Planning a wedding is an event in itself, but who pays for what? It's helpful to have a firm budget in place to keep spending on track. According to WeddingWire.com, for example, the average wedding cost $38,700 in 2019, with the majority of those costs ($29,200) associated with the ceremony and reception. (Wedding-ceremony costs dropped drastically in 2020 due to COVID-19, down to an average of $19,000, but were already on the rebound to pre-pandemic figures in 2021.)
As you and your spouse-to-be undertake wedding planning, determining how you fund it will be an important part of keeping the event as happy and stress-free as it should be. How you handle these discussions (even more than where the money actually comes from) can shape future family relationships for a long time afterward. And of course, there's the effect on your budget during the first years of your marriage. Here's what you need to think about and what to do next.
- Traditionally, the bride's family pays for the wedding, but that custom is rapidly changing.
- Couples are increasingly choosing to handle at least half of the wedding expenses on their own.
- Early planning and a written budget can help avoid miscommunication when deciding who pays for what.
- Establishing a joint account for wedding funds can be a good move for couples.
What Traditional Wedding Etiquette Says About Who Pays
Customarily, the norm, at least in the United States, has been for the bride's family to cover wedding expenses.
"The notion of the bride's family paying for the wedding evolved from the tradition of a dowry, where the bride's family transferred property or money to the husband or husband's family upon marriage," says Cynthia Meyer, a certified financial planner at Real Life Planning in the greater New York area.
Though this rule isn't set in stone, it's one that many couples have chosen to follow over the centuries. The groom's family, meanwhile, has traditionally picked up the tab for the rehearsal dinner, honeymoon, and/or alcohol for the reception. The groom himself may be expected to pay for a variety of expenses, including:
- Engagement and wedding rings
- Marriage license and officiant
- Groomsmen's gifts
- Wedding day gift for the bride
- Corsages, boutonnieres, and the bride's bouquet
This may be tradition, says Meyer, but the traditional model is evolving. "As couples modernize wedding planning and are getting married later after establishing careers, more of them are paying all—or a substantial portion—of the costs of their own weddings," she says. "Who pays for what is more flexible."
In fact, 68% of couples report funding the majority of expenses for their wedding themselves, according to the International Academy of Wedding & Event Planning's annual International Wedding Trend Report 2019. WeddingWire's 2020 Newlywed Report found that couples paid for 47% of their wedding's costs.
How to Divide Wedding Expenses
The sooner you discuss who pays for what for a wedding, the better. Saving for a wedding takes time and some financial strategizing.
"My suggestion for engaged couples is to communicate early and discuss the details," says Christian Stewart, founder and lead financial coach at Do Better Financial. "Don't assume that anyone will pay for anything, even if they promised you something."
With that in mind, these tips can help you decide how best to split up wedding costs.
Start with your budget
No matter who's funding the wedding, you need to have a budget in place as the first step, Stewart says. Creating your budget may mean prioritizing certain costs over others to make sure the total expense is realistic. The 2021 Brides and Investopedia wedding survey found that couples budget about $20,000 for a wedding, on average.
The average amount that couples end up spending on their wedding—about $7,000 more than they originally budgeted, according to WeddingWire.
If it's important to have a specific venue for the ceremony or reception, for example, you may need to make a trade-off elsewhere in your budget, such as the flowers or decorations. Meyer says couples should begin with a budget they can afford first, then approach their families about helping with some of the costs.
That way, if neither set of parents is able or willing to help financially with wedding costs, the couple is still able to manage the expense on their own without having to sacrifice the most important elements of their wedding vision.
"Put together a clear budget with low, medium, and high options," Meyer says. "The low budget is what you can pay for yourselves as a couple without going broke or into significant debt. The medium option is a reasonable compromise and assumes some parental financial involvement. The high option is for when either/both sets of parents want to invite many of their own guests and are willing to contribute enough to cover the costs—and you’re willing to have that kind of wedding."
This brings up another good point. Couples who pay for their own wedding have the most say over what kind of wedding it is.
Determine what's reasonable for each of you
Having an overall budget in place for the wedding is an important step, but there's something else you need to do next. When you've established what your families will (or won't) contribute to the wedding costs, you need to decide how you as a couple will divvy up your share of the expenses.
This is where things can get a bit trickier if one of you makes significantly more than the other—or one of you is working on paying down a sizable amount of debt. When Stewart and her husband were planning their wedding, they decided to split all of the costs down the middle as much as possible. Stewart pulled money from her savings account to reserve the venue, and her future husband worked overtime to contribute additional funds to a joint account they'd established for wedding expenses. According to the 2021 Brides and Investopedia wedding survey, 48% of those actively planning their weddings already share joint financial accounts.
But that type of sharing arrangement may not be ideal for you, so it's important to decide what constitutes an equitable split. A simple way to do this is to compare incomes. If you earn half of what your future spouse does, it might naturally make sense for them to contribute more money to the wedding.
Just make sure that you talk it through thoroughly to make sure you're both comfortable with the arrangement. You don't want to start off your marriage with any lingering resentment because the person who paid more for the wedding feels overburdened by it. In that scenario, Meyer and Stewart both agree that it's better to instead scale the wedding down to make it affordable for both of you.
The Brides and Investopedia 2021 wedding survey found that nearly 9 out of 10 respondents said they've put off at least one major financial priority in order to pay for their wedding, such as saving for a home, starting or growing a family, and saving for retirement.
Taking on debt could allow you to expand your wedding budget if you're not receiving financial help, but that could make managing your life and household as a newly married couple more difficult.
Are There Different Rules for Same-Sex Couples?
According to a 2018 Community Marketing & Insights report, 74% of LGBTQ couples say they plan to pay for wedding expenses out of their own pocket. The report suggests that these couples may be more likely to handle their own wedding costs due to a lack of financial support from their families.
That can change the family aspect of planning the financing for a wedding, but when it comes to determining who shares costs as a couple, the guidelines are essentially the same. LGBTQ+ couples can opt for a 50/50 split or divide expenses differently, based on their individual incomes, savings, and ability to pay. The things to cover: setting up a joint wedding savings account and discussing together whether to use loans or credit cards to pay.
The Bottom Line
Deciding who pays what for wedding expenses shouldn't be a source of stress. Working together as a couple to set your budget and discuss wedding costs with your respective families can help you find an arrangement that works for everyone. And at the end of the day, what you decide should reflect your personal and financial values.
"It’s your wedding," Meyer says. "Make it one you love—and can afford."