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♥ & $: Planning Your Dream Wedding? Might Want to Rethink That One

flickr.wedding.andrewmorrellphotographyI went to get my hair cut the other day and my stylist, Sergio, told me he and his fiancé have finally set the date for their wedding: September, 2013; only four years after the birth of their son. As Sergio said, “Better late than never.”

Much controversy has arisen over the deep decline in the rates of marriage amongst Millennials. “Just 20% of Millennials are currently married,” reads a report by the Pew Research Center. “Back when Gen Xers were the same age that Millennials are now, some three-in-ten of them were married, as were more than four-in-ten Baby Boomers and more than half of the members of the Silent Generation (ages 65 and older).”

It would seem Millennials just don’t like marriage very much.

Some claim it’s because “those kids” are too immature or refuse to grow up. Some argue Gen Y has seen the high divorce rates and refuse to repeat the pattern of their parents or older siblings. Others say the institution itself is old-fashioned and doesn’t reflect the realities of modern life. However, the research belies these theories. Pew says: “Among 18- to 29-year olds who are not currently married and have no children, 70 percent say they want to marry and 74 percent say they want to have children.” For a smart Millennial, marriage may not be the issue at all. Perhaps weddings are the problem.

The average wedding costs over $25,000 (!). This includes the fancy dress, the flowers, the caterer, the limo, the music, the videographer,  et cetera, et cetera. And of course, don’t forget the wedding planner. Any financially savvy Millennial will know that this kind of expense can be a big deterrent to committing to a wedding. That’s what kept Sergio from walking down the aisle. “She had a vision in mind, and we couldn’t afford it until now,” he explained.

Many women — like the one I recently read about in the New York Times —  have been planning their wedding for years, often long before Prince Charming has even stepped into their lives. They envision their dress, that special moment of “I Do” and the rockin’ party afterwards. Hard not to get excited when Hollywood feeds the fantasy with movies such as Bridesmaids27 Dresses, and The Wedding Planner.

I can relate. I’ve seen all the movies and cried or laughed on cue. I’ve seen them, and loved most of them, because I’m a romantic and I believe in love and marriage. But it’s fascinating that as weddings are on the decline, we are being bombarded with movies about weddings. When I was in my twenties and planning my own wedding, there was no media blitz telling me how it should be done. And certainly no Pinterest to reinforce my materialistic fantasies.

Still, as look back over my shoulder all these years later, there are so many things I wouldn’t have done at my wedding, not the least of which was to waste so much of my parents’ money. My husband and I were lucky in that they were willing to foot the bill (within reason). But, did I really need all that pomp and circumstance? I’ve come to understand it isn’t about that one day, it is about all of the days that follow.

I have more than one friend and a number of relatives who regret the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on their weddings. One, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me he and his fiancé spent two years and nearly $50,000 on the wedding of “her dreams.” Then, two years later they were in divorce court. Apparently he wasn’t her Prince Charming. “She decided planning the wedding was more fun than actually being married,” he complained.

A few years ago when my much younger sister asked me about how she should plan her wedding, I told her to keep it small and save the money for a home, a place in which she and her husband could build their life together. And that is exactly what she did. Now they live out in the country with a view many would envy. Their house has room for their six-year-old son and the baby soon on the way. Money is tight, but would have been much tighter if she’d wasted all of her savings on one day rather than all the years that have followed.

If you are busy fantasizing about or even actually planning your “dream” wedding, I encourage you to step back and ask yourself if the money could be better spent on building a long-term foundation for your future rather than letting it float away on the fleeting pleasure of a champagne bubble. It isn’t just about cost cutting, it’s about asking yourself, “Will this really matter ten years from now?” If your parents are helping with the costs, perhaps you could negotiate to receive the money they would have spent on a lavish wedding and put it to much better use. I estimate you’ll save bundles if you keep the long-term view front and center. Remember, you don’t need hundreds of people to confirm your love, just that one special person.

If you are married, how did you handle the expense of your wedding? If you’re not married, are the costs a deterrent to making that commitment?

Published or updated on February 6, 2013

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About Lisen Stromberg

Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog, follow her @LisenStromberg or become her friend. Email her at lisen (at) prismwork. com with your ♥ & $ questions and concerns.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Angela says:

    My husband and I got married about a year ago, and our grand total was about $3,000. And that included our honeymoon for a week in Arizona! We had about 100 guests and it was a wonderful day. I think the biggest saver for us was that we did a potluck reception. Our group of friends and family has always done potluck parties, and we figured our wedding was just a special party. We did not register for any gifts and made it clear that we did not want or need anything, other than a day with friends and family and their favorite potluck dish! We did splurge on hiring a band for the reception, but it was still well within our small budget. You really can do a wedding for cheap, it just requires some flexibility and creativity. Plus, then you can focus more on the most important thing: building a future with your spouse.

