child. My modus operandi worked like a charm. I loved the happy crowd, the chatter, the rustling dresses, the men in their dark suits, the clinking glasses, the occasional pats on the head. And the beautiful cakes.

After a time, my attendance at weddings, to which I was not invited, tapered off. It’s possible my mother questioned where I was headed in my party dress every Saturday. But about 15 years later, I was married at the Haverford Hotel.

 I felt it was the right thing to do.

My afternoon wedding in 1970 was not so different from the ones I remembered from the late ‘50s. The reception lasted a few hours; there were hors d’oeuvres, tea sandwiches, champagne, and cake. After a bit of tame dancing to a small combo, we cut the cake, I threw my bouquet, and off we went in a hail of rice.

Twenty years later, as a caterer, I found myself again attending weddings, this time not as a gate crasher or a bride, but as a paid participant. Weddings had changed in many important ways. The bridal couple, not the bride’s parents, was more often than not the client. A bouquet might be thrown but the bride did not dash off early in the proceedings. Dinner replaced the tea sandwiches and rock bands took over from the little combos. Weddings were less tradition-bound, more festive, time-consuming, and definitely, more expensive.

My professional experience as a caterer coincided with more personal connections with weddings: my second marriage, my daughters’, and son’s weddings and those of our friends. I continued to appreciate the originality and exuberance of the bridal couples but I also began to notice a much heavier commercial influence.

When Mom and Dad paid for everything (and many still do), it was taken for granted that most of the guest list was comprised mainly of their friends and family members. The bride and groom were presumed to have fewer friends due to their youth. The mother of the bride had a lot to say about every aspect of the wedding. Undoubtedly, for many, this led to a lot of friction.

But as Mother’s influence waned, there was a sort of vacuum of knowledge about the ‘rules’ surrounding weddings. It was at this point the wedding industry stepped in where the mother of the bride stepped back. Wearing beads and getting married on the beach freed a generation from some outmoded traditions, but in their place, a new stricter order emerged. Wedding consultants, planners, and caterers are called upon as social arbiters of the ‘correct’ way to tie the knot. Couples learn early to fight their way through the maze of ‘must haves’ for their wedding, most of which turn out to be services or items for purchase.

Families have changed as well. The bridal couple has not only siblings and parents but step parents, half and step siblings, significant others, and partners. The bridal couple of today is older, might be gay or lesbian, might be marrying for the second or third time, might already have children, and most probably lives together.

With this changed landscape, what exactly are the rules? Any discussion of etiquette begins and ends with good manners, which Emily Post defined in 1922 as follows:

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.

Weddings are no different from any social interaction when it comes to manners. That ‘sensitive awareness of the feelings of others’ is fundamental to every aspect of planning a wedding.

Manners are universal but tradition evolves and etiquette falls somewhere in between. Much of what we believe to be time-honored and traditional is myth. What we assume is long-established custom changes with every generation. A wedding reception with a sit down dinner was virtually unknown a few generations ago. Can’t find any wedding photographs of your grandparents? Not surprising. During two world wars and the Great Depression, brides arranged weddings in a matter of days, wore tailored suits, or borrowed dresses. Grooms showed up in their uniforms, sometimes on a three-day pass. Bridesmaids, if there were any, frequently had mismatched dresses because they wore them to more than one wedding. Receptions were hastily arranged with flowers from the garden and cakes made with rationed sugar coupons. The mother of the 1960’s bride probably based her ‘traditional’ advice on hearsay and perhaps wanted for her daughter a wedding that she had not experienced herself.

I mention this not to make light of tradition but simply to say: when it comes to weddings, most of what is touted as traditional is commercially motivated. Emily Post wrote a great book on etiquette and given her social standing was considered a real expert on the subject. But, more interesting, is that she was a formidable businesswoman whose books still sell. In an era when society women had no professional role, she created one for herself based on people’s insecurity about what to do in public.

From the proposal (champagne, diamond ring) down to the last wedding detail (Make your getaway in style! Hire a carriage!), every aspect of getting married can be supported with money. And lots of it. Even memoirs and blogs detailing and wailing about all the hoopla, in fact, support the industry. Wedding mania isn’t dissimilar from the housing bubble. People are encouraged to spend what they don’t have and told that their ‘special magical day’ is worth every penny whether they can afford it or not.

It’s very hard to resist the hype. Being in love and feeling romantic do not go hand in hand with pinching pennies and saying no to fun stuff. But the wedding business is like the funeral business. The vendors have you at your most vulnerable. The prospective bridal couple (We’re in love! Nothing’s too good for us!) is the wedding equivalent of the grieving family (“He was the most wonderful man in the world! Sign us up for the gold casket!”) This may sound like a bitter lesson but it’s true. Whether it’s about joy or about sorrow, business is business.

About two years ago, my husband and I were invited to a wedding in a small town in France. The bride, the daughter of an old friend, was American, born in Tonga, raised in Botswana, and St. Mary’s County, Maryland. She and her Italian fiance, who was from Rome, met in Armenia where they both worked. Joining in the celebration were sisters, brothers, mom and dad. And then it got complicated: boyfriends, girlfriends, significant others, adopted stepsiblings and godparents. It didn’t end there. The guests arrived from Africa, Europe, America, and the South Pacific.

