Susan Norcross really has an apple to peel donut walls. Not their specific existence, but rather what they represent to her as a wedding planner: a trend that some of her clients are asking about because they’ve seen it online, and one that they definitely don’t care about or need.
“Do you think in 20 years you’re going to look at your husband and think, ‘We didn’t have the donut wall’? No,” Norcross, who owns The stylized bride in Philadelphia, he said. “For the most part, all these little things, these – excuse my French – BS stuff that people get hung up on. I really don’t think that’s the point.”
Weddings are meant to be a time to celebrate love, one of the most important days of people’s lives as they bring their friends and family together. They can also be incredibly expensive, costs on average tens of thousands of dollars (especially if you are in certain parts of the country). Then there’s the so-called marriage tax, where services, products and suppliers for weddings end up costing much more than for a birthday party, business meeting or other event. In short, it turns out that there is a $ in that $special day. Amid inflation and the current economic conditions, marriage costs are now even higher.
“Even for seasoned wedding planners like me, budgeting is difficult because suddenly the costs of things we’ve known cost for ages… skyrocket,” said Mandy Connor, owner of Hummingbird Events and Designbased in Boston.
I reached out to a number of wedding planners—many who focus on luxury and high-end events—to talk about what they think about the setting of weddings, what’s worth it and what isn’t. Of course, no wedding planner will be like, “OMG, this is totally a scam.” But it was surprisingly insightful. We talked about the potential pitfalls couples should be aware of, the ways they should prioritize, and how external pressures from friends, family and the internet weigh on a day that should ultimately be about them. And of course we talked about money.
“My job is ridiculous, and I’m the first to admit that I’m helping people spend money on this one big day,” he said. Emily Monus, which specializes in LGBTQ+ and vegan weddings and is based in New York. “Weddings are – and I say this with great respect – they are a luxury, they are not an obligation. Weddings are optional. You don’t need a wedding to get married.”
And if you decide to do it, then you really do – and in the meantime pay attention to the pressures you’re under, financial and otherwise. A wedding is a great opportunity to gather loved ones and have a great day. (The only other chance you get for this is your funeral, in which case you’re dead, so you kind of miss it.) It’s also a day, and one when it’s easy to spend a lot more financially – to not to mention emotional – than you expected. It is not for nothing that it is a multi-billion dollar industry.
As Tara Fay, the owner of Tara Fay Events in Ireland, says, “I know this is one of the most important days of your life, but are you willing to pay for it for the rest of your life?”
Budgeting is how you don’t get (and how they get you)
Most wedding planners I spoke to for this column were pretty adamant about the right approach: set your budget, align your large items, and then work from there. You wouldn’t randomly shop around without looking at the price; the same goes for wedding shopping.
“You have to pay for and take care of the important suppliers that make an event possible, and once it’s done, I call the money left over the fun money. People get so excited about the fun that they book it right away because it’s fun,” said Jupiter Meyer, a wedding and event planner based in Brooklyn. “If people don’t have food, a location, and a safe way to get to and from the location, who cares if it’s beautiful?”
The aesthetic stuff can feel exciting — and come with sticker shock (I’m sorry to inform you that whatever flowers you buy for a wedding aren’t the same as the ones you see at the grocery store).
Sarah Haywood, a luxury wedding planner based in the UK, said some couples fall into a trap of weighing superficial details against those that will actually affect the experience, cutting budgets where they shouldn’t. “Your guests won’t remember the $5,000 flower arrangement if the meal wasn’t very good,” she said.
She recalled a couple who had saved up to book a luxury hotel for their wedding – only to find out it was too expensive for one of their guests to stay there. Their families did, and one of the fathers spent the entire weekend complaining about how expensive the drinks were. “If you’re not J. Lo,” she said, “you don’t have to plan the wedding for J. Lo.”
