Engaged couples can tell you that planning a wedding takes time, effort, and often a whole lot of money. The average 2023 wedding costs $29,000, according to wedding registry and planning website Zola.1 That means figuring out who pays for the wedding is a big deal.
Though traditional etiquette has old-fashioned rules about who pays for what in a wedding, funding an event now is different for many couples. Here's what you need to know about paying for your wedding.
Who pays for the wedding?
Decades ago, when our grandparents were getting hitched, the answer to who pays for the wedding was pretty clear: The bride's family would cover the main event, and the groom's family might fund the rehearsal dinner, if there was one.
"That tradition came from this outdated mentality that the financial burden of a woman was now changing hands from her family to her new husband," explains Mariah Grumet, a New York City-based etiquette trainer and founder of Old Soul Etiquette.
The tradition also could have stemmed from the fact that a young couple was likely to just be leaving the nest. In 1960, the median age of a first-time marrying couple was about 20 for women and 22 for men, according to US Census data.2 As of 2022, those ages have jumped to 28 for brides and 30 for grooms.3 So they're more likely to have spent some time in the workforce, living on their own (or even together), and making their own money before tying the knot.
But couples' ages and the fact that there are more working women aren't the only reasons traditional wedding-cost coverage is fading. Same-sex couples weren't factored into that old equation of who pays for what parts of a wedding. So now, couples are often figuring out who pays for the wedding when they start planning rather than relying on the old standards.
How to divide wedding expenses
The old cost-splitting etiquette might not have felt fair to everyone, but if nothing else, it was a clear rule. The only rule about paying for weddings today? There are no rules.
"Times have thankfully changed," Grumet says. "Every single couple is unique, which means every single wedding's finances will be unique. Some couples might choose to stick with the tradition, some might be paying for their own wedding in full, and others might be receiving financial help from both families in some way."
So how do couples in the 21st century decide who pays for what in a wedding? Here are some options to consider.
Self-funding your wedding is a pricey undertaking, but there's a big benefit: The couple, theoretically, gets complete control over their wedding planning. Typically, when other people contribute toward the wedding, they expect to make decisions about the day.
Some other pros to paying for your own wedding:
- You don't have to ask other people for money, which could be awkward.
- You know what you could reasonably afford, so you could start budgeting right away. You don't necessarily know what a parent can afford.
- You'd know instantly if your financial situation changes, and you need to adjust your budget. Another contributor might not tell you right away if they need to lower their contribution.
The first step to planning your wedding if you're fully funding it is to figure out your budget. Sit down together and work out how you can save up enough money to throw the wedding you both want. Then, any additional money your families offer is icing on the wedding cake, rather than something you're counting on.
An even split
Many weddings involve 3 couples—the marrying couple and each set of parents. But if a couple's parents are no longer together, there could be as many as 5 sets of contributors. Lauren Bowling, a personal finance blogger who covers the intersection of money and etiquette, often sees couples ask to divvy up the costs equally, if everyone can swing it.
"So if the wedding budget is $30,000, each of 3 parties contributes $10,000," says Bowling. If there are more groups, the per-person or per-couple contribution amount would be lower, but still equal among the other contributors.
This not only helps with spreading the burden of wedding funding, but also with keeping the wedding-planning process fair. "A single set of parents doesn't get more say than the other about any aspect of planning because everyone has contributed equally," Bowling says. "That's a great solution for when people disagree about wedding decisions."
If, on the other hand, one set of parents pays for the entire wedding, they might feel like they can dictate the entire guest list. But splitting the cost equally clarifies how many guests each contributor gets.
Like this route? Bowling suggests getting parents' contribution in cash, rather than asking moms or dads to pay vendors directly. That way, the marrying couple remains the point people for vendors, and contracts and conversations don't slip through the cracks.
Splitting equally doesn't necessarily make sense if there's a financial mismatch between the families. Asking for equal contributions in that case could cause embarrassment or resentment.
If you suspect one family could (and wants to) help a little, not a lot, Bowling suggests asking for something specific—the flowers, the bar tab, the programs, the photographer—from the family with a more limited budget. Even better if you could pick an item or service that matches what you'd guess that family would be willing to contribute.
This approach gives the family ownership over a distinct part of the wedding, which can feel especially important if they're feeling uncomfortable about the financial disparity between the families. The family that pays for the flowers could proudly share that the gorgeous bouquets, boutonnieres, and centerpieces were their contribution.
Just remember to talk about what exactly ownership means before you accept their help. For example, if they're funding the flowers, they might want to choose the blooms—or at least the florist. If you're willing to relinquish control here, you could give that family a color scheme and a vibe (as in, modern, traditional, or somewhere in between) and let them do the rest. If you still want to call the shots, then the funding family might need to give you a budget to work with.
Some parents of a newly engaged bride or groom offer a certain amount of money to help pay for wedding expenses. If they do, great—just know that there probably isn't much room for negotiation, and you'll need to build your budget around what they're chipping in.
But if they don't bring this up, you still can ask them if they'd be willing to contribute. Be prepared that they might say no, or not give as much as you hope. "It's important to go into this knowing that you might not receive the responses you were expecting and be willing to compromise," Grumet says. In that case, you might need to tweak your budget—or your expectations.
Talking about weddings and money
Conversations around wedding finances could feel uncomfortable. To make them less so:
Schedule time to talk. With your partner and with anyone you might ask to help pay for the wedding. Tell them the topic you'd like to discuss beforehand, so they're not blindsided.
Include the right people. Have an initial conversation with each family separately. Your parents might not feel comfortable discussing their finances with your partner's family—or their ex. It's best if the request comes from their child, not their child's partner.
Be honest and sensitive. Feel free to share your hopes. But understand they might not fit with your parents' plans for their money, and you might need to adjust accordingly.
Give them time to make a decision. Don't expect an answer about a dollar amount or even an item to cover on the spot. Do suggest a date when it would be good to know how much they can help, so you can plan your budget.
It might not always be easy, but working with your partner to figure out your wedding budget and how to make each set of parents feel included in the wedding planning are all part of a healthy foundation for a successful marriage.