Let’s take a deep breath… this topic might not be much fun. But don’t let that deter you, because it’s important. Let’s dive in!
So, you’re all butterflies and excitement about your future wedding. Whether you want it to be a lavish affair or a simple celebration, you want it to be very special. You want it to be memorable. You want it to be beautiful… Just how expensive could that possibly be?
Well, if you add up the cost of a designer wedding dress, an upscale venue, quality food and beverages for a hundred or more guests, an experienced photographer and DJ, you may be surprised to find yourself north of $40K – and that’s not counting the smaller expenses.
Two approaches to wedding budget planning.
First approach is to think about what you would like your wedding to look like, see how much things you like cost, and then come up with a realistic budget (and find money to pay for it). You’ll find yourself leaning towards this approach if you really want a lavish wedding. And, what the hell! It’s your day and it’s your money. Hopefully you’re not getting in debt to pay for it all. And in any event, let no one tell you how you should be living your life.
But maybe you’re a bit more laid-back about your wedding. Maybe you can do without the most expensive item in every spending category. Then I’m here to remind you that there is another approach to budgeting for your wedding. It starts by sitting down with your future spouse and thinking about these three questions:
1. How much do we have to spend?
2. Out of the above sum, how much should we spend?
3. Once you determine your budget, how do we allocate it?
In fact, it’s more financially responsible to determine what you want to spend under each spending category, and only then begin looking around on bridal expos, pinterest, and magazines. It is easy to get excited and fall in love with a particular idea, dress or venue. If you do your homework and know how much you can afford for that item, it will help steer you away from things you cannot afford before they get into your head.
It is quite possible that you and your spouse will not have the same answers to these questions, by the way. Which is great! You’re going to spend the rest of your time together making important joint decisions, and this is your opportunity to test-drive and fine-tune this process. If things get out of hand, refer to our advice on stress and fights.
1. How much do you have to spend?
Look at your bank account and your income. What savings do you have today, and what savings will you likely have by the time of the wedding?
How much do you expect to receive in cash gifts? Consider that, for a formal dinner reception, an average guest will probably give $100-$150 (per person). Some older guests may think weddings still cost $500 in total, and give even less (and unfortunately there is no polite or socially acceptable way to ask for more). Ensure that you have enough cash on hand (or credit card limit) to pay for everything, but you can count on some contributions from your guests at the end of the day.
If your parents can help with the wedding expenses, how much money are we talking about? Note of caution: some parents have a hard time giving money without also telling you how to live your life – including what your wedding should look like and who may be invited. While some parents feel entitled to share their opinions whether or not they contribute, at least if you are paying for everything yourself, you can choose whether to listen or not.
Some couples explore the option of having businesses or brands sponsor their wedding. In exchange for sponsorship, they find ways to offer them great marketing exposure. Brands want to align themselves with a unique story or a magical event, and they pay cash (or contribute in-kind). But they take away a bit of your privacy, intimacy and authenticity. Their presence raises the stakes riding on everything being picture-perfect. The wedding becomes a less about you and more about them.
Consider any perks from a short-term spike in wedding expenses. Putting expenses on a premium credit card can yield you nice cash back or bonus air miles to contribute to your honeymoon. However, ensure that you pay your credit card bills in full at the end of the month.
2. Out of the above sum, how much should you spend?
You can’t spend more than you have, but can always spend less. Think about all the financial priorities your new family will have. Is a carefree honeymoon vacation a priority? How about buying a house? Going back to school? Having kids? Starting a business? Giving financial support to previous family or parents? Is your head spinning yet?…
Consider the next couple years of your life, and the likelihood that you will need a hefty savings account for those items. Which of those expenses are ‘needs’, and which are ‘wants’, both now and in the near future? Sure, it’s a lot of fun to spend lots of money on your wedding. On the other hand, we don’t necessarily need everything we see others get. In the short term, in order to meet your highest priority, you may have to compromise on a lower priority.
There are no right or wrong answers here. There are no easy answers. Don’t let anyone judge you for your choices. And there are always creative ways to spend less on something without looking cheap. Barbecue food, make your own wine, book a food truck. You can find out more about these – and more – in our recent post, Marry for Less Than 10K in Toronto.
3. Once you determine your budget, how do you allocate it?
Just because you have, say, $20K to spend, does not mean that you can sink $5K on that perfect designer dress – at least not until you’ve considered how much you may want to spend on the venue, food, entertainment, photography, decor, transportation, etc, and not until you’ve talked to your future spouse. Some things, like food, are a wedding must-have. And the bigger your guestlist, the higher your catering / reception costs. You’ll have to cut costs elsewhere in order to stay within your budget.
