Who Pays for the Wedding?

a hand puts a wedding note in a piggy bank

One thing you’ll learn very quickly once you start ticking boxes on your wedding checklist and planning your big day is that costs add up with remarkable speed. Everything from the cake tasting to the organist comes with an invoice, and at some point, those bills have to be paid. So, who’s whipping out the credit card?

Historically, it was a no brainer that the bride’s family paid for everything. In fact, in some cultures, they even paid the groom’s family for taking on a new member — that might mean gifting livestock or, in the case of royalty, an entire country.

But contemporary couples aren’t necessarily bound by tradition. In today’s society, when wedding etiquette can be more of a guideline than a rule, who should pay for a wedding and everything that goes along with it?

First…How much does a wedding actually cost?

a couple calculates their wedding budget on the kitchen counter

The average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2020 was $19,000 — and if you think that’s steep, remember that number’s likely a bit lower than normal due to COVID restrictions reducing the size and scope of wedding celebrations. Of course, it’s possible to get married for far less, and it’s just as easy to spend exponentially more depending on what you want your big day to look like.

Some of the things you may spend money on include:

  1. Wedding planner
  2. Save the dates
  3. Wedding invitations, programs, and other stationery
  4. Rehearsal dinner
  5. Wedding dress and/or tux
  6. Hair and makeup
  7. Transportation
  8. Reception venue
  9. Officiant
  10. Ceremony venue
  11. Decor
  12. Florist
  13. DJ/entertainment
  14. Photographer/videographer
  15. Alcohol and bartenders
  16. Catering and staff
  17. Wedding cake
  18. Wedding favors
  19. Thank-you cards

Regardless of who pays for your wedding, it’s crucial to monitor costs and know how much you’re on the hook for every aspect of your nuptials. Otherwise, you may discover far too late that you’ve blown your budget.

Who’s supposed to pay for a wedding?

a mother touches her daughter’s shoulder as she tries on a wedding dress

As for who actually foots the bill, that depends on various factors.

The bride’s family

Traditionally, the bride’s family is responsible for paying all wedding expenses. That includes everything from wedding invitations to the rice thrown at the newlyweds as they head off into their happily ever after. That was an especially easy tradition for brides to follow back in the day when women married young and were expected to live at home and forego career and even school until they were sent off to make a life with their new husbands.

Many people still choose to follow this tradition today, especially if the bride is younger or the family is particularly conservative or traditional.

Both sets of parents

Sometimes the happy couple’s parents want to split the bill. Perhaps the groom’s family pays for pre-wedding activities and either the ceremony or a portion of the reception and the bride’s family pays the rest. The key here is to not make assumptions.

If you think you and/or your future spouse’s parents want to help cover costs, have a private discussion and ask them whether they’d like to contribute. If the answer is yes, do the uncomfortable thing and ask about specifics. It’s crucial to know exactly how much your parents are willing to spend and what they want in return for that monetary support (more on that in a bit).

The couple getting married

In modern times, it’s increasingly common to see engaged couples planning and paying for their weddings themselves. The average age of people getting married in 2020 was 32. That’s a far cry from the average age of brides and grooms in the 1950s (20.3 and 22.8 years old respectively). Today’s couples are older, more established in their careers, and more likely to have savings they can draw from to create the wedding of their dreams.

Having steady income and a nest egg means it’s no problem for couples in the 21st century to foot the bill for whatever kind of wedding they want to have. Gen Xers (those born between 1965 and 1979/1980) pay for their own weddings 78% of the time. LGBTQ couples and those on their second marriage are also more likely to take on the majority or entirety of their wedding costs.

A modern mishmash

In most cases, no one person or group of people pay for 100% of the wedding. Many couples have some financial help paying for their wedding, but how that pie is split up can vary wildly.
Perhaps the groom’s family treats everyone to a rehearsal dinner and the bride’s family and the couple take care of everything else. Maybe the bride’s uncle or godmother buys the wedding dress and the groom’s cousin (a noted florist) offers to take care of the centerpieces, boutonnieres, and bouquets. Siblings of the spouses-to-be might host a bridal shower or engagement party.

Friends and members of the bridal party often step in too. One of the most common ways to have friends contribute is for bridesmaids and groomsmen to pay for their own wedding attire and pool resources to take care of the bachelor and bachelorette parties.

What to consider before you accept outside money

a couple reviews paperwork with a businesswoman

Remember that anytime you take money from someone to help pay for part (or all) of your wedding, you’re inviting not only financial support but also opinions. If your parents are paying for the reception, they may be very vocal about what they want to see on the menu or what style of service they’re willing to sign off on.

In the United States, couples typically pay about $27 per person for buffet-style dining versus $40 per person for plated meals. If you want a three-course gourmet dinner with multiple entrée choices but your parents only want to pay for family-style lasagna and Caesar salad, there’s a serious disconnect.

The same considerations apply if you’re considering accepting help from family and friends who may be vendors themselves. For instance, if your future sister-in-law is a baker and volunteers to make your wedding cake, you may be limited as to what that cake looks like. Unless you sign a normal vendor contract — something that may feel odd to even ask for when you’re getting a “favor” — you have little leverage in terms of demanding certain flavors or pushing for high-ticket embellishments.

Dresses can be a major point of contention. Ask any bridal consultant and they’ll be happy to share horror stories of brides who came with a parent or grandparent or aunt and uncle who giddily offered to pay for the dress only to balk at anything that didn’t fit their vision. The bride wants a mermaid-style dress? Too bad because mom has her heart set on a poofy ball gown. The bride doesn’t mind showing bare shoulders and some exposed back? Her very conservative grandma is having heart palpitations and refusing to open her wallet.

There is no hard and fast rule determining who pays for a wedding. In fact, statistics show that today’s couples are fairly split — 47% of all couples pay for their weddings themselves while 52% get at least some financial support from their parents.

Whoever pays for the wedding, it’s always a good idea to learn how to control costs. Then you can enjoy your big day knowing you’re not going into debt just to say, “I do.”