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The New Economics of Weddings

It’s not your mamma’s nuptials: who pays for what has changed

By Linda Bernstein

My own wedding met no norms, even for 1980. We had about 36 guests, 10 of whom were children. My brother and sister-in-law hosted the small affair in their backyard and living room, and I think my parents did nothing except write the checks.

To this day I have no idea how I didn’t end up like my friends, walking down an aisle in a church or synagogue, wearing a billowy (but stiff) white dress and veil, dancing a first dance to some music played by a live and loud dance band imitating Tony Bennett and cutting a cake to the flash of camera blubs.
But note that despite my husband’s and my rather untraditional approach, my parents still handled the costs. Back in the day, weddings seemed mostly to be run by the bride’s mom and paid for by the bride’s dad. I can’t remember even being in on friends’ decisions about what I would wear when I had the honor to be a bridesmaid. Their moms picked the dresses.

Of course, I knew people at loggerheads with their parents who eloped — and a story I heard the other day confirmed that’s still a thing: Two young men got so fed up with the meddling of both sets of parents that they went down to city hall wearing matching purple tuxes and had a civil ceremony. They met up with a group of friends that night in a bar to toast their nuptials.
Much having to do with wedding planning has changed in the past 15 years ago, says Joyce Scardina Becker, author of Countdown to Your Perfect Wedding and a bridal planner who has studios in San Francisco, Malibu and Lake Tahoe. “The etiquette rules that governed the weddings of many baby boomers no longer apply — especially the one that dictated the bride’s parents footed all the bills,” she says.

(MORE: How to Lower the Cost of Your Child's Wedding)
These examples of the changes in the economics of a wedding day for today’s first-time marriages for 20- and 30-somethings may help parents navigate the passed hors d’oeuvres and make-your-own-cupcake stations.
Situation: The bride and groom pay for everything.
Why this happens: Aviva Samuels, a wedding planniner based in Palm Beach, Fla., believes that especially among 30-somethings, the couple may be doing better financially than their parents, or they may feel that they don’t want to put a burden on moms and dads thinking about retirement — or they simply can afford to pay for everything themselves and thus maintain control of their dream wedding.
“A lot of brides have been planning their weddings on secret Pinterest boards forever, and they don’t want parents messing with their vision,” says luxury-wedding planner Tracie Domino, who has observed the same phenomenon.
A parent’s story: “We would have loved to pay for our daughter’s wedding,” says Julie Cardin, a teacher in Westchester, N.Y., “but, frankly, we couldn’t have afforded their ‘destination’: a villa in Tuscany, Italy.” Cardin estimates that her daughter and husband, who are in the movie industry, spent well over $100,000 on the rental of the several villas and a three-day party. “A few of our friends and relatives made the trip — it was a once in a lifetime thing — but we ended up throwing a ‘meet-our-son-in-law’ cocktail party at a lodge close to our home a month or so later.”

(MORE: Finding Your Place in Your Child's Wedding Plans)
Top tip: “It’s a wedding, not a marriage,” Samuels reminds parents who might feel toppled by their children’s financial prowess. Check with the couple about timing, and then throw a party where your own friends and family can celebrate. “Some people held grudges that they couldn’t attend the “real” wedding, but I just couldn’t spend emotional energy on that,” Cardin advises.
Situation: The bride’s and the groom’s family split the expenses equally.
Why this happens: Scardina thinks this untraditional arrangement reflects new economic realities. Weddings are expensive. According to CNN, the average cost is currently about $30,000, and sharing all the expenses can help a young couple have a party that may be a bit larger or more upscale than one that would have been dependent on the bride’s family’s income alone.
A parent’s story: “Our daughter got married in Israel, where it’s commonplace to have both families split the costs down the middle,” says Susan Heyman, who lives in a suburb of Chicago. “In Israel, you don’t just send invitations to people on a list; you hand them out at work, so there tend to be maybe 300 or 400 guests. When our son got married here in the states, where we and his in-laws live, we offered to do it Israeli-style. It meant we got to invite as many people as the bride’s parents, and we split the kids’ costs in half.”
Top tip: “Before you even look at a venue, the bride and groom and all the parents need to write down the names and addresses of everyone they want to invite,” suggests Scardina. “That gives you a starting point of the size of the wedding.” Size can change, Scardina says, as can the price of the dinner depending on what food you choose. She calls those “variable costs.” There are fixed costs, too: the band (or DJ), flowers, photographer, videographer and so forth will more or less remain the same no matter how many people attend.
Situation: The groom’s family pays for mostly everything.
Why this happens: Samuels believes it comes down to everyone wants the bride and groom to be happy, and maybe it’s the groom’s parents who can afford putting on the party.
A parent’s story: From a lawyer who lives outside of L.A. and asked that his name not be used for privacy: “My daughter-in-law’s parents are decent folks. Well-educated, good values. All that. They just never managed to make or put away much money. So there was never really any question that I would write the checks. I even paid for Danielle’s gown. You know, we never made a fuss over it. They invited their friends and family. We don’t feel like lording it over them, and I believe they don’t feel lorded over.”

