Stuff You Need to Know: Details From Four Real Wedding Budgets

The dirty secret: how much it cost.

how to understand wedding budgets
Budgets are almost always one of the hardest, and scariest, parts of planning a wedding. Unfortunately, they’re generally the part you have to figure out first. There’s a lot of discussion around that weddings are expensive because they’re weddings… and as someone who does them professionally, I don’t actually think this is true. Throwing a “traditional” wedding is expensive because throwing a big, fancy, sit-down dinner party with entertainment is expensive. Really—ask someone who works in corporate events how much they cost, and minus the fancy dress, they’re generally on par.

I also want to note at the start that this is framed in the context of the Northern California event market—which is one of the more expensive markets in the country (for, let’s be honest, everything, not just events).

I thought it would be helpful to look at the budgets of four actual weddings from 2012. (Disclaimer: none of these have been published on APW.) While these aren’t exhaustive options, I’ve included a wedding that was under the $5,000 mark, two within the $20,000-$30,000 range, and one that was $50,000, since these tend to be popular budget benchmarks in my area. I also chose to include only thirteen key budget lines, instead of… all of them, to make comparison easier. I excluded personal clothing (i.e. wedding dresses), as well as other miscellaneous costs, tried to group things in a way that made sense and made them comparable, and generally rounded to the nearest hundred dollars.

The $3,500 wedding

What it looked like: City hall ceremony and dinner for 10, followed by a casual, afternoon reception at home, featuring drinks, cupcakes, and a light buffet for 60 the next day.

  • Venue: $0
    Reception food, combo of homemade and purchased: $1000
    Disposable plates, forks, glasses: $110
    Cupcakes, made by a friend: $0
    Alcohol & beverages: $600
    Photographer, semi-pro friend: $400
    Music, DJed by a friend: $0
    Wedding planner: $0
    DIY invitations: $175
    DIY flowers: $50
    Other decor: $300
    Makeup, self; hair by a non-pro friend: $0
    Extra hired staff: $375

The $20,000 Wedding

What it looked like: Family property, with full ceremony, stand-up buffet dinner provided by food-only caterers, and pro-DJ provided music for 100 guests.

  • Venue: $0
    Food truck catering for 100, plus family-made appetizers, coffee: $3900
    Misc. decor, all rentals, dishware: $1200
    Dessert buffet: $500
    Alcohol & beverages: $1500
    Pro photographer: $4000
    DJ: $900
    Wedding planner: $3600
    Website & invites: $375
    Flowers, combo of florist-provided and DIY: $700
    Other decor: $450
    Pro hair & makeup for bride & bridesmaids: $500
    Misc. costs for having it at home (staff, furniture moving, cleaning): $850

The $25,000 Wedding

What it looked like: A popular event venue, with full-service, buffet-style catering for 120, and a DJ-provided dance party.

  • Venue: $5100
    Full service catering for 120: $9000
    Misc. rentals: $250
    Decor: $750
    Wedding cake: $600
    Alcohol: $1000
    Pro photographer: $2000
    DJ: $1100
    Wedding planning: $2250
    Website & invites: $380
    Flowers, florist provided: $900
    Other decor: $750
    Hair & makeup for bride only: $500

The $50,000 Wedding

What it looked like: All-inclusive wine country venue, multi-course plated meal for 115, an eight-piece live band, full bar.

  • Venue (all-inclusive): $25,000
    Catering (included above)
    Rentals (included above)
    Dessert (included above)
    Alcohol & beverages: $2700
    Pro-photographer: $4800
    Band: $5400
    Wedding planning: $4300
    Website & invites: $225
    DIY flowers: $800
    Other decor: $750
    Pro hair and makeup for bride, bridesmaids, moms: $1900

Now. I was at all four of these weddings, and all four of them were among of the best weddings I’ve ever been to (and I have been to a lot of weddings). Does this mean that the $20,000 and $50,000 couples could have spent less and had just as good of a time? Maybe. Maybe not. What I loved about all four of these weddings is that they were really authentic to the couples who had them—each couple spent what they and their families could afford, no one went into debt, and they were all in the style that these couples generally entertain in.

And that’s the key—making your wedding, and your budget, authentic to you. Maybe you cannot imagine your wedding involving anything other than a sit-down meal, and you can easily afford it, or you’re willing to save for a year to pay for it, or you end up deciding to only have twenty-five people attend that sit-down meal. Maybe cake in the church reception hall is what you’ve always imagined, or maybe you realize that having 350 people* there is what’s most important, and so you forgo the meal and just buy some really awesome cake. One of my favorite wedding stories belongs to a family friend—they were young and poor and living in New York in the ’70s when they got married—they couldn’t afford a “real” wedding, so they spent their whole budget on champagne and caviar and had a reception in their apartment, because damn it, it was going to be decadent. (More than thirty years later, she still throws some of the best house parties in the world.)

There’s a lot of shame around money in the wedding industry—who spent too little, and who spent too much. I’m here to tell you that ninety-nine percent of people cannot tell how much a wedding cost from being at it, or from seeing photos (the one percent who can work in the wedding industry… it’s our job). If you didn’t go into crushing debt? You didn’t spend too much. If you were concerned about being a good host to your guests? You didn’t spend too little. If you ended up married and happy? Then you accomplished what a wedding is supposed to accomplish. Stay authentic to yourselves and to your relationship. And remember that what your guests really want is to see a happy couple get married and to celebrate with you. And most won’t mind if it’s over a five-course meal or a piece of cake on a paper plate.

*True story—I just recently learned that my parents had 350 people at their church-wedding-cake-and-punch-reception. Because apparently both of my grandmothers invited every single person they’d ever known, many of whom my mother had never met before and never saw again. Hey, 1972.

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