Several years ago, Sylvia Inks was caught in an uncomfortable dilemma. A childhood friend asked her to be the maid of honor at her wedding, but Inks doubted whether she could—or even should—participate.
Just two years out of college herself, Inks felt the marriage was rushed and a bad idea. Her friend's fiancé had broken up with her at least three times the year before. Plus, something about their relationship just didn't seem right.
But digging deeper, Inks says she became increasingly stressed over the costs of the wedding, too. If she were maid of honor, she says, she would have to fly to the event, then pay to stay at a specific bed and breakfast in Boston for two nights. She would also have to buy a dress and pay for days of meals and a wedding gift.
She didn't think there was any way it could cost less than $750, she says. And at the time, that was money she just didn't have.
The growing costs of being a bridesmaid
Eventually, Inks broke down and told the bride she couldn't be in the wedding. During an hour-long phone call, Inks explained it was too much to spend considering she wasn't yet established in her own career and didn't really approve of the groom anyway. The bride eventually relented, and both were able to let it go.
But Inks is far from the only woman (or man) who has felt pressure to fork over big money to stand in a friend's wedding.
The average price tag to act as a bridesmaid is a little over $1,300, according to wedding authority Weddington Way,1 although that amount can surge depending on where you live and the bride's requests. That figure includes the costs of travel and lodging, attending a bachelorette party, the bridal shower, a dress, hair, makeup, shoes, and accessories.
If you're lucky enough to be a bridesmaid in five different weddings, as many women are, you can expect to pay a lifetime total of $6,620, the website notes.
How to cope when you can't be a bridesmaid
While many people can afford to pay this amount over and over again as friends and relatives get hitched, it's natural to expect that bridesmaid duties could be a hardship for many women—especially young women trying to build their own lives.
Part of the problem may very well be the age at which most weddings take place. In the U.S., the median age for first marriages is 27 for women and 29.3 for men, according to Pew Research.2
That's later than in generations past, but even in their late 20s, many bridesmaids (and groomsmen) are paying down student loan debt, saving up to buy a home, or saving money for their own weddings. And, like it or not, it can be hard to drop more than a thousand dollars on bridesmaid duties when it requires forsaking your own goals.
So, what should you do if you can't afford to participate or simply don't want to?
Inks says she's glad she had a candid conversation with her friend about costs. And she must have made an impact, she says. After Inks said she couldn't be a bridesmaid, her friend and fiancé wound up eloping at a Sandals Resort in the Caribbean.
"If you can't afford to be a bridesmaid, have a conversation and explain your reasons," says Inks. "Tell your friend that you value the friendship and are honored that she asked."
From there, you can offer to do something special for the bride or to take on a smaller role in the wedding. Inks says one time she couldn't be in a cousin's wedding, so she spent time helping the bride create a budget and gathering family photos for the event instead. "Be sure to offer to help in areas that are in line with your expertise and what you enjoy doing," says Inks, who now works as a financial coach for small businesses.
Author Erin Lowry focuses on how to deal with weddings and other financial issues for young people in her new book Broke Millennial. Lowry suggests being open and honest and trying to break the news in person if you can.
"Don't text about this situation," says Lowry. "Explain that while you love your friend and want to be there for her on her special day, you don't have the financial means to be part of the bridal party. You'd still like to support her in other ways and be there on the wedding day—but it's cost-prohibitive for you to be a bridesmaid."
Saying no can feel "really awkward in the moment," says Lowry. However, it may preserve your relationship better than the alternative. While saying no is difficult, attending a wedding you can't afford only to "keep complaining or nitpicking about cost" or just resenting the bride for putting you into debt isn't a great idea, either.
Plan to be a bridesmaid anyway? Do this.
Some friends are so important that you feel like you have to be in their weddings whether you really want to or not. According to Lowry, it's perfectly acceptable to speak with the bride about costs before and during the process.
"If you decide to still be a bridesmaid, even though it's cost-prohibitive, try to have a conversation with other bridesmaids and the bride herself about your budget," says Lowry. Maybe you can afford the dress and the day-of events of the wedding, but you can't afford to attend the Las Vegas bachelorette party, for example.
"Say up front that you can't attend three out-of-town events (bridal shower, bachelorette, and wedding), so you're laying down expectations early."
The best thing you can do is be honest about your limitations. If your bride gets mad, there's really nothing you can do. And, you never know: It's possible your friend may see the light when you explain the hardship created by the wedding costs. Provided she's not a Bridezilla, she may even tweak her plans to help you save.
That's what Zina Kumok of the blog Debt Free After Three did when she realized her chosen bridesmaids didn't have the money for an over-the-top affair.
"I let them choose their own dresses and only said they should be cocktail length and purple," says Kumok. "I paid for their makeup and let them decide if they wanted to pay for the salon to do their hair or if they wanted to do it themselves."
Kumok then had two separate bachelorette parties to cut down on travel time for spread-out family and friends. "My high school friends and I celebrated in our hometown, so we could stay with our parents and save on hotels," she says. "The second bachelorette party was held in the town we went to college in, and since it was a few days after Christmas, everyone was already home for the holidays."
If you're struggling to decide whether to be a bridesmaid and money is a factor, start praying now your bride is as reasonable as Kumok. Once she knows what the issues are, it's possible she'll scale down the expectations—and the costs.
If not, you have a decision to make. Will you spend the extra money to be a bridesmaid when you can't afford it? Or, will you bow out?
At the end of the day, only you can decide whether to place priority on your finances—or your friendship.
1. "The Economics of Being a Bridesmaid," Weddington Way: https://www.weddingtonway.com/wedding-guide/planning/wedding-budget/the-economics-of-being-a-bridesmaid
2. Young Women Today Are Half as Likely to Be Married as in 1940, Pew Research: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/11/record-share-of-young-women-are-living-with-their-parents-relatives/ft_11-03-15_womenlivehome_310px/
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