How to Budget for a Wedding

Perfection is attained not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The average cost of a wedding is now about €25,000. Many couples spend significantly more. Clearly this is a large sum of money and a good candidate for a budget review. Yet unlike a vacation, it is not quite so easy to restrict wedding expenses into a tight budget. First of all, most people expect (or at least hope) that their wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which is worthy of a once-in-a-lifetime expense. Second, wedding expenses involve a diverse set of emotional items, from childhood dreams to family traditions to social expectations.

In spite of these difficulties, we believe it is possible to contain these expenses through the appropriate decision making framework. Like the last article in this series (housing, vacation), we are not going to pretend we have enough background as an expert to give you even a complete overview of the problem. Instead, we will try to communicate just one important item to the conversation.

When faced with a difficult budget constraint, the usual response is to agonize over what to add while still ending up under budget: Add catering expenses. Check. Add photography expenses. Check. Add venue expenses. Check. Add catering expenses. Oops! Over budget! Try invitation expenses. Still over. Hmmm. How much is the cake? OK…this is just not working. Throw out the whole budget. It is what it is.

We would like to suggest a different paradigm. Instead of deciding what to add, decide on what to take away. In other words, first throw in everything you would ever possibly want in your wedding. Spare no expense (on paper). Have it all. Plan for the ideal, the theory. Then, start from that ideal and whittle it down to the reality of your budget number.

This may seem counter intuitive. Do not we all feel pain when we take things away – even hypothetical things? Why then would this approach be easier than deciding what to add? In order to understand why this approach may work well for many people, let us use a familiar example: packing for a trip.

Which is easier: packing to go away for a two week vacation, or packing up to go home when you are done? Clearly the latter is easier for many reasons. When you are leaving for the trip, there are many uncertainties and many choices. Should we pack long pants and jackets, or will it be too warm for that? Should we pack a swimsuit and flip flops, or will it be too cold for that? Do we need to bring some books, or will there be enough entertainment along the way? Do we want to take my laptop and stay connected, or do we want to unplug from life on vacation? Do we need to bring all this over-the-counter medicine in case we get sick, or will there be a drugstore close by anyway? Can we take this item and still have everything fit in the suitcase? Should we buy something now to take on the trip so that we do not waste time during the trip looking for it? Think, think, think – do we have everything we need?

But, when it is time to come home, everything is easy. Simply pack up all the stuff you brought with you and you are done. Now the amount of time you actually spend putting the items into the suitcases is small and should be about the same whether you are leaving home or returning home. The difference is that you have to make many decisions before you leave; you do not have to do that when you return.

Further compounding the packing problem is the paradox of choice. The decisions would not be so difficult if we only had about two suitcases worth of things we needed to fit into one suitcase. Instead, we need to decide from a whole house full of things we have accumulated and also from literally millions of items we could purchase for the trip. This overabundance of choices can paralyze our purchasing decisions even with trivial things. There are now eleven different kinds of shooters and the average supermarket now carries about 400 different kinds of shampoo and conditioner.

Many couples we have talked with have said that the wedding planning process was so draining because there were so many choices to make and yet they wanted everything to be perfect. It is no wonder that people do not want to further complicate the matter by introducing a budget constraint on the wedding.

Hence, my suggestion is to try to separate wedding choices from budget choices to some degree. Do not agonize over the cost of each item and whether it fits in your total budget as you are trying to investigate individual items. Instead, mull over each item and then simply list (and rank) your top few choices and their costs. When you are done with the rough draft, add everything up and look at the total.

Is the total cost too high for your budget? Well, that is a bummer and you will not be happy that something has to be cut, but at least it will be fairly obvious what you need to do. For example, maybe you are just slightly over budget. You can scan your list and see that your second choice for the cake was €200 less than your first choice and you recall that you had a hard time even deciding which was better. Great. Choose Plan B for the cake and get on with your life. On the other hand, maybe you are way over by €4,000. Again, it will probably be fairly obvious what you need to do. Many items will have small differences between your possible choices, so there is no point in trying to finesse €100 each out of a half dozen things when that approach clearly will not get you very far. Find the really big items and see if you can live with a different option to get under budget.

This approach can save you a lot of time, frustration, and confusion. In addition, you might also find that you are able to get most of what you want and stay under budget because you are more organized and focused. For example, if you have identified that you are way over the amount you want to spend and the catering bill is the only item where you could possibly make that up, then you can now concentrate your energy on fixing that one problem. Maybe you need to make a few phone calls to specifically find out if someone can do a sit-down dinner for your party at the cost you need. Maybe your initial choice for the catering company can work with you to find a lower cost option – maybe a lunch instead of a dinner, or maybe a few less people. Once you have a clear goal and a clearly defined problem, you can expend some time and energy to meet your budget while minimizing the loss of things that are important to you. But, this is not something you can do very well if you just start making phone calls for all sorts of wedding items with no game plan. Everything will seem expensive and you will probably end up frustrated.

This paradigm, by the way, is consistent with how we have suggested that people approach all budgeting throughout this series. Do not pick a budget number until you have first examined your values and finances. Do not start cutting things until you have actually looked at the total. (You might already be on target and worried for no reason!) Do not start choosing which things to cut until you know where the big items are. And do not start cutting items until you have a clear game plan for choosing the alternatives.

Lastly, if you are still having trouble motivating yourself not to “go all out” with your wedding expenses, we would offer two final thoughts:

  • After a certain point, more spending does not make a better wedding. Think back to a few recent weddings you attended. Do not nitpick, but what were one or two major things you would change? Typical examples of regrets are: too far away; should not have invited so-and-so; wedding party was late; nasty weather all day. These are not things that money can change.
  • Money issues are one of the the most frequent marital problem on most surveys. Severe overspending on a wedding can be counterproductive to the whole purpose of getting married. Why start married life by creating a huge debt for both of you to pay?

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