They didn’t have a wedding planner, a videographer, or a caterer but they did have help, both hired and volunteer. They also had a website with a lot of thoughtful information which helped guests arriving from afar. Those who arrived early had the pleasure of participating in the preparations. In our case, we topped and tailed 8 kilos of string beans, all the while chatting and getting to know other guests. We felt as though we contributed to an important day.

Although rain threatened, the sun broke through and the whole party was held outside. The ceremony was lovely, the food and wine were delicious, and the music, a local band, was lively. Even the oldsters got up to dance. Bride and groom just smiled and smiled.

This experience has given me the impetus I needed to write about weddings. I want to advocate for a straightforward, meaningful, and yes, exuberant approach to this important milestone. Their wedding reminded me just how personal, romantic, funny, and festive the occasion can be. Their experience confirmed that when you are planning a wedding and want to do all of it or parts of it yourself, it’s not only possible, it’s a great idea. Furthermore, it’s no secret: people do it all the time.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Throw A Great Party, Inspired by Evenings in Paris with Jim Haynes. I had been struck by the ease with which one American man threw Sunday night suppers in Paris for large crowds. With friends as volunteers and helpers, Jim puts on a terrific party without a lot of expense or professional help. Using Jim as my inspiration, I wrote about how to give a big party from start to finish.

During the process of writing that book, I realized that many of the same organizing principles apply to weddings. I thought about the weddings I’ve been to and what made them remarkable. How people, faced with a lot of conflicting choices and pressures, manage to have wonderful weddings. How supposed ‘disasters’ often have surprisingly pleasant conclusions. How some simple old customs still have meaning.  

In this blog, you will find sensible suggestions for planning a wedding. Drawing on my professional and personal experience, I want to show how to home in on a plan, draw up and stick to a budget, determine a location, and make decisions about the food, flowers, photography, decorations, invitations, and wedding-related events. I will devote a significant amount of space to wedding menus and recipes that you can do yourself or have help managing.

Celebrating a marriage with a wedding has the enduring history it deserves because it is a significant moment in life. And not to be morbid, but the funeral analogy is apropos. Your loved one is not honored and your sadness is not eased by the amount of money spent on a funeral. In the same way, your marriage will not be strengthened nor your celebration made more joyous by a lavish wedding. But are funerals and weddings important? Absolutely.

For as long as human interactions have been recorded, there have been weddings. Yes, they take time and organization but remember this: you’re not alone. Generations have gotten married and had a wonderful memorable time. You don’t have to break the bank, feel guilty about having a budget, or listen to phony social advice. It’s your wedding and you can and should call the shots.

So trust yourself and throw a great wedding!

*Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years, edited by Jean B. Toll and Michael J. Schwager, Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies, Norristown, PA, 1983, Chapter 3 Towns


Guest List and Location (and vice versa)

What comes first? The location of the wedding reception or the number of guests?

It depends on the size of your wedding.

Do you have a large number of family and friends that must be included? Or are you planning a small gathering? A good start is to make out a guest list.

But let’s look at it another way: you have a specific location in mind. If it’s the dining room of your home, chances are your reception will be fairly small. In a park? You might have a huge crowd. Depending on the setting, you will have to tailor your number of guests to fit. In this case, determine how many guests your location will accommodate. Then write up your list.

Here are four examples of weddings where the size and location that reflected the needs of the participants.

A small wedding with less than 30 participants

  • In a hotel Anne and Henry were married in a private reception room at a downtown hotel accompanied by about 15 family members. The ceremony, performed by an officiant, was followed by an elegant tea. The bride’s family travelled from England to attend. The small size of the wedding meant that Anne and Henry spent a lot of time with their close relatives and that the two families had time to get to know one another. The whole wedding party stayed at the hotel which gave them further opportunities to get together. The size and the location of this wedding suited the bridal couple perfectly: they wanted an intimate gathering in a beautiful place.
  • At home Jessie and Billy were married with their children, family members and a few friends at the bride’s brother’s home. After the ceremony, they had a reception with tea and champagne. The bridal couple wanted an intimate gathering in a familiar place that was cozy for everyone, including their children. They were sensitive to their children’s feelings, knowing that blending a family requires special consideration from parents. An over the top wedding would not have suited this family but a festive celebration was definitely the order of the day.

A large wedding with over 150 participants

  • At home. A wedding reception at home for 280 guests with a seated dinner and dancing? I couldn’t fathom it! But that is exactly what my friend Antonia did for her daughter’s wedding. “We have a huge family and so did the groom. We are very used to big family gatherings and when my oldest daughter decided to get married, we all wanted a big wedding.” Their house, which was in the country, was large but not immense. The first decision was to hold the party outside in a large tent. The dancing took place in the barn. “We found lodging for everyone in nearby hotels or with friends.” The bridal couple was very young, and busy with work and school.The bride’s parents paid for the wedding and did most of the organizing. When it came to the guest list, there was no stinting: family and friends of both the bridal couple and the parents were included.