Below is a comprehensive checklist for your wedding budget. You won’t need everything from the list, but you do want to go through it carefully to make sure you have identified all the big and small items that are important for you – and budgeted for them.
Again, you and your future spouse may pick out different items. Maybe you can each identify two or three that are key to you, and respect each other’s priority.
Ceremony and officiant. Let’s start with what makes a wedding complete… You need a ceremony. It won’t be the most expensive item on the list, but it has to be accounted for. This category includes marriage license costs, wedding bands, ceremony venue fee, the officiant, the decor, ring pillow, any ring bearer outfits, any special ceremony decor. Ceremony venue could be the same as a reception venue, a separate venue (such as a chapel), or – if you have a small guestlist and are looking to save, then perhaps a city hall.
Reception. Your largest expense will be the reception. Some of the subcategories may include the cost of the venue, main meal, hors d’oeuvres and late-night snacks, drinks and alcohol, cake / dessert and cake cutting fee, venue air conditioning or heating, furniture rentals and delivery / setup. During a long day, most of these things will be integral to your guests’ enjoyment of the day. Expect 13% tax on all of these items, and up to 20% gratuity on at least some of them. The more guests you have, the higher your reception costs will be.
Of course, it would be great if your wedding gifts could pay for the reception in full. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually happen. And maybe that’s okay. You are inviting your guests to share your bounty and your happiness, and to bless your new beginning – not to pay the price for your idea of a perfect wedding.
Venue and catering costs can vary widely. See our Venues pages for specifics. Generally, a restaurant will be cheaper than an event venue. They tend to not charge a separate venue fee or furniture rentals, have climate control in place, and have everything in place to make great food. On the other hand, event venues tend to be better at creating a unique look and formal feel that matches the significance of your day.
Every venue has its busy season and its slow season. Traditional wedding venues may offer discount venue fees in the months of January to April. Restaurants, on the other hand, tend to be busy in winter – but may offer you a better deal in the summer. Saturday evenings tend to be most expensive for all venue.
There are some ways to save on food and beverages. Charcuterie, cheese and appetizer stations can reduce your staffing requirements as compared to hors d’oeuvres. Lunch receptions serve lighter fair and less drinks, and so they tend to be cheaper than dinner. Food stations or buffet meal can be cheaper than a formal three-course meal. Open bar tends to be expensive, but you can negotiate a cap and ask the vendor to limit the bar offering to beer, wine and rail liquor.
Do your vendors require vendor meals? It’s a nice touch to offer those, and your venue or caterer may offer something simpler and cheaper for this purpose.
Cake and cake cutting fee will not break the bank, but is one of those items you can save on. Many people don’t actually eat cake at weddings. Maybe making a dessert table available will be helpful for those who do have a sweet tooth. We’ve certainly seen weddings that made it work.
Photography and videography. This includes your engagement photoshoot, wedding photography, videography, and photoalbums.
An established photographer commands a high price – expect to spend a few thousand for shooting, and hundreds for a wedding album. Plus tax. There are many photographers out there to choose from, some more expensive, and others less so. When you pay a photographer, you are paying for talent plus quality equipment and back-up (including a back-up for the photographer herself). If you can find a talented and creative photographer who is just starting out, you may get a great deal – but you don’t necessarily want to save on good equipment and back-ups. See our Photography page for more information.
As for videography, many couples choose to forgo this option. Good photographs tell a complete story, capture subtleties, and a photographer makes everyone a whole lot less nervous than a video camera. Also, photographs tend to be a lot easier to browse and show to friends and family. On the other hand, consider having a video if you have young children playing important roles in your wedding – little people tend to look so precious on video!
Attire and make-up. If you invest in good photography, you will want to look your best. For the bride, the options include wedding dress and maybe an evening gown (don’t forget to add a couple hundred for alterations), veil or headpiece and jewelry, special shoes and comfortable shoes, specialty undergarments, manicure and pedicure, brow shaping and waxing, facial and dermatology treatments, haircut and color, hair and make-up (including bridesmaids and mothers, as well as trials), or even things like spray tan (to even out those tan lines) and lash extensions. Wedding dress cleaning and preservation may be another item to consider.
The most expensive item on the list, of course, is a wedding dress, and you have to spend on it carefully. Some brides find a wedding dress they think they like, buy it, then decide they don’t like it any more, find an even better dress, and buy that one as well. Other brides decide to get a custom-made wedding dress, balloon their budget, and then still don’t like the dress that much. Those are worst case scenarios, of course, but it can happen. You don’t want that to happen to you, so get trusty advice for selecting a wedding dress – especially if you’re thinking about custom made wedding dresses. When you are thinking about buying a dress, forget how gorgeous it looks on the hanger – or the model – and focus on how YOU look in it. Think of the dress as a very expensive picture frame. You’re the picture, and you’re priceless. Once you get a wedding dress, stop searching, and focus on making sure you look your best in it.