(MORE: How to Be the Perfect Mother of the Bride)
Top tip: A groom’s family with deep pockets should nonetheless take care with the wording on the wedding invitation. If they want to avoid future strife with the bride’s family, it’s best not shine a spotlight on the fact that they paid for everything by leaving off the bride’s parents’ names.
Situation: Bride’s parents still pay for most of the wedding expenses, and the groom’s parents contribute a set amount or pay for specific items, such as the band, the photographer and/or the flower and liquor.
Why this happens: Anecdotally, from my crowd-sourcing, this seems to be the most common financial arrangement. My former college roommate Ellen Hellman tells me that among her friends, they refer to this arrangement as FLOPs. “The boy’s family pays for the flowers, liquor, orchestra and photographer,” she says.
A parent’s story: “I think my daughter-in-law’s mother has been waiting to throw a wedding for years. Her parents really didn’t want to limit their guests at all. Our financial contribution meant the budget was higher, but since they were paying for the bulk of the costs, they invited the bulk of the guests. They never asked us to cut back on our list, though we were conscious of inviting only those who ‘needed’ to be there. Honestly, though, it all worked out so well,” says Ritchie Brodski, who lives near Seattle.
Top tip: “Iron out your budget well in advance. Break it down by priorities and how much you want to allocate to each aspect of the wedding so you can decide who will pay for what,” says Samuels. Domino adds, “Remember that if you want to pay for the flowers, that doesn’t mean you pick the flowers.” Giving your input is fine, but details like that are really up to the bride and groom.
Situation: Old school. The bride’s family pays for everything (except maybe the rehearsal dinner).
Why this happens: Old habits die hard.
A parent’s story: “I’m from the south, so I’m traditional in a lot of ways,” says EllynAnne Geisel, author of The Apron Book. Her son is getting married soon, and the bride’s family is paying for everything except for “hospitality” for out-of-town guests — which accounts for only five people on the bride’s side. Geisel had to limit her guest list, but she’s fine with that. “We’re throwing a big party later on, after the honeymoon,” she explains.
When asked if perhaps she could have wrangled more guests by contributing to the wedding costs instead of having her own party, Geisel shrugged. To her way of thinking, everything is fine as it is. She’s happy, the couple is happy, the bride’s family is happy. What more could she want?
Top tip: Paying for more guests isn’t just a matter of covering the food, Domino explains. “If there are enough extra guests, that means another table, which means another centerpiece and perhaps more wait staff. It may even be that the venue can’t fit even one more person. If the bride and her parents have worked out the details, you can’t expect them to make changes when it’s time to send invitations,” she adds.
All the wedding planners emphasize one thing: holding the purse strings does give a certain amount of power. “You don’t want to abuse that though,” Domino warns. “After all, if the bride and groom aren’t having the best time they can imagine, then what’s the purpose?”
It may be just one day, but the point of a wedding is for it to be memorable for everyone involved, especially the couple getting married.

Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches journalism at Long Island University, Brooklyn. Read More
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