  2. Cassie says:

    The problem does not lie within the cost. This day in age, at least to Gen Y there appears to really be nothing, other than the paper that makes getting married worth it. No one “has to” or is “expected to” get married before children, or living together. It is socially excepted now to have all of the same things married people have. More and more of the same “married benefits” are given to domestic partners. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

  3. Sam says:

    Before you get into the cost of a ring, I would recommend doing some research on what you’ve been tricked into thinking. Diamonds are not an investment, you will never recoup the cost. It’s a fascinating article all about how one marketing campaign changed the world, not just the US.


  4. Meg says:

    It’s not just the wedding costs that are at issue – no one has mentioned the ring costs which put off many men from proposing in the first place. I’ve had male friends who were excited to get married and anxious to start a family but put off proposing to their girlfriends for years as they struggle to save for a ring purchase. Even the financially stable ones with lots of savings didn’t want to wipe out emergency funds or postpone debt repayment to buy the ring and start the spending spree that will include a wedding, a new house, and probably a baby over the next several years after popping the question.

    Many of us millenials have been living alone and saving for so long that the idea of reversing that trend is paralyzing at worst and off-putting at best.

  5. Michelle Boyce says:

    My husband and I married when I was 20 and he was 28, and we actually managed to plan most of the wedding in about 12 hours (the whole engagement was only 6 days) and spend around $500. Honestly, it was a dream wedding for me. We bought the wedding bands at the beginning of the week and had originally planned on just getting married in the courthouse, but then decided later to do a bit more so our parents could be there. We managed to have the dress, the tux and a small cake and have just immediate relatives present. My father-in-law is a pastor and agreed to do the ceremony for us (he even found a church we could have used if we had wanted to) and we had other friends that would have been more than happy to do the ceremony for us. I ended up having the wedding at my parent’s home where I grew up. We’ve been married for almost 6 years now, we have our first home and we never had to worry about paying off a wedding since we did not spend much to begin with. In the future we plan on doing a big ceremony for a renewal of our vows for perhaps a 10, 15, 20 or 25th wedding anniversary when there is something big to celebrate, we don’t have other things we want to buy (i.e. new cars, our next home, paying off student loans) and can event all our friends and family that have seen us go through our ups and downs, and we have all the time in the world to save up for it. So really, I think inexpensive weddings are the way to go, it isn’t as stressful and you don’t need to break the bank, and it will still be just as memorable.

  6. Thanks for this post! Excellent read. Being in my mid twenties and consciously aware of every dime I’m spending, I’d MUCH rather have my family help out with a down payment on a condo or townhome. It’s very tempting to have the dream wedding ceremony, but when the time comes, I think I’ll settle for a down payment fund and a great honeymoon.

  7. Katie says:

    My husband and I got married two years ago for about $8750…including every little detail, such as our wedding bands. We invited only 50 people. We married in the local botanical gardens and had our reception at a nearby restaurant with a gorgeous private courtyard/dining room area.

    The ceremony in the gardens was wonderful because we didn’t have to decorate; the scenery was already gorgeous. We hired a local guitarist for music. My sister is a makeup artist so gave her services for free, and her gift to me was hiring her hairstylist for myself, the bridesmaids, and the mothers. My dress was a bridesmaid gown made in ivory, simple and elegant (only $160.) My friend assembled the flowers, which I bought at cost, as her gift to us (I spent about $120 there.) I also used some less expensive flowers (carnations) along with roses; they were gorgeous together.

    I really recommend doing a restaurant reception for a couple of reasons…one of them is you don’t have to decorate! They lay everything out just how you want it. We did an iPod for music (I didn’t have dancing, and I didn’t really care for any, so that was fine with me.) The restaurant was the largest single cost, but it was worth it because it is one of our favorites and the food was amazing. We decided to have killer food for fewer people, rather than just okay food for more people. We had appetizers, salad, a choice of main courses, a champagne toast, and hosted beer and wine for the guests for about $3000 including a tip. My very talented friend made our professional and expensive-looking cake as her gift to us. ( If your friends have these skills and offer to help you, take them up on it!) This wedding was intimate and fun; we actually got to sit and talk to each guest for a significant time.

    One last key item…this money was already in the bank…we didn’t go one cent into debt! I would have had a backyard wedding for less if necessary, because the important things were marrying the right person and making wonderful memories with our families on our special day. Our family and friends still bring up how much they loved it, two years later, and my husband and I have no regrets.

