Why Are Weddings So &#@! Expensive?

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When Josh Fernandez and Crystal Lee-Fernandez started planning their wedding two years ago, the Sacramento couple wanted something small, simple, intimate— and cheap. With $7,000 set aside to pay for the big day, Fernandez naïvely assumed they’d have some money left over. Then reality set in. Fernandez explains what happened:

“We were just going to serve appetizers, but my mom was like, ‘Maybe we should have some meat.’ So steak got involved. Then she was like, ‘Maybe we should have some poultry.’ So chicken got involved. Originally, we were going to have an alcohol-free reception because neither of us drinks. But we wanted everyone to be comfortable, so we decided to have booze. A friend was going to take the photos—until we ended up hiring a photographer.” And just like that, their $7,000 budget ballooned to $30,000. “Oh my God,” says Fernandez, laughing sheepishly. “It was so much money.”

What he describes sounds like a nuptial version of mission creep. Still, Fernandez hastens to add that the wedding was “totally worth” it, and he swears he wouldn’t change a thing. But if one thing is clear, it is this: Despite all good intentions, the best-laid schemes of budget-conscious brides and grooms oft’ go astray.

For the past decade, despite global economic shocks that have shaken most of us down to our boots, the cost of the average American wedding has managed to hover somewhere in the neighborhood of $27,000. That’s a lot of moolah for what is essentially a party. At one point or another, anyone planning to get married has got to wonder, “Why are weddings so freaking expensive?”

The people whose livelihoods depend on weddings—florists, photographers, caterers and the like—offer well-reasoned explanations for why weddings cost what they do. Sacramento wedding planner Laurie Schmalzel, for one, argues that a wedding is a complex event with lots of moving parts. “It’s basically a party on steroids,” she says. When man and woman are joined together in holy matrimony, the celebration is bigger, more intricate and more complex than your typical party.

Take one small element: the wedding cake. “It’s just butter, sugar, flour and eggs, right?” says Schmalzel. “But for a wedding, the cake has to be tiered and decorated and raised on a pedestal. The ribbons on the cake have to match the piped icing.” Even the mere cutting of the cake requires special attention, she notes: “You have to be trained to peel off the fondant and remove the bling before you can cut the cake.” All that time and attention doesn’t come free. Before you know it, something as seemingly simple as butter, sugar, flour and eggs can add up to a lot of dough.

In her 20 years working in the bridal industry, Schmalzel has seen weddings morph from cookie-cutter events into increasingly personalized expressions of the bride and groom. “Brides don’t want the same wedding as everyone else,” she explains. “They want it to be unique to them.” They also want their wedding to be as special as the ones they read about in magazines and see on TV. “It takes time, energy and wit to plan something like that,” says Schmalzel. “If you could plan a wedding in a day, it would be cheap. But everybody would have the same thing. That’s a wedding in a box.”

Sacramento photographer Beth Baugher has been capturing weddings for posterity for more than two decades. When people wonder why wedding photos cost so much, she is happy to set them straight.

“Taking pictures is the easy part,” she says. “It’s 15 percent—tops—of what I do.” She may work only seven or eight hours on the day of the wedding. But she’ll put in an additional 35 or 40 hours before and after the event: meeting with the bride and groom, downloading and processing images, creating albums.

Baugher also has to factor some serious costs into her pricing structure. One is the stress and pressure of photographing a wedding. “It’s not like a 50th birthday party,” she explains. “For most couples, it’s the most important day of their life.” Also, hers is a seasonal job. On Saturdays from May through October, Baugher’s services are greatly in demand. Since she only can be in one place at a time, she often has to turn down work during the wedding months, then finds herself with little to do from November through April. “I can’t do 12 weddings in May,” she explains. And then there’s the cost of her highly specialized equipment. Recently, Baugher spent $6,000 on an upgraded computer, and her $3,000 digital camera will be good for only three or four years before she has to invest in a new one.

Weddings weren’t always pricey affairs. Back in your great-grandmother’s day, couples got married at home, celebrating afterward with a modest repast of tea and cake. Typically, the bride donned not an elaborate white gown but rather a dark-colored dress that she could wear over and over again.

Wedding historians generally credit Chicago department store Marshall Field and Company with kicking off the era of the modern (read: expensive) wedding. In 1924, the store created the bridal gift registry, helping to turn weddings into consumer events. Marshall Field also catered to middle-class brides by selling low-cost knockoffs of high-fashion dresses.

Today’s bride can easily spend thousands of dollars on the dress. When Caitlin Kenney, a producer for NPR’s “Planet Money” radio show, got married in 2011, she set out to investigate why her wedding gown (bought on sale, no less) cost her more than $2,700. In a video posted on NPR’s website, she took the strapless Enzoani gown to a fabric wholesaler and a tailor to find out the real cost of the fabric and labor. What she discovered made her feel “ripped off”: According to her experts, the materials cost no more than $500, the labor $200.

Sandra Gonzalez, the owner of Sparkle Bridal Couture in Sacramento, is accustomed to hearing stressed-out brides bemoan the high cost of tulle, lace and beads. “I get it all the time,” she says.

What brides don’t understand is how much work goes into making some of the elaborately constructed dresses she sells. “It can take up to 38 days to produce the beadwork on some of these gowns,” she points out. “It’s all hand-sewn.”

At her salon, Gonzalez carries two tiers of dresses. Her “informal” gowns have minimal ornamentation and cost $350 to $590. Her “formal gowns” are more complex and can run up to $3,000.

To demonstrate the difference, she plucks a $382 gown off the informal rack. The one-shoulder chiffon dress is simple, with a bit of draping and a single small rhinestone brooch where the shoulder strap meets the bodice. Then she pivots and grabs a $2,456 strapless ball gown from the formal rack. The bodice is heavily ornamented with crystal and glass beads sewn onto netting, while the tulle skirt is shirred into masses of tiny ruffles. Both dresses are lovely, but it’s clear more work and materials went into the more expensive gown.

The expression time is money is never more true than when discussing wedding costs. Janel Inouye, co-owner of Magpie Caterers, one of Sacramento’s most in-demand wedding caterers, points out that weddings present unique challenges. “There are no other parties where we’re providing service for five or six hours,” she notes. “It’s a big, long day.” And when a couple chooses to get married at a location without an on-site kitchen, the costs spiral even higher. “Some venues have nothing but a cement landing, so we have to bring in everything,” she says.

Greg Clark, an economics professor at UC Davis, takes the long view when it comes to the wedding bill blues.

Sure, he says, $27,000 is a lot of money. But in California, the median family income is $69,000. Take that income, multiply it by the 40 years you hope to remain married, and “you’re spending less than 1 percent of your total income,” he explains. “If you look at it that way, it’s not wildly outrageous.”

Clark points out that it’s not his job as an economist to judge whether weddings cost too much. “People spend money on all sorts of things that others would regard as crazy,” he explains. He offers one way to look at the expense-versus-return equation. If you invite 200 people to your wedding, you’re likely over the course of your lifetime to be invited to their weddings, too. So, he explains, “you’ll get a lot of that money back.” He suggests viewing your wedding as merely your turn to host the block party.

Then there’s Rabbi Greg Wolfe with Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis. He, too, thinks it’s important to put weddings into perspective. “I try to put the emphasis on what’s meaningful,” he says, “not the extravaganza. You can do a lovely, warm, wonderful wedding without going to extreme expense.” But if a couple wants to spend a lot of money? Oh well, he shrugs. That’s OK, too. After all, Wolfe says, “everyone likes a good party.”