The ‘Bottom Line’ of Weddings - Who Pays for What?


Photo by Emma Dodge Hanson
By Lisa Light

A few questions always come up in my first meeting with an engaged couple. “Who pays for what?” is one of those questions. We all think we know the answer. At least, we have an idea—sometimes vague, sometimes clear—of who paid for what back in the days when there were ironclad etiquette rules for such things. (I’ll refresh your memory of the ‘traditional’ breakdown of costs and responsibilities, according to Emily Post, below.)

Weddings today, though, are governed more by choice than by rules. While some couples choose to follow the traditional guidelines, most chart their own territory, deciding “who pays for what” based on a variety of personal and familial factors. Over the years I’ve seen it all—every imaginable way to make sure that all the costs are covered. As you consider your own choices, I’ll share some of the more common scenarios from my experience, and, most importantly, the “pros” and “cons” of each.

Finally, there is a three word “bottom line” to this subject…the key to success no matter which path you take, (Hint: Make A Budget!) There are “pros” and “cons” to each financial route, but it is your budget (and a little diplomacy) that will guide you through the twists and turns.

TRADITIONAL

According to Emily Post*:

The bride’s family/parents paid most of the expenses of the ceremony and the reception, including wedding planner if any, invitations and announcements, photography and videotaping, groom’s wedding ring, and flowers. They paid as well for the bride’s gown, and accommodations for the bridal party.

The groom’s family/parents got off relatively easy, paying for his clothes, accommodations for the Best man and any other groom ‘attendants’, and the fee if any for the officiate.

PROS: Planning a wedding involves an exhausting number of choices. Between the big decisions—date, dress, etc.—and the little ones—tablecloth color?—it is sometimes nice to have some of the decisions made for you. Those who go the traditional route often appreciate having the ‘map’ that history provides.

CONS: Since the financial burden rests largely with the bride’s family, the traditional path is not the most equitable. I must say, as the mother of three daughters, I find this route a little frightening! I’ve found that sometimes couples who choose this traditional breakdown of costs find that their parents expect to play traditional roles in the overall planning, as well.

* Post, Elizabeth L. "Emily Post's Complete Book of Wedding Etiquette" 1991 HarperCollins


Photo by Corbin Gurkin

PARENTS PAY ALL

The costs can be evenly split among the parents, or split by a mutually agreeable arrangement based on resources. Sometimes, there are stepparents in the “parental group”, in which case the financial load can be carried by quite a few people.

Pros: For the couple, the “pros” are obvious. The parents have offered to pick up the whole tab? Hooray!

Cons: I’ve found that (after the initial ‘Hoorays’) this route can become politically difficult. The kids and their parents have to balance priorities, communicate, compromise, and negotiate with each other. It can be awkward, especially when, for example, the bride falls in love with a dress the parents can't afford. Also, parents are often not clear about what might be included in the "wedding budget" these days. Some items might strike them as strange: “An old-fashioned candy counter for the reception? What the heck?” Other items, such as expensive welcome gifts, or hair and makeup for all the bridesmaids, can be overwhelming, and I’ve seen parents start to feel taken advantage of. Also, even when parents have agreed to ignore the traditional splits, I’ve seen some vestige of the old responsibilities remain. A groom’s parents might get annoyed by traditionally “brides family items” (that expensive dress!), or the bride’s family might balk at paying for the rehearsal dinner or for the groom’s clothing.

COUPLE PAYS ALL

This is an increasingly common scenario, especially for older couples and second marriages. Very often couples who have enjoyed financial independence and stable employment for many years want to reflect their independence (and personal style) in all aspects of their wedding. It’s their party, and they’ll pay if they want to.

Pros: Freedom! No ‘walking on eggshells,’ the couple gets to design and plan the wedding exactly as they wish it to be (within their budget).

Cons: Even freedom has its price, and if the parents feel excluded, they often stay out of the planning process completely. I’ve seen couples who thought that was what they wanted, who decide later that they felt a bit lonely and unsupported. One can see it from both perspectives: parents err on the side of caution, because they don’t know if their opinions are welcome, and kids often can't understand why their parents are so hands-off in this scenario, and get their feelings hurt. The sense of financial “freedom” that comes with paying the bill can be taken too far.

GROUP EFFORT

The wedding bills and planning are shared among both families, including the couple and both sets of parents. The specifics can vary, depending on choice, resources and financial ability.

