NEW YORK (MainStreet) — My first attempt at setting a wedding budget was to pick a large number and divide it based on Martha Stewart's wedding budget breakdown. This system seemed perfect until I realized that because we were getting married in a major U.S. city, my sample budget could probably only buy dinner for us and our parents. I was two days into wedding planning, and already I had gone from glowing fiancée to a whirlwind of stress.
My fiancé, Eric, and I decided to reevaluate our budget. In order to help, my parents forwarded me their friends' daughter's wedding budget, which came in roughly $10,000 -- less than we were planning to spend. Eric's parents sent a family member's recent wedding budget, which was $10,000 above our budget. After seeing both, I closed my laptop and pretended I was already done planning.
Elizabeth Clayton, founder and principal planner of Lowe House Events in the San Francisco Bay area, has seen many couples surprised by the actual cost of weddings.
"The amount of people who come to us and say we want 120 guests and a full dinner and a band and we'd like to spend $10,000 is a huge amount of people," she said. "You can have an awesome wedding for $10,000, but it's not going to look like that... In the Bay Area, if you want the Big American Wedding, it is very hard to do that for less than $25,000."
"Everyone goes into wedding planning thinking they're going to spend a lot less than they end up doing," added Clayton.
I was absolutely one of those people. I was sure that the statistics about weddings averaging upwards of $28,000 were just blown up by a few millionaires. We would be fine!
Finding a place to host both of our large families and friends was my first challenge. Massachusetts, where I grew up, is full of gorgeous historic homes and museums that host events. I quickly found out that the beautiful coastal venues can have rental fees that are more than I pay in rent for six months.
Eventually I found an arts center in Cambridge that I loved, but their $4,000 Saturday night rental fee seemed awfully steep. I returned to Google, convinced I could find somewhere cheaper.
Despite my hopes, all the venues I found that could fit our 130-person guest list charged several thousand dollars for weekend events. One had originally quoted $3,000 for a Saturday night, but when we visited the event coordinator explained that they were actually raising their cost to $5,000. Another was $3,500, but the coordinator responded to most of our suggestions with a shrug and, "Well, I guess it's your wedding, but..." Eric thought she was feisty. I was less enthused.
By that point, the $4,000 arts center looked practically budget-friendly.
Ultimately, we narrowed our options to the arts center and a historic garden building that cost $600 more. I factored in the price of table and chair rentals (an unexpectedly critical part of planning), decorations and back-up rain plans. I agonized over which venue would truly fit my "vision" of the day, since apparently having a vision is crucial to getting married. Due to liability issues, we would have to hire professionals to hang lights in the garden building, so I began contacting lighting companies for four-digit quotes.
In a sea of red flags, this should have been my biggest warning sign.
We eventually got a draft contract with the garden building. After nearly a year of being engaged, we were finally going to set our date.
When we sat down to sign the papers, Eric and I stopped to calculate the costs of the venue, decorations and catering as well as the cost of flights for us to Boston for planning and getting to the wedding. Not only were we above the small budget I had set when we first got engaged, but just having a space to feed our family and friends would eat up most of the expanded budget we had set later. We could put everyone in one beautifully lit room, but we probably couldn't have a DJ, a honeymoon or new shoes for the next three years.
We scrapped the whole thing and started over in Chicago.
In retrospect, our first foray into wedding planning was heavily shaped by the modern cultural idea of what a wedding is supposed to look like.
"There's this American wedding that is very overblown and very focused on the stuff," explained Clayton. "Focus on the fact that your wedding is amazing because everyone you love is in the same room at the same time."
Even restarting our plans with a realistic budget in mind, we are spending a lot of money on this event. Feeding all of our relatives and friends adds up quickly, especially since we are having a dinner-and-dancing event instead of a less expensive brunch wedding or dessert-only reception.
"Weddings are a luxury item," Clayton said. "That has fallen out of the mindset in America. Throwing a catered dinner party for 120 people, that's a luxury item. Now it's so expected. It's hard to remember that you don't need all of these things."
--Written by Laura Chanoux for MainStreet