Like Antonia, my friend Chris has undertaken weddings for her two daughters at home. These were very large gatherings, beautifully organized, for a modest amount of money. Her secret? Good friends. “In my group of close friends, when our children decide to have weddings, we all pitch in.” This includes being pressed into cooking and serving duties. One detail I loved: “My neighbors thought having all the cars parked along our driveway would really spoil the looks of the lawn and garden. They provided the ‘valet parking service’ in their own driveways and along the side streets.”

  • At a hotel. My friend Antonia’s second daughter was married a large urban hotel. The location accommodated 165 guests. Unlike the previous wedding, the groom’s family was quite small. However, the bridal couple had a huge group of friends and was obliged to keep their list within bounds. The wedding was very festive and elaborate but mainly “in the hands of the professionals,” my friend said. In this case, the groom’s parents contributed to the cost and the bridal couple participated in the planning and organization.

Being ‘in the hands of the professionals’ can be a real relief. My friend, Stephanie, felt that she and the coordinator for her daughter’s hotel wedding communicated well and that her concerns and questions were addressed. But the relief part had to do with the day itself: the hotel came through with all details taken care of and the participants really enjoyed themselves. One hotel sales director said this, “Once all the planning is in place, let the hotel do its work. Enjoy yourself and don’t worry about the details which will become a distraction.”

Determining the guest list

Determining the number of guests a commercial space can accommodate is the easy part. What can be difficult is the guest list. You start with a core group: your parents, siblings, and best friends. Still game? You then expand to include your parents’ siblings, family friends, and your close friends. Next? Cousins, neighbors, school and work friends. You will probably include in your list a small number of people who won’t attend but would appreciate receiving your invitation. This group would include elderly relatives and family friends who live far away. People who know you well.

Not everyone you invite will attend but do not invite anyone that you do not wish to attend. A wedding is not a business meeting or a political convention.

As your common sense guide, I am a great believer in wedding announcements. Sending an invitation is in a very real sense, a request for a gift. An announcement is a graceful way to spread good news with no other expectations.

Compiling the guest list is a joint effort and might be one of the first real links with your future in-laws. It requires sensitivity from all parties. No one wants to have their dear ones excluded. If the bride and groom insist on only having ‘their friends’, they will surely cause hurt feelings. If your family is involved in your wedding, their guests are important too.

In other words, whether you are the bride, mother-law, groom, or father, don’t bogart the list! You may not be thrilled that your nutty Aunt Hattie will be doing the Frug at your wedding but has she ever been excluded? Would it be fair?

With in-laws, bride and groom both need to be on board and talk with their respective families. Fair-minded people should not insist on a large number of guests that breaks the budget or cannot be accommodated. Best to be up front about those parameters.

Choosing the Location

Home Weddings

Having a wedding at home offers a great deal of flexibility in both size and scope. You have the option here to do all the planning yourself, calling on family and friends to help with everything from food, flowers, photography, bartending and music. Less hands on? Hire caterers, rent a tent, engage a photographer and a florist: it’s all possible and more. You won’t have any of the time restraints of a public venue and your guest list will depend on how many people you want to ask. On the other hand, a home wedding involves a lot of organization. A caterer can do most of it but you or whoever is the host will have many decisions to make. And just because you’ve decided to have your reception at home does not mean it will be the least expensive choice. This can be a wonderful experience if you don’t mind jumping in and being actively involved with all aspects.

Hotels, Inns, Reception Halls, Clubs, Churches, Mansions

Why is a public venue a good choice for your wedding? For one thing, the folks running these places are professionals and managing weddings is their business. Public reception spaces come in all sizes and offer many services. In researching what is best for your event and your budget, you will need to understand clearly what services are being offered.

There are wedding venues that rent the space only. You must furnish the caterer, rental equipment, servers, liquor as well as music, flowers, and decoration. Others will ask that you use their catering service or select from their list of caterers. ‘Full service’ providers such as hotels will generally have a wedding coordinator who plans and schedules all services within the hotel.

It’s important to understand right from the outset what your venue will provide and what it won’t. What ‘extra’ services are in fact requirements. What you will be charged for liquor and food and service. If you are planning a reception in a church or temple hall, find out if there are particular restrictions, such as for alcohol and music.

To give a clear picture of what is involved when you are choosing your location, I posed some questions to Shauna Noah who is the director of sales and events at the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon.

  • How do view your role with a wedding couple? (Or, put another way, what is the role of event planner?) 

As a venue contact, my goal is to make the wedding couple feel comfortable and confident that they have everything that they need so they can focus on spending time with friends, family, and each other.

  • Typically, who are your customers? (i.e. the bridal couple? the parents?) Who are the funders?

As a venue contact, we really work with all members of the party to “organize the organizers”. I generally work with the bride, the groom, the parents, the caterers, the rental companies, the DJ or live band and various members of the wedding party.

As for the funders, I find that many couples are now paying for their own weddings and accepting aspects of their weddings as gifts. An artist friend makes the invitations, an aunt that owns a bakery provides the cake, etc. It’s a great way to be cost effective, have the reception the couple envisions, and for the celebration to feel inclusive.

  • What are some common mistakes that couples make?

