Financial Resource Center

Saying "I Don't" to Wedding Debt

by Monica Steinisch / January 19th, 2004

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue--nothing more than a sentimental wedding tradition, unless the something borrowed is thousands of dollars to pay for the big day. In studies on the subject of marital conflict, both husbands and wives typically cite money issues as the No. 1 point of contention. With all the other challenges newlyweds face, paying off a pile of debt could be the test that the marriage just can't withstand. Sometimes a financial rough spot is unavoidable, such as when a spouse loses a job or there's an illness in the family. But wedding-related debt is an entirely avoidable hurdle. Deb Sumiec of Waukesha, Wis., recounts the fallout from her own wedding excess. "The preparation for our wedding was the time in our relationship when we fought the most--with each other and with our parents," says Sumiec, recalling the day as a huge production that left her and her fiancé with "a great photo album," but exhausted and broke. "Money was no object. We even had butter carved in the shape of roses! We spent everything we had on that one day, but it wasn't what it should have been--an intimate celebration of our marriage."
"Know what you can afford and work with what you have..."
Since then, Sumiec says she's attended weddings that showed her you really can achieve the same level of elegance and individuality with half the money. "If I knew then what I know now, I would still have a big, beautiful wedding, but I'd spend much, much less and use the difference for something important and lasting, like the down payment on our first home." Despite the fact that the average wedding these days costs between $20,000 and $25,000, you can make the big day memorable and special without breaking the budget. It just requires the right attitude, a willingness to be flexible, some creativity, and plenty of time to plan.

Starting out richer rather than poorer

Those in the business of weddings agree that there are countless ways to cut costs without sacrificing the dream. The key is identifying what one or two things are most important to you and your future spouse so you can splurge in those areas and economize in others. For example, one bride put together a wedding for 150 people at a cost of just $1,500. The trick, she said, was to splurge on fresh flowers (her "must have") and good champagne (her fiancé's indulgence) and keep everything else simple. They also asked friends and family for help.
Wedding-related debt is an entirely avoidable hurdle.
Kim Dotta, a Vinton, Calif., mother of three who just celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary, agrees that your friends and family can help you start off your life together on the right foot. "We were very young with no money of our own and didn't want to ask our parents to foot the bill for an expensive wedding," says Dotta. "So we enlisted our closest friends to help us out wherever they could." One way the couple saved money was by borrowing a friend's wedding dress. When asked if she or her friend had any misgivings about wearing the same gown, Dotta says not at all. "This was another way for us to share my special day." While everyone will have his or her own ideas about where to spend and where to save, Joyce Scardina Becker, president of Events of Distinction, a San Francisco-based events and wedding planning design company, offers some specific ways to cut costs without sacrificing the dream.
You can achieve the same level of elegance and individuality with half the money.
  • Don't wed during peak season. You'll have far more leverage in negotiating prices on everything from catering to the band if you can avoid getting married during the height of wedding season in your area.
  • Lower the guest count. A shorter guest list not only keeps costs down, it creates a more intimate and personal affair. "Weddings are all about closeness," says Scardina Becker. "You just can't have an engaging conversation with each of more than a hundred or so guests." She recommends inviting only your immediate family and closest friends--those whom you would invite over to dinner at your house.
  • Consider your options for food at the reception. Surprisingly, a plated dinner is typically less expensive than a buffet. This is because when people serve themselves they tend to take much more food than a waiter normally would serve them, and the caterer has to keep restocking the food on a buffet. On the other hand, a brunch buffet usually is less expensive than a sit-down dinner or a served brunch. Midafternoon hors d'oeuvres can be a good money-saving option, particularly if you have waiters serving the appetizers rather than allowing guests to serve themselves. Look at the cost for different options and plan your wedding accordingly.
    There's no ... correlation between the cost of the [wedding] and the success of the marriage.
  • Limit the number of attendants. While some couples offer to pay for a portion of the bridesmaid's dresses and tuxedoes, this isn't an issue for most. But, having more attendants will mean more plates at the rehearsal dinner as well as more bouquets and boutonnieres. And, gifts for the wedding party can be expensive. Allow those closest to you to participate in some other significant way.
As with most things, your attitude will have a lot to do with your success in putting together the wedding you want within a budget you can manage. If you go into this believing that anything less than the most expensive will be a sacrifice, you'll end up either dissatisfied or broke. Dotta was able to wear her friend's dress because she never considered it a compromise.
There are countless ways to cut costs without sacrificing the dream.
Scardina Becker encourages anyone getting married to be flexible and creative and "think outside the box." She warns against following what the magazines say a wedding should be and advises couples to create something unique that reflects who they are. "A wedding is so personal," she says. "It's not about how expensive the centerpiece is, and it's definitely not about impressing the Joneses." Kristine Carl and Scott Sporte's 1998 wedding was the perfect synthesis of all of Scardina Becker's advice. The outdoorsy couple chose a nature theme for the wedding, which included 80 guests, a dinner buffet, and live music--and cost just $3,500. The key was planning far enough in advance that they could shop for the best prices and have time to make many of the decorations themselves, including bird's nest centerpieces constructed of paper maché with origami cranes and chocolate eggs inside. "We never felt like we had to conform to a certain mold," recalls Carl. "We just had fun with it. I wouldn't do anything differently." As a result, Carl and Sporte, Oakland, Calif., were able to start married life off without any wedding day bills.
Avoid getting married during the height of wedding season.
Here are more practical tips to help other newlyweds and their parents avoid postwedding money troubles.
  • Budget. You won't be in for a shock if you determine ahead of time how much you can afford to spend and then stick to your plans. A number of Web sites offer printable and online wedding budget planners.
  • Don't forget about miscellaneous expenses. Small forgotten expenses can wreak havoc on even the best-planned budget. Be sure to factor in tips, the marriage license fee, attendant gifts, thank you cards, and all the other smaller-ticket items that can add up.
  • Pay off credit cards as you use them. Using a credit card to pay for deposits and things in the months leading up to the wedding can be smart, but pay them down each month. If you don't, it's just too easy to wake up after the honeymoon to find you've gone over budget and are starting out with a big debt.
    "A wedding is ... definitely not about impressing the Joneses."
  • Don't count on cash gifts to pay for your wedding. Racking up wedding expenses based on expectations of cash gifts is a mistake. Spend only what you can afford to on your own, and use any money you receive to get a head start on your important financial goals.
  • Communicate with each other. In the months leading up to the wedding, talk often and openly about the wedding budget, bills to be paid, and choices to be made. ·