  8. KM says:

    Our wedding cost around $300 and most of it was on the reception. It was just our closest families at the courthouse, a $22 dress, $40 for the marriage license, and the rest on dinner at a sushi buffet (my husband and I love sushi). It was memorable, fun, a bit stressful (as opposed to a lot stressful), and exactly what both of us wanted. We talked about renewing our vows in a few years and inviting more friends for a still-small backyard wedding, but right now we are just enjoying our life and family together, which is what really matters.

  9. Sarah says:

    I just got married on NYE 2013 and it was a day and night that I will never forget. We had 230 guests, I wore the most amazing dress and we danced, ate and drank our way merrily into 2013.

    Did we splurge a little bit? Yes. Was it to the tune of credit card bills and loans? No. I still have savings in the bank, I did not bankrupt my parents. Through the generosity of family and friends that were willing to DIY and help out, a TON of hard work (ie. I was up at 6am on boxing day baking 12 sheet cakes for our wedding cake) and sourcing out multiple options for items such as flowers (fake online), jewlery (found it for myself and my bridesmaids in China town, Toronto) and being supremely organized we came in around $15 000.

    I think the main problem is people spend beyond their means on their weddings. You need to be realistic about what you can and cannot afford and be smart about where you allocate your money! Don’t invite anybody you wouldn’t take out for a $50 meal, don’t inflate your guests’ expectations (most people are happy to have weekend plans, they aren’t going to care if you spend $13/head or $17/head) and don’t buy anything that isn’t essential to the vibe of the party (ie. favours – WHY do people spend money on these things? They’re usually useless and get thrown out. Put that money into a nice thank-you card with a picture!)

  10. Drew says:

    I think the cost of a wedding is why we see our generation delay marriage and put it off until our late 20’s / early 30’s. However, I think the actual drop in marriage rate is due to the divorce rate. We were really the first generation to grow up in the era of divorce. The silent generation didn’t really divorce, but the baby boomers and Gen X took divorce to a new high. Growing up in and around that has put a bad taste in our generation’s mouth. We grew up in the middle of the nastiness and the custody battles. We split time between parents for weekends & holidays. We told ourselves, “when I grow up, that will never be me”. Now we see that sentiment in action. More and more I hear people say they will never get married, not because of the cost of the wedding, but the fear of divorce.

    For men, we are asking ourselves if it makes sense to risk 50% of our net worth and future earnings on a 50/50 pot shot. We might as well liquidate half of our assets, go to Las Vegas, and put it all on red at the roulette table…and hey, if you lose, you will at least get comped a high roller suite for the weekend, which sure beats months of lawyers and court dates.

    It’s sad, but that is the new status quo. I hope that I will get married some day, but I won’t get married just to get married … there is too much on the line and I’ve seen the fallout if things go south.

  11. amber says:

    I struggle with this because my bf would like a ceremony with just us two. No parents, family or friends. Obviously we could do that super cheap! But I would sooooo regret not having my family and closest friends there. I do not want anything fancy but somehow I’ve always pictured a backyard wedding and just cannot elope. He is not very social and has a very different family relationship so I understand his point of view but excluding the people I love most is just not an option for me. So anyway, that is probably why we’re not married – but it has nothing to do with money at all.

  12. Mr. 1500 says:

    I don’t like the idea of a big wedding. It takes the focus away from the core function; the marriage.

    We had a very small wedding with only our closest friends, parents and siblings (15 people). We followed up a couple months later with a party at our home in which we invited everyone else. I worked our great, didn’t break the bank and no-one was offended.

  13. Sam says:

    I just got married in November and we set a budget of $6,000 for everything – including the dress and wedding bands. We came in under that with a fabulous venue, food, photographer, fancy cake, hair, bartender, officiant, guitar player for the ceremony and a DJ – many of these were friends giving us deals or DIYing a lot. We had about 40 of our closest friends who are family to us celebrate. The venue decorated the area for us, and I even got a discount on the venue by just asking for one due to our budget constraints. Our caterer was a friend who had tables and tablecloths and decor for the buffet style tables left over from her mom’s vow renewal two months before. A friend of mine and her boyfriend came in to help with photography from Nashville. My dress was from CraigsList, which I later sold to someone on Recycled Bride (now tradseys or something like that). Many of my sorority sisters helped with the handmade paper flowers – and on my wedding day and drove them to our venue to setup. I truly couldn’t have done it without them. The hairdresser was a friend of mine who met us at the venue and gave us a discount. Another friend picked up those wonderful bubbles for the send off and brought them to the wedding. I made these fabulous invitations all by myself, coloring and stitching over 70 invites. RSVPs were done by text or our website. It was a lovely wedding and I couldn’t have imagined anything better! It’s completely possible to have the wedding of your dreams if you let yourself stretch the budget. Please if anyone needs help with that sort of thing – just google or ask if you need help with DIY ideas including paper flowers!!! I’ve still got all my paper flower how-tos bookmarked!