Forgetting to ask the question, who is going to take care of what on the actual day? Between make-up, hair, getting ready, photos, etc– the wedding couple’s day is packed and doesn’t leave a lot of room for decorating the reception space, putting together DIY crafted centerpieces, picking up and delivering items– or the thousand other things that wedding couples take on themselves to save money. My suggestion when looking at a delivery fee on any proposal or putting together a DIY decor piece is to ask that question, who is going to take care of this on the actual day? If you can delegate it to a friend or family member- great, but let them know way in advance and make sure they are reliable. If the answer to the question is you– pay the money, it’s going to be worth it.

  • What are some pointers you would give to couples?

Always ask the question: “Does this include the service fee?” You’ve built your budget; you’re going out and talking to caterers, rental companies, and venues. You’ve fallen in love with the food/drink/linen/event space and have talked about price and you are feeling good. You get the proposal and POW! Everything is officially over budget. The reason being is that most places have service fees attached to them for cleaning and staffing and sometimes they don’t include that when quoting you pricing. It’s not because they are trying to hide things from you, but price and service charge are considered two distinct things. By asking the question you can help stick to your budget.

Get the hotel room the night before.Check in time is generally 4pm and though you can request an early check in, it’s never guaranteed. By getting the room the night before, you can wake up, get ready at your leisure, and have a place to store items. Worth it.

  • What are some things that couples do that you see as being very positive?

Enjoying themselves. So many couples I work with have the mentality of “I just want to have a great party with people I love,” which is a great way to keep things in perspective and be able to enjoy the day.

  • What should a bridal couple expect when they meet with you?

A tour of the property and a discussion about what they envision for their special day. They also get a run through of the process (contracts, payment plans, run of show meetings, etc).

  • Should they be armed in advance with their date and number of guests?

I would suggest having a few dates in mind and an approximate number of guests. Also have an idea of what your budget is and what you’d like the “flow” of it to be like (are you looking for a more formal sit down dinner or a cocktail style event? Are you looking to do a ceremony and reception at the same place?)

  • Do you give a tour of the hotel? Do your customers often use your hotel rooms or other amenities?

I LOVE to give tours of the hotel. It really is the best way to experience the feel of the space and if it’s what you envisioned. You know once you’re in the venue if it’s “your space”- you just feel it!

Customers do use our hotel rooms but we, as with many hotels, have backed off of reserving blocks of rooms for a wedding party.We’ve found that the actual number of rooms needed can be difficult to determine.We’d rather offer a special rate for the wedding guests than run the risk of unsold rooms.

And the point of view of the bridal couple…

I asked some recent bridal couples a series of questions regarding location. James and Trina decided on a reception at a fun and slightly offbeat country hotel. Here’s what they had to say: 

  • How did you select the location for the wedding party?

We chose the location because it had everything! We had a lot of out of town guests coming and I thought it would be fun if everyone stayed in the same hotel. I feel that if you are asking people to schlep across the country then you better be prepared to show them a good time. The hotel offered comfortable rooms that were without TV so people were forced to explore. There was amazing beer on tap, multiple restaurants, golf course, etc.

  • Did you have to use their restaurant/catering services? Were you given a choice of party rooms?

We did use their catering and their bartenders. It was an easy choice because we familiar with all their food and drink. If I were somewhere else I probably would have shopped around for a caterer. I can’t remember if we had a choice of rooms but the one we got was perfect. It fit the size of the gathering well and it was very private because we rented out all the rooms below.

  • Did you have an idea of the number of guests you planned to ask before selecting your location or did the number of guests evolve from your choice of location?

Oof, we had a rough idea of how many guests would attend. The number wouldn’t have changed our decision. We loved the location.

  • Did the hotel offer you services you hadn’t asked for/good ‘deals’, etc?

If yes, to the above, did you feel these services were in fact ‘good deals’ or simply additional add-ons that cost you more money but were nonetheless pleasant.

I believe we got a discount on rooms that we wanted to reserve. I never felt “upsold” by them and there were plenty of different options for the bar and food.

The extra services were things like, a champagne toast. We agreed to that but otherwise we didn’t have extras.

  • Did you reserve hotel rooms?

Yes. We reserved the whole second floor of the building. It was a fantastic idea. We got a great deal on them most likely because they would have had a really hard time selling them to other unsuspecting guests. We got a suite for ourselves, and paid for two other rooms for a couple of our friends who couldn’t afford to. Other than that everyone else paid for their own rooms. Older relatives got rooms in the main building.


A reputable hotel or commercial venue will want your business, provide you with good service, and be up front about costs. This includes service fees and the possibility of extra services not included in the package. A reputable vendor will not approach the bridal couple or the parents (or other funders) during the festivities to ‘suggest’ added extras.

Responsible consumers will go into the negotiation with a good idea of their budget, will ask questions, and take note of what is provided and what is not. They will gather information and pricing on several possibilities even if only to make comparisons.

Word of mouth is probably the best way to get information and feedback about location, caterers, and other service providers. Website recommendations from purported customers should be taken with a grain of salt.

If the wedding is at home or at a location where you are organizing the event, attention to detail and awareness of overall cost will be your job. You can and should delegate many tasks but ultimately, you (the bridal couple and/or the parents or other funders) will be the ones to oversee the whole event.

