Got the Wedding Bill Blues?

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This post comes from Donna Freedman at partner site Surviving and Thriving.

Quick question: Would you spend almost three-fourths of your annual income on one party?

Yeah, me neither. But some people will spend that much – or more – on their nuptials. While researching a wedding article for MSN Money Frugal Nation, I learned that:

  • The average wedding cost $28,427.
  • The average income for a U.S. resident is $39,959.

Do the math.

Incidentally, that average wedding price does not include the cost of a honeymoon.

And yes, I know “averages” lie. But even if they can’t tell the whole truth, they can give pretty good approximations of trends. The averages in this case came from more than 17,500 brides surveyed by for its annual “Real Weddings Study.”

Although the recession isn’t fully behind us, only 26 percent of the women surveyed said the economy affected their plans. Nearly 1 in 4 (23 percent) didn’t even have a specific budget, and about 1 in 8 women (13 percent) said they spent more than $40,000 on their weddings.

We all dream differently

I wonder if any of the survey questions read like this: What would you do differently/what did you wish you’d known before you planned this shindig?

And if there were, I wonder if any of the women answered: I wish I’d known the color of the place cards doesn’t really matter, that half the guests were going to leave those expensive “favors” on the tables and that we could have spent a lot less and still have been just as married.

Some people wonder if they can afford to get hitched. Well, sure. Marriage licenses are cheap and so are civil ceremonies. If by “afford” you mean “go into debt to satisfy other people’s expectations,” that’s a question that only you can answer.

I think you can stick to a budget and still get married in style. But it’s up to you to set that style, rather than let wedding planners and bridal magazines tell you what you want. Or, more to the point, sell you what they want.

We all dream differently. Maybe your home culture dictates that parents pay for everything and invite approximately 3,000 relatives.

Some of us are extremely pragmatic: We’d rather do a small ceremony with light refreshments so we could put $20,000-plus down on a house. Or throw it toward student loans. Or start a business. Or invest it for retirement.

And sometimes the limits are imposed by circumstance. When my daughter got married she was on disability and the two of them were paying off medical debts. Their long engagement (two years) allowed them to make inroads on the bills and to plan and shop very, very carefully. Think “Craigslist.” Think “yard sale.” Think “dollar store.”

Keeping it real

Both the wedding and reception took place at a social hall that another family member procured for free. Its no-alcohol policy made the choice of beverages pretty simple (and cheap!): sparkling cider, soft drinks, and water.

The reception: sliced meats, cheeses, potato salad, vegetable trays, five kinds of fresh fruit, rolls, crackers, hummus, salsa, and chips. Most of the food and drink were paid for with gift cards all three of us earned through rewards programs like MyPoints and Inbox Dollars. About $90 out of pocket paid for everything else on the menu.

The most delicious cake I have ever eaten was contributed by a friend as his wedding gift. On top stood a vintage ceramic bride and groom that Abby bought for a quarter at an estate sale. (She later found it selling for $45 on eBay.)

On the tables were scattered Hershey’s “Bliss” chocolates – appropriate for a wedding, we thought – and Ghirardelli chocolate squares. The Hershey’s candy was free after rebate; I got the Ghirardelli free by trading in inkjet cartridges.

The total number of frugal hacks are too numerous to mention. I’ve almost certainly forgotten some of them. But the money they saved let her have some girly splurges, such as pedicures for her bridesmaids ($17.95 each at a Seattle beauty school) and an elaborate wedding gown ($500 from a breast-cancer charity; I contributed half the cost).

Many hands make light work

This kind of wedding isn’t for everyone, but it was a delightful occasion. “Handmade” doesn’t mean “second-rate” any more than “expensive” means “quality.”

It took a dozen friends and family members to engineer the day. This made the wedding more special, since we all had a hand in making sure Abby and Tim had a memorable day. And we were working with our hearts as well as our hands.

As it turned out, it’s a darned good thing they were practical: One month before the wedding, Tim got laid off.

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