Honeymoon registry

So, you made it through the wedding without depleting your checking account or maxing out your credit cards. You're not out of the woods yet. Many couples do a great job sticking to a budget for the wedding but then cancel out that restraint with an over-the-top honeymoon. One way to limit the damage you do in that area is to enroll in a honeymoon registry, which gives wedding guests the opportunity to purchase pieces of the honeymoon as gifts. The bride and groom choose the destination and then register for those add-ons, such as a cruise down the Seine, a hot-air balloon ride above the Napa Valley, or a champagne reception upon arrival, that makes the trip truly special.
A wedding is a great way to ... put your financial compatibility to the test.
"The registry is really about letting guests choose something specific and very special for the couple to enjoy on their trip," says Nancy Bombace, founder and CEO of HoneyLuna, a California-based honeymoon registry service. "Since this kind of registry is all about creating memories, it's particularly nice for couples that are a little older or are getting married for the second time and don't need another toaster or more china." Bombace cautions that couples should plan to use a honeymoon registry to enhance their trip, not necessarily to pay for the whole thing. In other words, don't plan a trip around the world expecting your friends and family to foot the bill for everything from airline tickets to taxi fare. That approach could have you returning to a stack of credit card bills. As challenging as it may be, planning a wedding is a great way for you and your future spouse to get to know each other's money personality--how you save, spend, and feel about money--and put your financial compatibility to the test. Finding out early on that one of you is a spendthrift while the other is more of a miser allows you to deal with potential spending issues before you enter into a lifetime of financial partnership. If you can get through the wedding-planning challenge with your relationship and your finances intact, then you have set the stage for an emotionally and financially healthy future. Event-planner Scardina Becker may offer the most valuable advice of all when she says, "In all areas of life, know what you can afford and work with what you have." That approach just might help make the honeymoon last forever.
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