Finally, remember who you are. Getting wrapped up in the fantasy of a wedding will not translate into a fantastic experience on the day itself. You may not love being in a huge crowd. Or, conversely, doing karaoke might be ten times more fun for you than a quiet dinner with 30 relatives. Still, to think of your wedding day as your day is shortsighted and adolescent. You are celebrating with others and that celebration will be meaningful if it reflects a warm and inclusive approach. So whether your invitation list is 500 or 50, your reception do-it-yourself, or fully catered, keep in mind what fits you, your family and friends, and your budget.

Paying for the Wedding

 “Music videos, moonshine and man caves — here’s what’s hot for 2011. Take a look, get excited, and then steal a few of these ideas for your wedding day.”

Show me the money.”*


Show yourself the money. Before getting excited about the moonshine and considering theft.

Most of us incur debt. It is useful and often necessary. Education? Yes. Mortgage? Sure. Wedding dress? Oh, come on.

Going into debt for a wedding is a poor idea. A fine wedding will have lasting memories but no tangible outcome that justifies debt and its burdens.

So as the common sense guide, I say, go into debt for things that last. Pay cash for your wedding.

A young friend says this:

“We budgeted $5,000 for our wedding and I’m glad we stuck to it. If I’d awakened
the next day and realized I’d way overspent, I would have felt awful.”

The image of the day after your wedding is an important one to keep in your head. Will the cost of a fantastic dress and a fabulous reception make sense if you have to spend months or years paying for them?

If you are paying for your own wedding, have a clear idea of what you wish to spend right from the start. If others are paying for your wedding, have a frank discussion of what their expectations are.

Several years ago, a good friend related the following story. She and her husband offered a sum of money to their daughter for her wedding. They wanted to be involved in the celebration but, respectfully, felt the details were for the bridal couple to decide. At a certain point in the planning process, their daughter confronted them matter of factly, saying, “I need more money. The wedding will cost more that I realized.”

The parents were shocked by the request. They felt their daughter somehow didn’t understand that the money offered was what they were prepared to give. And no more. For her part, the daughter felt that they hadn’t made the limits clear and she was put in a position of appearing greedy.

They worked it out. The bride scaled back and the wedding was just fine. But as an exercise in why it’s important to be very clear about money, this anecdote is apropos. A very uncomfortable situation was resolved. But frank talk at the outset might have prevented the whole ordeal.

Sharing the cost of a wedding is not uncommon and can be a great relief for the bridal
couple. However, as with any group effort, problems can arise. Divorced couples
who share the expense of their offspring’s wedding can get into real hassles over money. In-laws who don’t know one another can easily run into awkward situations over who pays for what. If the bride and groom are the planners and their parents (divorced or not) are the funders, I would urge everyone to remember with whom they are dealing.

Even if all parties are wild with glee that you are getting married, a wedding won’t change personal views or habits when it comes to spending. If one person is doing all the planning and spending, the other participants will want some input. Good communication can smooth out some misconceptions.

To be blunt: be realistic about your expectations. If family members have trouble discussing and managing money, a wedding will not change that. Make a plan, and prepare to negotiate and mediate.

And while you’re at it, as the bridal couple, take a good hard look at your own approach to finances. Are you reliable when it comes to money? Do you tend to underestimate the cost of purchases? Are you able to work out money issues together? If these subjects are difficult for you, step to the plate. Planning and paying for your wedding responsibly can establish a solid approach to your future spending habits. And that is good news for your marriage.   

Sometimes a generous but impulsive offer can lead to hurt feelings and worse. Here’s an example: your aunt would like to give a bridal shower. You all agree on the date and time but somehow, the food and drink has not been discussed. Your aunt decides to hire a catering company, finds it too expensive, and asks other family members to chip in and pay for the shower. Hmm. Awkward. You might not have even wanted the shower to begin with. The lesson here is be grateful for the generosity of your family but be sure the gift doesn’t create a burden for the donor or the rest of the family.

Making assumptions about who pays for what at a wedding is misguided and offensive. The groom’s family is supposed to pay for the rehearsal dinner? The bride’s family always pays for the wedding? These are myths. True for some but don’t count on others having your same perspective.

Your wedding may incur costs for your guests and in particular, members of the wedding party. These costs are not always welcomed.
My young friend, Simona, a recent bridesmaid, says this:

Participating cost me a lot of money. I paid for my own bridesmaid dress and shoes and hair as well as the bachelorette party, bridal shower and gifts. Just to give you an idea, my dress was $250, shoes $150, bachelorette party $200 each, bridal shower cost me $80 with the gift, hair $50, $100 for wedding gift. Having to pay that much was definitely really hard, especially since I am a student who only works part-time. I had to really save and be aware of my spending for weeks before and
after the wedding.

Simona’s story is familiar, unfortunately. This kind of expenditure is too much to expect and puts a horrible strain on a friendship. Expecting guests to travel long distances and pay for hotels is another sensitive issue. Your close friends may dearly want to celebrate with you, but at what cost? Your wedding should not be a loyalty test. When you budget for your wedding, consider exactly what you want to ask of your friends and family. Will your special day be a cause for celebration or financial hardship for others? Be sure to warmly include long distance friends and relatives but let them know up front that their attendance is hoped for but not an obligation.

