One of the issues couples fight over leading up to their wedding day is money. Weddings are pricey enough to begin with, but it’s easy for dreams to overtake reality, resulting in skyrocketing estimates that are far beyond what either party expected. Before your bills start to overshadow your big day, it’s important to figure out how much you should spend on your wedding and where all that money should go.
The cost of an average wedding
According to a survey conducted by The Knot, the average wedding in 2020 cost $19,000. Of course, that number was a little lower than previous years due to COVID-era restrictions that forced many couples to scale back their guest lists as well as plans for their ceremonies and receptions. In 2019, the average cost for a wedding was $23,000, and costs for weddings in 2021 are expected to be close to that number.
But just because the average wedding is $23,000 doesn’t mean your budget has to be the same. Some couples choose to spend much less, emphasizing affordability over extravagance. The money they save can be used for a down payment on a house or a car instead, or maybe the happy couple prefers to splurge on a honeymoon rather than going all out on a party back at home. Or perhaps you’ll spend exponentially more than $23,000. If you dream of toasting your vows with high-end champagne and having the Jonas Brothers provide the entertainment at your reception, you’ll need a little more than $20K to make that happen.
What goes into the cost of a wedding?
To fully understand how much a wedding costs, you need to understand all the moving parts that help make your special day so, well, special.
Brides estimates the typical wedding budget breakdown as follows:
- 40% - venue and catering
- 15% - photography
- 10% - music
- 10% - flowers
- 10% - décor
- 4% - attire, such as wedding dress, bridesmaids’ gowns, groom’s tux, etc.
- 3% - transportation
- 3% - stationery, such as wedding invitations, wedding programs, and reception items
- 2% - favors
- 2% - cake
If you’re spending $23,000 on your wedding, the above breakdown would mean you’re paying an estimated $9,200 on your venue and catering and about $460 on your cake. But that breakdown is just a starting point. Foodies might opt to spend much more on a plated dinner featuring gourmet ingredients and make up the difference by choosing a smaller photography package or paring back flower arrangements for the reception.
The key is balance. If you want to spend more on one item, you’ll have to spend less somewhere else to keep your budget intact.
How to determine your budget
The biggest factor that goes into determining how much you should spend on your wedding is how much you have or are willing to spend. Your wedding budget should be a number you’re comfortable with. Don’t spend everything you have in the bank just because you can unless you’re okay with the idea of having nothing left once your ceremony and reception are through.
Your budget should be the product of a long, open-minded discussion between you and your partner. The only time you should include someone outside your relationship is if that person is contributing financially to your wedding. If your parents have offered to pay for your reception, they should be included in conversations about the budget. They may also want control over how the money is spent, so be prepared for that. Otherwise, you and your significant other need to agree on an actual number and commit to sticking to that budget. Any potential overages (more on that in a moment) are subject to a similar discussion so you’re always on the same page.
There are wedding budget calculators that can help you figure out where to spend your money. You’ll need to know what you want to spend overall and how many guests will be attending. From there, the calculator uses typical item costs and percentages similar to those mentioned above to estimate what you’ll spend on everything from save-the-date stamps to your rehearsal dinner.
Tracking your spending
It’s shockingly easy to lose track of what you’re spending. A few dollars here, an upgrade to your centerpieces there, and suddenly you’re 20% or 30% over your budget. You can use a spreadsheet (there are free options like Google Sheets) to log what you’re spending, which vendor it's going to, and how much money you have left. (Hint: Use the AutoSum feature to ensure all your expenditures are automatically calculated and incorporated into the bottom line — no surprises!)
Don’t forget to account for “extras” that might not be included in your original vendor estimates, such as:
- Service fees
- Parking fees
- Marriage license
- Vendor meals
Sometimes your vendors come up with random extras too, like cake-cutting fees or adding on utility surcharges for extra power consumed during the reception. Those extras should be listed on your contract, so look for them before signing and always ask whether the estimate is all-inclusive or if there are other fees not listed.
Leaving room for overages
No matter how carefully you monitor your budget, overages are almost guaranteed. Sometimes it’s just the difference between estimated cost and actual cost — perhaps your venue quoted you $2,000 for a four-hour reception and your guests did the Macarena an extra half hour. Per your contract, that’s an extra $500 charge.
Other overages happen because you change your mind, guests throw a wrench in the works, or life happens.
- You realized last minute that you don’t want to take an Uber from your house to the church and want to order a town car or limo
- You need last-minute alterations to your wedding dress or suit
- You stuffed your invitations with keepsake ornaments and now they require extra postage
- It’s a destination wedding and you forgot your dress shoes or veil
- It’s the day before your wedding and you realize you need shapewear to keep your bodice in place
- Guests that RSVP’d “no” showed up anyway (or worse, uninvited guests decided to crash the ceremony and you’re too polite to turn them away)
Leave room in your budget to take care of these “oops” moments and you’re less likely to stress when the inevitable happens.
How to save money (and maybe your relationship)
If you’re worried your wedding budget is going to be blown before you even have a chance to say your vows, know there are tons of ways to save money. Whether you’re spending a few thousand or well into the six figures, it’s nice to choose more affordable options when you can so you can shuffle that money wherever it’s needed more.
- Pick an off-season wedding date (typically winter or spring) and/or get married mid-week to avoid the most expensive weekend fees
- Use candles instead of flowers to supplement some of the more costly arrangements
- Rent your dress for the rehearsal dinner instead of buying it
- Use save-the-date postcards to reduce postage fees
- Consider wedding venues that are already beautiful and well decorated, such as an industrial space with natural charm or a waterfront spot
- Have your ceremony and reception at the same place to avoid extra fees and transportation costs
- Slim down your wedding party
- See if you have friends or family members who can use their skills to DIY certain elements such as your bouquets, centerpieces, bridal party presents, favors, or dessert table treats
- Check out all-in-one wedding invitations that combine several types of wedding stationery into one convenient piece
- Make your “something borrowed” a more expensive item you’d otherwise have to buy, like your wedding jewelry or the decorations for your sweetheart table
- Have a cocktail reception with a signature drink and passed apps rather than a sit-down dinner
- Think outside the box and hold your reception at a museum or host a picnic in the park
- Skip the fancy wedding cake and have a sundae bar, crepe station, or table filled with old-fashioned candy or pies
Ultimately, how much you spend on your wedding is a deeply personal decision, but there are many factors to consider before you can come up with a number that makes sense. Make a list of the elements that are important to you, put them in order according to priority, and use that list to determine how you want to spend your money. At the end of the day, the one thing you have to do is get married. The rest, as they say, is gravy.