Pros: The most equitable of all the scenarios. When everyone is involved, the process can help to unite and solidify the new family.

Cons: Since everyone has a financial “stake” in the wedding, everyone will probably be more involved in the planning and decision-making. A large group process can be complicated, as there are more people to consider and, unless responsibilities and expectations are clearly defined, each decision will be made by “committee.” If there are strong personalities in the group—and there usually are one or two in every group!—working together can be difficult.

MY ADVICE

Traditions are wonderful ribbons that connect us to each other, and to the past. I am all for incorporating traditions into one’s wedding, but I don’t believe that tradition should determine who pays for what. Based on my experience working with many couples, I believe that the work and costs that go into a wedding (like a beautiful quilt assembled by many hands), should be divided according to each person’s resources, abilities, willingness, and talents. I’ll describe how this can work, below.

First of all, let your BUDGET be the GPS system that will guide you, no matter which financial route you choose to take. Before a couple begins dividing the costs--“Flowers! Who wants to pay for the flowers?!”—they should have a good idea of what they want their wedding to look like, include, and what it might cost. Going into a frank budget conversation with their parents, the couple should have an overall sense of their budget, and their priorities; which items/aspects are most important to them—top priority items--and which items fit more on their “wish list.” Then it is time to discuss their plans openly with their parents. The goal of this larger conversation is to get a general sense how much each person wants to contribute…in money, time, talents, and perhaps other, creative contributions.


Photo by Michael Gallitelli
Tip: I counsel my client couples to remember to allow some “thinking time” between conversations with their parents. The couple may have been independent and removed from their parents long enough to have forgotten what they probably ‘knew’ as teenagers: parents need time to ‘digest’ news. I have found that when couples allow several days or a week after the initial meeting (when the budget is first discussed to get a sense of how the parents might want to contribute) they will have better luck than if they expect to get concrete answers at the initial meeting. Nobody likes to be put on the spot, especially in terms of money, and parents usually need some time to “catch up” to what (the news, and its financial ramifications) the couple have been considering for some time. Most importantly, a week or so allows plenty of time for mom and dad (or parental types) to swell with sentimental happiness…feelings which will be very helpful in this process.

Once a couple knows what they have to work with, they can more clearly define their expectations, and priorities, and begin to figure out responsibilities. Once parents (stepparents, etc.) have discussed how they all want to help, tasks and expenses can be divided up based on each person’s ability to pay, talents and connections. For example, if the groom is into music, he should be responsible for finding the various band options and bringing them to the table, for input from the others. And then he can be responsible for paying for the chosen band. I’ve found that it usually works out best if the person who is most invested (by personal interest, knowledge, or talent) in the item, also pays for it. For example, the bride will most likely want to choose her dress, so let her pay for it. One parent might love to design invitations...great, go for it! Another may have a time share or miles to contribute to the honeymoon. Another may not have money to contribute, but can offer time to research information, make things, or accompany the bride/groom as they pull together details. Some of the bigger costs (reception venue) or miscellaneous costs that are not directly aligned with anyone can be considered ‘general,’ and divided among all of those who wish to contribute financially.

Tip: Tastings are wonderful occasions to include all of the parental types, regardless of how involved they are. I counsel my couples to remember that whoever is involved in the planning and paying process should have some fun along the way. Like most things in life, the journey to the wedding—not just the wedding--should be fun. Those involved financially should be involved in the fun, too. Tastings are entertaining, and they give everyone a voice in the festivities.

Over the years, I have seen every conceivable way for families to assume the financial costs of a wedding. Sometimes parents assume that since they are paying the bill, they should have the final say on every detail, no matter how trivial. And sometimes, with a good intentioned bid for independence, couples can shut their families out of every decision. In those cases, it takes a while for the wedding ‘celebration’ to begin, as everyone but the bride and groom feel like guests rather than family.

The truth is every route to planning and paying for a big wedding will have its bumps and valleys. Honest communication (and a budget that you stick to!) are critical for good results.

And while the group effort approach involves the most communication (with lots of people) it’s the route I most often recommend.

The sharing of tasks and costs not only makes the most sense financially, it breeds strong, close families moving forward. When everyone is “invested” in the wedding, the celebration is usually even more festive, the sense of connection and camaraderie multiplied and felt by all.

Best of luck!

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