Destination weddings really get the commonsense guide’s hackles up. Are you eloping? Taking you parents with you? A sibling or two? Are all of you really on board with the idea? Well, have a great time. If, on the other hand, you plan to invite many guests outside of your immediate family, you will be asking your guests to pay to attend your wedding. It makes no difference whether your guests ‘can afford it’ or not. It’s a matter of principle. Before you mail all those invitations, consider this: will your guests appreciate having to take time from work or use vacation hours to participate in your event? Does it occur to you that some folks might think you are simply angling for a gift and not their presence? (Trust me, this is what folks think.)

Bottom line? Have the kind of wedding you want but don’t ask your guests or your friends to foot the bill.

Most couples have little or no experience planning weddings. This is not a drawback just reality. In theory, weddings are no different from other transactions. You gather some facts and figures, determine what you will spend, and pay for it. What makes weddings different from, say, buying a car, are the pressures you encounter and the huge array of choice. The pressure to spend will come from many sources, such as the wedding industry but can also include your family, friends, and even yourselves.

Despite these pressures, what you spend is ultimately your decision. And whether you do everything yourselves or hire others, it will all cost money. And that is the piece of the puzzle that you can determine and control.

So work out what you want to spend, stick to it, and start off your marriage on a firm financial footing.


*Uttered by Cuba Gooding in the film Jerry Maguire.


Wedding Ceremonies

This is not the chicken or the egg situation.

What comes first is the marriage ceremony. Whether it’s in a church, city hall, or the backyard, the wedding ceremony, which makes the marriage official in the eyes of the state, is the starting point. The party comes afterwards.

As you plan your wedding, you will doubtless become absorbed in the details surrounding the reception but remember the purpose of the wedding day. You will awake single and go to sleep married. It’s a big day.

It is not difficult to get married but there are steps to follow. In the United States, you will need a marriage license. States have different requirements but basically, you both need to show up at the appropriate office, provide identification, pay a fee, and make the application. If you have been divorced, you will need to show proof that the divorce is finalized. Sometimes there is a required waiting period between the issuing of the license and the marriage ceremony. Once the ceremony is performed, the couple and the officiant both sign the license and a copy is filed with the state.

The above is a very bare bones description. You will need to find out for yourselves what the requirements are in your area.

From the officiant’s point of view, my rabbi friend adds this,

Every state has a different licensing process, and every time you prepare to officiate at a wedding in a new state you have to make sure that you’ve done your homework.

There are several ways to get legally married, both religious and secular. Here’s an overview:      

  • Civil marriage takes place before a public official. This can be performed at a city or town hall or a specifically designated office.
  • Certain institutions such as the Ethical Society perform secular marriage ceremonies at either their community building or a location selected by the bridal couple.
  • A religious ceremony performed at the church, synagogue, temple, or other place of worship. Some religions permit the officiant to marry a couple in an alternative location (such as your home, hotel, public park, etc.) If the couple are of different religions, it is possible to have more than one officiant, representing each faith, conduct the ceremony.
  • A friend or relative can marry you by becoming ordained on the internet in the Universal Life Church.
  • A ‘self-uniting’ marriage is a term used notably for Quaker marriage but includes other religions in which an officiant is not present. Pennsylvania, not surprisingly, recognizes this form of marriage as does Colorado. But check the regulations carefully, In Pennsylvania, some counties do not recognize self-uniting marriage.

Premarital Counseling

Premarital education or counseling is actively encouraged in many states which will waive all or part of the licensing fee. Some states offer free classes.

What is premarital counseling? Generally speaking, it’s a series of classes or meetings designed to address issues relating to communication and conflict management within a marriage.

I asked my rabbi friend about premarital education and what the counseling entailed.

Some of it is getting to know each other, which I feel is important to creating a meaningful ceremony. Some of it focuses on discussion with the couple about their relationship, their dreams, and their expectations of marriage and of each other. It’s important to have them speak to each other about children, finances, and marital roles. In my case, I ask about how they hope to create a Jewish home. I also use this time to go over the logistics and choreography of the ceremony; we work together to decide which traditional elements they want to include, re-interpret, or do without.

I asked how important she felt the counseling was.

  I think it’s very important. If a couple is not able to do pre-marital counseling with the officiant, I recommend working with a couples’ therapist.

Jason Kuttner, a counselor in Portland, Oregon, who has officiated at about twenty weddings (including my daughter’s) as a Universal Life Church minister had this to say,

I wouldn’t consider marrying a couple without meeting with them first and having some counseling. My wife and I got a lot out of our own premarital counseling sessions. I think the ways a couple resolve conflict is one of the most important issues.

One young couple told me that the officiant had asked them to think about their parents’ marriages. What would they like to emulate and what would they try to avoid in their own marriage? Other topics included were how do we best support each other? What do we do when we are angry? What is our biggest challenge as a couple?

Onto the Ceremony

To state the obvious: the wording of the vows and the order of the service depends on the marriage ceremony you have chosen. But secular or religious, couples benefit from devoting attention to their vows.

