Our columnist helps the happy-couple-to-be think through how to pull off their special day without bankrupting their special friends.
Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

Ask Lizzie: Help! I’m Planning a Wedding and I Don’t Want to Bankrupt My Friends!

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Dear Lizzie,

I’m engaged and planning my wedding, and while I know things are expensive on our end, I want to get a sense of what expenses are appropriate for my guests. Like, is it too much to expect travel for the bachelor/ette party and travel for the wedding AND a gift? If it’s a destination wedding, is the travel the gift? There are so many permutations here that I get lost!

Clueless in Quebec


Dear Clueless,

Congratulations! You have found someone with whom you want to share your life! That’s wonderful and a thing to be cherished.

I also want to take a moment to thank you. You may not have realized it, but you are displaying real care for your guests. Frankly, a lot of people do not take this step. They think too much about what they want out of their “big day” and not enough about what their friends and families might want.

I have been on both sides of this equation: the besotted bride losing her mind over whether the table runners matter (they don’t) and the serial guest, frantically trying to find one last room in the preferred hotel. So I have thoughts.

To figure out what people are spending these days (it’s been a while since I’ve been in the thick of the wedding circuit) I asked two of my brothers, both in their early 30s, what they have been spending as guests lately … and I was floored. One attended five weddings last year, the other seven. And they estimated their total outlays to be somewhere in the $3,000 and $5,000 ranges, respectively. Ouch.

Those numbers didn’t surprise Meg Keene, whom I consider one of the smartest people writing and thinking about the wedding business. She runs the company A Practical Wedding and wrote the books “A Practical Wedding” and “A Practical Wedding Planner.” I used her books when planning my own wedding. I called up Keene to talk about your question, and what she had to say really stuck with me.

First, remember that you are extending an invitation, not a command, and trust your guests to know what they can handle. “When you’re invited to something, you can say no,” she said, adding, “We expect people to act like adults and say no when they need to say no.” Of course, that means that if someone does say no (or says yes to the wedding but no to the Nashville bachelorette festivities), you have to respect that. No needling, no asking for specific reasons. No dramatic friendship-ending histrionics (see above sentence re: adulthood).

But — and this is her second point — be sensitive to your guests’ finances. Take a little time and consider the average financial state of your invitees and how that meshes with the wedding you envision. As Keene puts it, “make sure that the amount that you’re inviting people to spend lines up in some way with the people you’re inviting.” She suggested thinking about money in the same inclusive way you might think about clothes if you were outfitting your wedding party. “You should be mindful of the shapes, sizes, and tastes of your bridesmaids. Right?” We should also think of the shapes and sizes of our guests’ financial lives. I think this is phenomenal advice. I mean, if all your friends are grad students or work lower-paying jobs and you really want them there, maybe a remote destination wedding is not the way to go?

Keene shared a detail with me from her own wedding that I thought was lovely. She and her husband had close friends who they noticed hadn’t RSVP’d as the wedding neared. These were people they were tight with, whom they really wanted to include. And so they reached out, had a frank conversation, and helped them out with paying for a flight and a hotel. It fit in their wedding budget, and it allowed people they loved to be with them to celebrate. Does this take some delicate honesty? Yes. But that’s not a bad thing: it’s often missing in the way most of us deal with money and how it affects our relationships.

So far I’ve been writing about regular ol’ guests, but all of this levels up from JV to varsity when you start talking about the wedding party. Keene shared this viral TikTok with me, where a woman laid out the bullet-pointed two-page letter describing the money and time commitments she expected from her bridesmaids. Predictably, the internet went nuts. But I can actually see the appeal of a document like this! It might not be entirely my style, but it’s radically honest. Now maybe you don’t need an entire letter, but a phone call to talk openly about expectations of your wedding party seems great.

Now I’d like to set some emotional expectations when it comes to your guests. My general rule of thumb for weddings is to anticipate one epic freakout, followed by several smaller ones. The biggie will come from someone you’d never suspect. Your calmest, most beloved uncle will go berserk and insist that you MUST invite his barber who adored you as a baby and whom you haven’t seen in 30 years, and then will refuse to speak to you if it doesn’t happen. Totally standard. Weddings occupy a strange place in our society, a potentially explosive brew of family, strong emotions, anxiety, and a lot of money. It’s the perfect recipe for bringing out the weird in people. Even if you have followed all the advice above, I think it’s worth building in some space for bananas behaviour.

And look, there’s no getting away from it — even in the age of Covid, and even if it’s a party in your backyard, you are orchestrating a significant social and financial event. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of money. According to Wedding Wire, the average Canadian wedding cost north of $29,000 in 2020. So it can feel like everything is riding on this. But, and I know you know this, it is one day. Do not let all the hoopla and expense overshadow what you’re doing, because that’s the point.

Finally, I have one piece of advice that you didn’t ask for. My younger brother Jake, who got married before I did, suggested that my husband and I do this, and I’m so glad. No matter what kind of ceremony you have, be it at city hall, a house of worship, or a converted warehouse (hello, that was me), take a moment, just after the ceremony, to be alone with your new spouse, and bask in the beauty of what you just did. It’s magic.

I wish you all the best,

Lizzie

Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast “What Next: TBD” at Slate.

Money Diaries

"MY UNDERGRADUATE ADVISER TOLD ME I SHOULD JUST FORGET ABOUT THE WHOLE WRITING THING. ‘YOU SHOULD FIND A GOOD MAN AND GET MARRIED,’ HE TOLD ME."

Margaret Atwood

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