Who Pays For a Wedding These Days?

Couple dancing on their wedding day

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The question of who pays for weddings nowadays may seem silly at first as there are no rules or laws about it, however, when you consider the astonishing sums a wedding in the U.S. can cost, it ends up being a rather important question to ask. Yes, at the end of the day you can just talk with your relatives and your loved one’s relatives and come up with an alternative and “non-traditional” arrangement that better suits everybody’s budgets.

However, even if something like this is to be done, it can be made much easier precisely by knowing what the traditional distribution is between all the parties involved in the wedding.

So who pays for a wedding these days?

To find out let’s start a little bit back in time and see how wedding budgets have changed over the years.

The history of wedding budgets and how they have grown over the years

There are two main ways to compare all types of budgets and finances from the past with those today – by adjusting the numbers for inflation and by just looking at them as they are. The latter method obviously doesn’t give a very clear picture as wages and prices several decades ago simply weren’t what they are today – inflation is a cruel mistress in that regard. However, even when we adjust the number for inflation, there are still some quite interesting things that come up.

We’ll use a 1939 survey of 154 couples that was published by sociology professor B.F. Timmons from the University of Illinois as a point of reference. So, let’s make some comparisons, shall we?

The average wedding cost has grown 5 times over the past 80 years

Yes, even if we adjust the numbers for inflation, the average wedding cost in the 1930s in the U.S. would have been $6,481 while today’s average cost is around $30,000 (~$10,000 in some states and ~$70,000 in others). Of course, if we don’t adjust for inflation those numbers would be even more staggering as the increase would be around 3000%. However, that wouldn’t be very relevant.

Still, even with inflation accounted for, the fact that Americans spend 5 times more money for their weddings is quite significant. What about their financial circumstances, however?

The average wedding cost’s relation to the median American household income has doubled over the past 80 years

While weddings have become about five times more expensive, it turns out that Americans can afford that increase as their income has increased as well. However, the income still hasn’t increased as much in relation to wedding costs – while in the 1930s the average wedding used to cost about 25% of the median American household income at the time, today that number is closer to 50%.

So, while Americans are definitely better equipped to bear the quite significant wedding expenses of today, the increase rate of their income does seem to be lagging behind quite a bit.

Wedding venues and engagement rings prices are the main reasons behind the drastic increase

Outdoor wedding venue

If you’re eager to blame “the economy” or various politicians and economists for the increase in wedding prices, we’d suggest that you pump the breaks on that for a little bit. It turns out that the main reasons for the increase in the average wedding costs are:

  1. The relative increase in the median price of diamond engagement rings – from $1,824 dollars in the 1930s (again – adjusted for inflation) to about $5,600 today. What’s more, the number of couples that buy diamond engagement rings has increased as well – from about two thirds in the 1930s to well over 90% today. The prices for wedding dresses and the grooms’ suits have remained relatively stable in comparison – the average wedding dress today costs ~$1,281 while it used to cost ~$1, 092 in the 1930s, and the groom’s suits have actually become less expensive – from ~$753 in the 1930s to ~$248 today.
  2. The biggest factor, however, is the venue costs. While in the 1930s a lot of couples didn’t have a separate reception and simply served a cold buffet in the church, or at most at a railway club, a local pub, or a dance center, today (and ever since the 1990s, to be exact) couples are willing to spend big money on fancy hotel receptions with live bands, professional photography, catering, a wedding planner, and so on. Given that the venue expenses are the biggest portion of the overall wedding costs, it’s no surprise that said average costs have increased over the years – it’s all about the newlyweds choosing to have a big and grandiose wedding reception.

The etiquette for parents paying for the wedding

Couple in their wedding day

Now that we know how and when the wedding expenses increased over the years and which parts of the overall costs are actually bigger and more significant than the rest, let’s tackle the question of how the wedding budget is shared among everyone involved – who pays for what in the average wedding’s budget?

The tradition in the Western world (from the U.S. to Eastern Europe) and even in most of Asia has always been that the family of the bride pays the biggest portion of the wedding costs. Note that we said the family of the bride and not the bride herself. The reason behind this is that, traditionally, men were the ones that worked for wages and supported the newly established families, so the family of the bride was expected to bear the costs of the wedding.

In recent decades, however, both of these points have started to change – not only are women working and making money now as well, but the family of the bride is covering less and less of the overall expenses for the wedding. Instead, the family of the groom and the newlyweds themselves are starting to share the costs of certain portions of the overall budget.

It should be noted that the family of the bride is still, on average, paying for the largest piece of the wedding budget pie – about 45% to 55% of the wedding costs with 10% to 15% being taken care of by the family of the groom, and the other 30% to 40% covered by the newlyweds themselves, usually with the help of a loan.

The fact that the bride and groom are taking care of a growing portion of the budget makes sense in a way, since not only are they the ones getting married, but they are also the ones choosing how they’ll get married. As we covered above, a big reason for the spike in wedding cost in the past 2-3 decades is the newlyweds’ decisions to have bigger and fancier reception venues.

A quick breakdown of general sharing of costs is

  • The bride’s family covers the venue’s expenses
  • The newlyweds cover the also growing engagement ring prices as well as the costs for the groom’s suit, the bride’s dress and other cosmetic stuff.
  • The groom’s family tends to cover auxiliary expenses such as the guests’ housing, the ceremony site and so on.

What to do if one party refuses to pay for their share of the wedding?

If those are the traditional and standard ways for dividing the wedding budget, what can we do if someone decides to shake things up? Maybe one side, usually one of the two parent families, has decided that they don’t want to pay for anything? Or maybe you’re just looking for a different approach?

The first thing to consider is lowering the budget. There are some minor things that can usually be made more manageable in price such as decorations, flowers, the ring’s cost, and so on. If that’s not enough, however, you can also consider a more drastic change such as lowering the total number of guests, changing the venue to something more economical, or changing the date to an off-season month where everything is much cheaper.

Alternatively, you can choose to rearrange the expenses so that the other two parties – the newlyweds and the other parent family – bear the load of the party that’s decided not to participate. This can take some negotiations and exchanges of favors or promises, but there’s usually a compromise to be made in most situations. At the end of the day, any expense is better shared rather than taken care of by just one family.

At the end of the day, it is your wedding, so you can’t really expect anyone to bear the cost especially if you aren’t negotiable about the expenses. It’s best to keep an economical head and to keep clear communication channels open between all parties involved about costs, wedding plans and changes so there’s no hard feelings afterwards.