My friend David, an Episcopalian verger, had this to say about the wedding ceremony in his church,

It is important to note that the priest doesn’t marry the couple. They marry each other with help from the officiant. It is also important that people witness the event because all of us married folk need help from not just God but our friends and supporters.

David spoke of the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer with its well-known phrases (and warnings) urging that “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately… ” which includes “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…” His conclusion?

Marriage is not easy and we all need the support of each other to make it work. There is a part where the officiant turns to the people and asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The people answer: “We will.

Sometimes the preparation for the ceremony triggers some serious reflection. Jason spoke to this:

By the time a couple decides to get married, often the last thing they want to think or talk about are the challenges they deal with in their relationship. But when I work on a ceremony, it is important for me to get a sense of their interpersonal dynamics so I can try to add something specific about them in the script. Also, perhaps presumptuously, I feel like it is my role as the minister to get the couple to talk about the reasons they want to get married. People can get so caught up in the celebration planning that they forget what makes them feel like getting married in the first place. Unless they are working with a therapist or a religious counselor, there may be no one else in their lives who is not invested (i.e. family, friends) in their relationship who will get them to talk to each other honestly about their reasons for wanting to be together.

It’s hard to top the traditional vows for sheer beauty but writing your own vows is an exercise in togetherness that compels a couple to put into words and state publicly their promises. My friend Emily found the process joyous.

“We wrote our own ceremony culling/cribbing from ones we found online, drawing also from things we liked at weddings we attended. We wanted to reference each of our grandparents, so we had something Celtic, something Scandinavian, something Episcopalian and something Jewish.”

The joyous part is especially important to remember. Why do we marry in the first place? My friend David believes people get married for a whole variety of reasons but suspects most people feel that two people supporting one another can cope with life better than one person living a solitary life. Not to mention children.

So bring on the bells and flowers, dancing and feasting, but remember that the reason  for all the festivities is to celebrate your vows.

Wedding Plans: The First Step

You’ve decided to get married. Now what?

Maybe celebrating your marriage with a wedding reception (and other events) is a foregone conclusion. Or maybe it’s a decision you’ve approached gradually. Whatever the route taken, the first step in planning a wedding is to talk things through with your mate and then, talk with those who will be directly involved.

Ask yourselves, what are our expectations? What’s important?

From my experience, bridal couples usually report one thing that is very important to them right from the start. For some, that ‘thing’ is very specific. Here are a few examples:

One couple I know felt that the music was really paramount in their planning.

 “We wanted live music and went to hear a lot of bands before deciding on the right one. It was more important to us than the food, decoration, or a lot of other stuff. We were so happy with our decision – everyone danced and the music really made the party.”

From another couple:

“We have always loved cooking and entertaining and at first, we thought we’d do our wedding reception ourselves. But we decided instead to have a wedding at a small (but cool) hotel with special cocktails and great food. So, what was most important to us? Not doing it all ourselves but staying within our budget. We saved up for the wedding because we planned to buy a house and didn’t want to rack up a lot of credit card debt. Our reception was just what we wanted and we felt so good about the whole experience.”

And yet another:

The location. We had family coming from out of town and found a great place that had plenty of room for everyone, a great reception area, beautiful grounds, and good food. It all worked out so well.

In the same vein:

“We rented a big beach house. We wanted to spend the time with our family and friends over a couple of days. It was unforgettable.”

To home in on your own plan, think about your wedding in general terms. What do you think would be important? You might think the size of your crowd is the first thing to determine or setting the date but I would not agree. Whatever your particular ‘important thing’ is (and it might change), envision that first. Don’t immediately start making lists.

I have posed the “What was the most important thing?” question to many couples but I found this response very touching:

“Mary, I’ve thought about your question a lot and I have to say that making my parents happy was the most important thing to me.”

This came from a young woman in her twenties whose parents threw the wedding. Quiet and scholarly, this bride would not be the one to focus on all the bells and whistles of wedding planning.

“To my surprise, my parents had a much clearer vision than I of how the event should take shape. I realized I cared less about the small details and more about seeing my parents enjoying the planning process. I would add that it wasn’t only my parents. My fiancé’s mother was also very involved with the rehearsal dinner and I got the sense it also pleased her to plan and that she also had strong opinions about how things should go.”

I think it would be hard to find a more mature and thoughtful response.

A wedding is a shared celebration.

 When parents are the funders, it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t have a say in planning the event. The young bride mentioned above understood this. Moreover, she and her fiancé recognized that the wedding day is an event involving families. Her attitude was not one of self-sacrifice or cringing agreement but rather, recognition that the day is a shared one.

Another example of sensitivity comes from a couple marrying for the second time, each with children.

“We really wanted to celebrate and get our families and friends together but we also were in the process of blending our respective families. We thought an over-the-top event would be confusing and uncomfortable for our children.”

They opted for a small afternoon wedding (but it was on Valentine’s Day!) at the bride’s brother’s house. It was comfortable, cozy, romantic, and elegant. It was in a familiar place. Everyone had a great time – including the kids.