For grooms, it’s relatively simple: suit jacket, dress pants, shirt, vest (if any – depending on the weather), tie, pocket square, cufflinks, shoes. Tax.
In addition, you may want to consider setting aside some money for your engagement photoshoot attire and make-up / hair. How about scheduling your make-up and hair trials for that day?
Flowers and event design. Bride’s and bridesmaids’ bouquets, mother bouquets, boutonnieres for men and corsages for ladies in the bridal party, venue flower arrangements (for ceremony as well as reception). Flowers can be surprisingly expensive, especially so in the off-season. Unfortunately, DYI flowers are not the best idea for most people. Even if you’ve got a talent for flower arranging, you’d need specialized flower coolers and lots of free time just before the wedding starts to get the flowers ready… To save money on flowers, opt for single-rose bouquets.
By the way, flowers don’t have to be real. Silk flowers look great and remain beautiful forever (or can be bought used).
Event design includes ceremony arch, signage, lighting, specialty linen and chair cover rentals, votives (or lanterns), centrepieces as well as guest favours. Oh, and tax. If your wedding has a theme, this is where you can dazzle everyone with your creativity. Alternatively, many of these items can even be bought used. There are always plenty of recently-wed couples offering theirs for sale if you know where to look (Kijiji, Facebook marketplace, etc). Finally, it’s always an option to have no particular event design. This is one item that gets noticed when it’s there – but generally does not get noticed when it’s not. It’s better to spend your effort and money on things that really matter to you.
Music and entertainment. Solemn ceremony music (often live strings or organ), lively reception music (band and/or DJ), MC to make announcements and entertain, and/or any special performers. Equipment rentals, music copyright fees and tax will be added to your account. How important is this? Well, weddings are emotional events, and tasteful and thoughtful entertainment can establish a good positive baseline, smooth out any awkwardness, and guide everyone’s heartstrings towards a memorable event. Click here to learn more about how to choose your Entertainment.
Invitations and signs. This could include save-the-dates (which are important for out-of-country guests or destination weddings), invitations, thank-you notes, guest book, escort cards or seating chart (design and printing). Unfortunately, e-vites are considered a bad taste. Fortunately, you will not need to rob a bank to pay for stationery costs. But they do run the gamut from virtually none… to overboard. Stationery stores and online suppliers provide affordable ready-made templates. More discerning consumers would go for beautiful custom-designed or hand-calligraphed invitation cards. You should budget in mailing costs, including pre-paid RSVP envelopes for each invitation (or ask everyone to RSVP online, or follow up in person). Remember to mail invitations to those to whom you owe the courtesy of invitation, even when you know they will not attend the wedding. Keep an eye out for minimum order counts (which frequently run in the increments of 50 or 100) and, if ordering online, for exchange rate costs.
Miscellaneous. If you plan well, you shouldn’t really have any unexpected miscellaneous expenses. No amount of padding will save your bank account from the insidious accumulation of ill-planned miscellaneous expenses. But we all come up with great ideas at the last minute. You might want to buy small gifts for contest winners, wedding party or parents, you might decide to arrive in a limo or vintage car, pay for parking, guest shuttles from the ceremony to the reception venue, or accommodation for yourselves or VIP guests. You may want to buy breakfast for the wedding party as everyone is getting ready. You may decide to have a rehearsal dinner. You may realize that you need a day-of coordinator. You may incur overtime fees with your photographer or your DJ if your timing slips (note: try to avoid overtime fees).
Protect your investment. Not to alarm you… But businesses can, and do, go out of business (even after they receive significant deposits). Weather conditions prevent access to the venue. Health issues occur. Engagement rings get lost or stolen. So, beware. Require contracts. Exercise common sense. Avoid significant prepayments. Try not to plan too far in advance.
Nobody likes to think about the worst case… except for insurance companies. And it just so happens that they have the right insurance product for you!
People don’t buy insurance because they like insurance companies. They do, because if they ever have to deal with an emotional nightmare – it’s nice to at least get their money back. So, if something is a HUGE deal, call an insurance company. And then, if you get insurance coverage, let’s hope you never need it.
If you and your future spouse are fighting over money… That’s too bad. It’s one of the worst kind of fights to have. Read our advice on stress and fights.