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?
$3,000.
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.

Resources:

Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik, aka The Numbers Guy’s article about calculating wedding costs, http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/calculating-the-cost-of-weddings-175/

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: http://www.divinecaroline.com/22072/113864

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

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“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