In my questions to brides, I have never heard one say that her dress was the most important thing and or that the wedding was ‘her’ day. This is not say that brides shouldn’t be excited and interested in their appearance but rather that wedding clothes, as with many other details, are one aspect of a larger picture.

Families all have their specific personalities, quirks, and yes, peculiarities. But you know each another. I’ve always thought that bar mitzvahs are joyous and straightforward because it’s all the same family. Wedding are, by nature, a delicate dance: when two people get married, two different families come together.

So, as you think about your wedding in a broad sense, inform and include those who will be directly involved in your plans. A lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication can be avoided if the participants are clear and frank with one another right from the start.

A final thought: talking is fine but listening is critical. When I was married (for the first time), my father said two things:

“I’d like champagne at the wedding.”

And “I won’t wear a rented suit.”

 What he meant was:

“I want you to have a nice party and I’m prepared to be generous.”

And “Please don’t ask me to participate in an event I’m not comfortable with.”

In the previous year, I had been to a couple of very fancy weddings in New York where the men in the wedding party wore white tie and tails. I suppose I did have a fantasy about something similar. But that style of wedding wasn’t right for my fiancé, our families, or me. As it turned out, we talked and we listened and it was a very nice party indeed.

So that’s step one in wedding planning.

The $28,000 Wedding… Oh really?

When you hear $28,000 for a wedding, what would you say to brides?
Don’t freak out.*

About a year ago, I was in the wedding book section of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon and struck up a conversation with a young woman who was doing some planning for her upcoming wedding. Something she said really struck home.

“With the average wedding costing $28,000, I’m not sure how we’re going to it. We just can’t spend that much money to get married.”

This $28,000 figure is one I kept coming across. After hearing it again from the prospective bride, I decided to get to the bottom of it. Something didn’t sound right.

There are approximately 2.1 million marriages performed every year in the United States. Industry figures for the cost of a wedding, even with the recession, cite $28,000 and above as average. (The important words here are: industry figures.)

Rebecca Mead, a regular contributor to  the New Yorker magazine, took three years to investigate the American wedding scene. Her book, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, is wise and insightful. In it, Rebecca Mead says,

“If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending nearly $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month or paying health insurance premiums.”

What do these figures mean? The answer is not much. Carl Bialik, aka The Numbers Guy from the Wall Street Journal, says this:

 “The so-called average cost… is a mean…. The mean is especially susceptible to a single lavish exception: One $1 million wedding put into the mix with 54 weddings costing $10,000 each would boost the mean to $28,000, although among the 55 couples, $10,000 would seem a much better representation of the typical cost.”

He further explains that the results are tallied from e-mail survey responses conducted by wedding sites and represent a tiny fraction of the bridal population. The bottom line? Those ‘average’ costs are very misleading.

But having this ‘average’ reported extensively in books, magazines, on television and on websites is persuasive. Industry professionals naturally want business and are not above appealing to a couple’s insecurity and ignorance, suggesting that a do-it-yourself wedding is ‘risky’ or ‘tacky’ or ‘cheap’.

The $28,000 wedding is nothing more than a profitable and persuasive sales pitch.

But there’s more to it than that. I really wish I could find the young woman I met at Powell’s bookstore and say to her,

“It doesn’t matter. Really and truly. Whatever you spend on your wedding is your business. There will be many who spend fifty times the supposed ‘average’ or a fraction of it – but that’s not your concern.”

In other words, don’t freak out.

The average cost of a wedding is irrelevant to what a couple’s needs might be. How much to spend and how to spend it should be determined by the customer not the wedding industry. That is the real issue. Couples can and should take control, ignore the hype, and draw on the vendors for their valuable expertise.

I’d like to give the ‘average cost of a wedding’ a quiet little burial right now and urge bridal couples to take a good squint at what they can and want to spend.

I know lots of couples who have spent wisely and avoided starting their marriage with debt. Lots of people who participate actively in the wedding preparations. They aren’t fooled by a lot of hype but recognize that weddings do take time, planning, and effort.

I’m going to end this post with a little story. A true story.

What was the most important thing to you in planning your wedding?
The location.
How much did your wedding cost?
Did that include your dress?
That included everything.
Were you happy with the outcome of your wedding day?
We loved every minute.

I had this conversation with a young couple seated next to me on an airplane. They were headed for their honeymoon. During the trip, they mentioned they had just been married and I asked them a few questions which they were happy to answer.

I was so impressed by their air of complete satisfaction and happiness. Nothing average about this couple!

Now just to underline my point. The amount my honeymooning fellow passengers spent on their wedding was satisying to them. They threw a great wedding! But their experience is theirs alone and this post is not about their budget (I have plenty to say about budgeting which I’ll save for later.)

It is about you, making your own reasoned and personal decisions.


Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik, aka The Numbers Guy’s article about calculating wedding costs,

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead  is a very compelling read from a very gifted and thorough writer. You may or may not find it in the wedding section of a bookstore. Often, it’s shelved in sociology.

For a good look at the “True Cost of a Wedding” as presented using industry facts and figures go to the following site:

* Question posed by the author to the Retail and Consumer Issues reporter Laura Gunderson at the Oregonian newspaper.