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How to save money as a guest at weddings

Tips like borrowed attire can help you celebrate with fiscal responsibility

By Emma Nelson, Star Tribune
Published: January 20, 2024, 5:57am

MINNEAPOLIS — Weddings are allegedly the happiest day of your life — if you’re a bride or groom.

If you’re a guest or in the wedding party, though, and this is your fourth wedding of the summer with your sister’s nuptials coming up in the fall and a best friend getting hitched on New Year’s Eve, the elation might have slowly drained away like all the dollars from your bank account.

The average wedding guest spends $611 per wedding they attend, according to a 2023 Bankrate survey. At the same time, 22 percent of adults have no emergency savings, and the numbers are even higher for younger generations in their prime wedding-guest years.

That mismatch “can create a financial hardship for people that’ll extend past that celebratory day,” said Jamia Erickson, a senior financial adviser at Thrivent Financial. Add in current high prices, she said, and for “a lot of people, it may be harder for them to check that ‘yes’ box to attend. And if they do, preparation has to happen.”

As 2024 dawns and prime engagement season winds down, it’s time to start tallying wedding guest commitments — and costs — for the year. That can mean cutting back on other spending in advance, finding ways to trim attendance costs or, in some cases, bowing out gracefully.

If you’re trying to manage the balancing act of supporting your friends and family on their big day without going into financial ruin — or if you want to make your wedding day affordable for all invitees — here’s some advice on how to celebrate responsibly:

But it’s a tradition!

Most people who responded to the Bankrate wedding guest survey said they had at least one financial concern related to the big day, and more than 20 percent said they would feel pressure to spend more than they were comfortable with or that wedding attendance costs would strain their budgets.

Emily Forrest Skurnik, director of communications at wedding planning company Zola, said guests should feel free to depart from traditional norms governing wedding attendance: things like how much you’re supposed to spend on a gift, that you have to wear a new outfit or that it’s impolite to decline an invitation.

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“Everyone who’s getting married and everyone who’s attending weddings is living in the reality of an economy where we can’t all afford to do everything,” Forrest Skurnik said. “It’s OK to really realistically look at the wedding invites that you’ve received, or that you think you’re going to receive for the next year, and what your budget is and how much you really can afford to spend on weddings.”

Wedding planning

The key is to plan early, Erickson said. Create a budget for each wedding, taking into account ancillary costs like the bachelorette party or going out after the reception. It’s OK to say yes to some parts of the event and no to others.

If you don’t have money already set aside, evaluate how much you’re able to cut your current spending and start exploring cost-saving measures. Airline miles and hotel points can come in handy. So can coordinating with friends to road trip to or share an Airbnb at destination weddings.

There are likely other guests facing the same constraints, Erickson said, and connecting with them can help keep everyone on track.

During the wedding boom that followed the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julie Frantz and her husband were invited to five weddings in a single year. They made it to all five but found ways to maximize their spending, including combining an Arizona wedding with a Grand Canyon vacation.

“As wedding guests, count the costs before you commit,” said Frantz, owner of Everyday Etiquette, a Twin Cities company that conducts presentations on manners and social skills. “You have to do it based on relationships, the closeness that you (have) to particular people, and then the financial component to that.”

Just say no

If you are able to attend, Frantz said, RSVP as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours of receiving the invite. If you were invited to be in the wedding party, you can take more time to decide.

No matter your role in the upcoming nuptials, she said, if you’re not sure you’ll be able to participate, it’s best to communicate early with the engaged couple, preferably by phone.

“This is where you can be honest without being hurtful,” Frantz said.

Once you’ve thanked the couple for the invitation and explained your situation, respond to them as soon as possible with a definitive answer. If the answer is yes, only death or severe illness should prevent you from attending, Frantz said.

If the answer is no, she recommends sending a handwritten note with an offer to celebrate with the couple after their honeymoon. Though you’re not obligated to send a gift, she said, it’s good form to do so, though it doesn’t have to be expensive.

The couple bears responsibility, Frantz said, for either making their wedding accessible to guests or accepting that some might not be able to attend.

Forrest Skurnik got married in upstate New York, where she’s from, and a lot of guests had to travel to attend. Many saved money by staying in Airbnbs instead of hotels or taking the train instead of flying, she said, but some simply couldn’t make it work.

“I did have conversations with a few people who said the travel just wasn’t doable for them, and that was completely OK with me,” she said. “Because in choosing the place where we got married, I didn’t expect that all 200-plus people who we invited were going to be able to make it.”

Presence and/or presents?

The old rule that a guest’s gift should equal the cost of their plate is outdated, said Frantz, and guests should feel free to go in together on a larger gift or buy something off-registry.

“The intent of weddings is, and should be, you’re having this amazing commitment ceremony, and you want those people that mean a lot to you to be there, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with money,” Frantz said. “A wedding is not a fundraiser.”

When building a registry, Forrest Skurnik said, couples should include items at a range of price points. Often, she said, the most memorable gifts are not the most expensive.

If your budget is $25 and there’s nothing on the registry that fits, Erickson said, buy a gift card instead. And if you’re invited to more than one event that requires a gift — say, the wedding, the shower and the bachelorette party — create one larger gift budget that covers multiple gifts, Frantz said.

Giving your time or talents is also an option, she said. Instead of buying a physical gift, you might offer to help take photos or arrange flowers for the big day.

Dress code

For her own wedding, Forrest Skurnik said, she made a point of considering the costs that guests and members of the wedding party would bear. When she chose bridesmaid dresses, for example, the price was a factor in her decision.

As a guest, you can opt for renting, thrifting or borrowing an outfit to save money, she said. You can also wear something you already own, even if you’ve already worn it to another wedding.

Frantz said she saved money by borrowing a dress from her sister for one wedding and wearing a dress she already had to another.

“You can always switch up your accessories,” Forrest Skurnik said.

Forever hold your peace

For everyone involved in the big day, honesty is key — with others, and with yourself. As a guest, it can be easy to just swipe your credit card, Erickson said. But it’s important to consider the long-term consequences for your finances and the other things you want to accomplish, she said.

You should also consider the social repercussions. It’s probably not a big deal if you say no to your second cousin’s Hawaii wedding, but it could be a huge problem to skip your only brother’s Minneapolis vows.

“It’s really taking a true self-evaluation to see if it’s in your best interest to attend,” Erickson said. “And if it’s not, you may have to say no and send that $25 gift card and wish them well and try to connect with them afterward.”

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