  14. Cass says:

    My husband and I got married in college at 20 and 21. We are millenials, and happily married four years later. We spent approximately $5,000 on our wedding, and did the entire wedding by hand. We asked people to save mason and kitchen cars and donate them to us, and we had hundreds of tea lights and white daises in jars as our decor. We ordered all our flowers from a wholesale florists, and did all the arrangements, bouquets, and boutonnieres ourselves. Our closest friends and family members brought their favorite family dessert recipe, and we had a potluck dessert and coffee reception. My husband’s aunt made us a wedding cake as our present. We used an iPod as our “DJ” and danced under the stars on the grass.

    It was a simple, amazing celebration not only of our love, but of the people who loved and supported us in our marriage. I would not have traded my wedding for the whole world! I have seen many of my friends, however, go into major debt for their weddings. I don’t think that’s smart. The wedding is important, but no where near as important as building a life and a future together. Save the money – buy a house, travel together, get couple’s therapy (!!!), and enjoy marriage!

  15. Kevin says:

    Two good friends of mine set a budget of $1000 for their wedding a few years ago. For the venue and entertainment, they rented the affordable and beautifully situated Dartmouth Outing Club lodge, had a co-worker’s band play music for the ceremony and dinner, and DJ’ed the later portions of the reception using a fleet of iPods with playlists created by the guests. For food and drinks, they coordinated an amazing buffet of potluck dishes which doubled as the guests’ presents for the couple (the options were exquisite because everyone wanted to provide something fantastic).

    Many weddings later, this one sticks out as one of the most enjoyable I’ve attended. From the first announcement of “Hey, we’re getting married!” and explanation of the arrangement, the guests felt happily involved in their big day and that their gifts (of not only food, but presence and participation) were truly valued by the couple. We were excited to be there to celebrate this couple’s love and future, without pretension of what a wedding “should” be.

    Finally, because this article is about wedding finances, it’s hard to imagine more people having more fun for less money. The long-term rewards of their debt-free wedding have been manifest in their flexibility to change jobs for healthier lifestyles, return to school for post-graduate degrees, think about home ownership sooner rather than later, and start their family on happy, solid ground. These may not be everyone’s dreams, but this couple has provided a wonderful example for others looking to celebrate on a shoestring.

  16. S. Shelby says:

    I just recently blogged about student loan debt deterring weddings and I, too, am suffering with the reality that I won’t be having my dream wedding. I made terrible loan borrowing decisions and now, at 29, it’s just not in the cards for me at this moment. Even if my parents offer to help pay for a wedding, I’ll use the gift to help pay for a house. I definitely know a few peers who had pricey weddings who were quickly divorced or are tossing the idea around after a couple of years. I think I’ll end up being happy with buying the starter home of my dreams and sharing a grand 10 year vow renewal/anniversary party with loved ones.

  17. We were focused on the marriage, not the wedding, but we did spend quite a bit of money on the wedding. Honestly we didn’t want to put in the time to DIY any more than we did – we only had a 5 month engagement. We had a rather inexpensive wedding per capita but it was important to us to include many friends and family members so it added up. We would have gotten married on our timeframe no matter what amount of money was in the budget.

    I’ve heard it said that Millennials (of which I am one) idealize marriage and hold it in such high esteem that they are reluctant to make the leap. Personally we were quite motivated to walk the aisle and get started with the rest of our lives after we decided to marry (which was after 4 years of dating) as we have, shall we say, more traditional values concerning marriage.

  18. Andrea says:

    I got married 6 months ago. My parents paid for our wedding, but had a limited budget. Our goal was to spend only $5000. In the end it totaled around $6500. I am so glad we didn’t spend any more than that! Looking back, our wedding was absolutely perfect. So many people told us it was the most beautiful wedding they’d ever attended. We also managed to include all the things that mattered most to my husband and I, as well as my parents.

    Some of the ways we saved money: friend who’s in culinary school made cake as her gift to us, limited guest list – only 130 ppl at wedding, found my dream gown 50% off sample sale, ordered flowers through Whole Foods and arranged most of them ourselves, wedding venue price was almost 50% off through a Groupon deal, etc, etc. A beautiful, inexpensive wedding can be done!

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