For the love of God, read the fine print
Planning a wedding involves a lot of decisions, big and small. It can feel overwhelming. Also, people may stumble and miss red flags — or yellow flags — that they’ll later regret not spotting.
Vendor contracts can be a lot to wade through, but missing something can end up costing you. There may be additional charges for breaches of contract – for example, people forget to note that the photographer needs a meal, for example, so if they don’t get one, they leave the event. Or they don’t see that there is a clause about fluctuations in market prices around items like food and flowers.
“You want to make sure all your proposals include everything so there are no surprises,” Meyer said. Sellers will often lead with the cheapest option – X dollars for Y hours – and couples don’t realize they need more than Y hours. Rental companies may say that everything picks up at midnight, and if people want to wait until the next day, the price difference can be significant. Or couples book a photographer for six hours and realize later in the schedule that they actually want 10, which will cost more. “You feel robbed, I get it, but it’s all laid out in front of you and you just didn’t realize it,” Meyer said.
Bethany Pickard, the owner of Modern stairs, a wedding planning company based in New York’s Hudson Valley, warned to watch out for hidden costs for additional services and wonder if they’re needed. If a florist says they will also help with linens, that could mean going to a rental company, renting the linens, and then charging you a coordinating fee to act as an intermediary. “A couple going to such a full designer might not know that items are being upgraded,” she said. (The hack here: Rent the linen directly from the linen company.)
Sometimes people don’t do enough research and end up with someone who isn’t that reliable. Connor noted that there has been a “burst” of new businesses in the vintage rental space recently. “We’ve seen many of those companies pop up and disappear just as quickly, leaving some customers behind,” she said.
Other flag planners said to watch out for included payment methods — especially for international weddings, transfer fees, bank charges and even credit card fees can add up — and full-service locations that say they offer the whole package. If couples don’t like the whole package — let’s say the chairs and tables they offer aren’t your style — they’ll end up renting others, and those costs will add up. They may also not realize all the couples in the photos the venue showed them before the booking had done the same.
The biggest wedding scam of all is the one you put on yourself
There’s an interesting conversation about weddings, and maybe we don’t have enough. Everyone knows that weddings can be exorbitant, and everyone is also a little nervous to talk about why that is, and why someone feels they should be putting them on in the first place.
Within peers, many people tend to get married around the same time, and they often “don’t want to share the full detail of the cost” with others, Fay said. Couples may feel pressured to at least match what their friends have done without realizing how much it cost, or that they might have gotten help from elsewhere. The pressure is also coming from parents, who may have a certain vision of their children’s wedding, and of course from social media.
People see something on Instagram or Pinterest and don’t think about what it means or makes sense. Sometimes people become obsessed with certain sellers and ideas; they think they have to have a certain photographer or florist, and they just have to learn to let go. It’s also worth noting that wedding photography can be a bit of a deception – who among us has ever taken a photo that doesn’t capture the full picture of reality? “People show off the best parts of their wedding,” Haywood said.
“A lot of couples fall into the category of listening to a parent or outsourcing opinions to friends or the Internet,” Meyer said. “It turns into a copycat of something they think they should be doing.” They hire a salesperson because they’ve heard they’re better or famous or in a certain echelon, “and maybe that’s not the person they should have hired with their budget.”
Norcross recalled recently planning a wedding for someone who seemed to be trying to keep up with what her sister had been up to, and finally asked the bride, “Why are you planning this big wedding you don’t want?”
Many of the planners I spoke to knew that there is a degree of conventional wisdom that weddings are too expensive, and they argued that the industry is abusing people. “There’s a perception that it’s not good to ‘make money’. Why not?” said Haywood.
Ultimately, the business of weddings is just that – a business. It’s a capitalist project just like any other. People get so caught up in the romance and beauty of the pursuit that they forget.
We live in a world that constantly tries to cheat and fool us, where we are always surrounded by scams big and small. It can seem impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person with Emily Stewart. Welcome to The Great Pinch.
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