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Say I Do, but Not to Debt

Jun 01, 2017 3 min read by Ilana Polyak


Is that the sound of wedding bells? They may be lovely to hear, but, unfortunately for many couples, they can also mark the beginning of a life of marital debt. With the average cost of a wedding now hovering at around $35,000, according to wedding-planning site The Knot, many couples find themselves financing their nuptials with credit cards and loans, and financing for a larger party than they can afford.

But you do not have to start off your life as newlyweds by being buried in debt. Here are some ways to make wedding planning less taxing.

Leaning on family

Even though times are changing, it’s still the bride’s family that picks up the largest part of the bill for a wedding. According to The Knot’s survey, the bride’s family covers on average 44% of the cost of a wedding. Grooms’ families cover about 12%. 

“The couples who have family help definitely are less stressed about planning the wedding,” says Catherine Hawley, a Monterey, California-based financial planner. 

For Hawley’s own July 2016 wedding, her parents paid the lion’s share of the cost, and her in-laws threw some money toward the affair as well. That enabled Hawley and her husband to start their married life on solid financial footing.

While in most cases the money is welcome, couples need to understand if there are any strings attached. If your parents pay for the wedding, will they expect to invite as many people as they want, including the distant second cousin whom you’ve met only twice?

“You need to have really open communication about the expectations associated with the gift,” Hawley says. “Does that mean that the person giving the gift will expect to be part of the decision-making process?”

Also, in many families, getting help paying for the wedding doesn’t mean receiving a blank check. Couples themselves cover 42% of the cost, according to The Knot.

Covering the costs yourself

While they are in the minority, there are many couples who pay for a wedding entirely on their own. If a big wedding with lots of guests is your wish, make a plan to save up for the special day. You may need to make sacrifices elsewhere to grow your wedding kitty, or think of ways to keep a lid on costs.

Wedding planner Caitlin Duncan of Lune & Pond in Minneapolis tells of a client who spent just $10,000 on her wedding by taking a do-it-yourself approach wherever she could. The bride made her own centerpieces with items she found at Goodwill, she repurposed her grandmother’s wedding dress and she even held her wedding on a Friday to score a venue discount.

But it was a different story with another client, who wanted a Valentine’s Day wedding, which happened to fall on a Saturday night that year. The bride even insisted on out-of-season red roses. Her final tab: close to $70,000.

If you’re serious about keeping wedding costs down, consider these tips.

  • Give it some time. Start planning a year or more in advance, so you have time to find the best deals on venues, catering and attire. Duncan and her frugal client met almost monthly at Goodwill to riffle through the bins looking for items that could be used for centerpieces.
  • Cozy up to a budget. Set a budget and make a goal to stick to it, so you avoid overspending. 
  • Don’t be so traditional. You’ll pay top dollar for a Saturday night wedding. But a Friday, Sunday or Monday ceremony can be just as festive, for a fraction of the cost. You can also avoid higher costs by scheduling the big day during the off-season (spring and fall tend to be the priciest seasons, according to Brides.com, while winter and deep summer can be cheaper).
  • Call in some favors. Get your friends to lend their talents – but be discerning. “Centerpieces are a good thing to DIY, but your cousin who is great at picking playlists on an iPod may not be the best choice for a DJ,” says Duncan.

Whipping out the plastic, but in a smart way

Few financial experts recommend starting off your married by going into serious debt. Is one day really worth years of paying off plastic?

“If you want to start a family or buy a house, but you have debt associated with your wedding, then you’re going to be behind accomplishing your other goals,” says Hawley.

If you do decide to pay with plastic, research your credit card options thoroughly so you can maximize sign-up bonuses and cash-back offers. A card with travel points can come in handy when it’s time to pay for the honeymoon, for example.

After earning any sign-up bonuses and rewards, start charging your wedding expenses on the card with the lowest interest rates, preferably one with a 0% APR, if you can get one (of course, it’s best if you can pay it all off before the 0% period expires).

One upside to using credit cards: If a mishap occurs—say, the wedding venue you booked six months in advance goes bankrupt—your credit card company might come to your rescue and refund the deposit, says the website CreditCards.com

Bottom Line

Don’t let fantasies of a dream wedding get in the way of building a solid financial reality with your new spouse. Even if your wedding budget is relatively small, it can still be a truly spectacular day.


Ilana Polyak is a freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and the financial advisory industry. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Barron's, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and CNBC.com, where she is a frequent contributor.


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