When my close friend from college called to ask me to be a bridesmaid in her destination wedding in Colombia, I said “yes” immediately. South America! With my best friends! In a magenta dress!
Over the next year, I spent more than $1,500 on wedding-related expenses. Travel, lodging, dress, hair, make-up, food, gifts—the costs kept adding up. And I could have spent more: I borrowed the shoes to go with my bridesmaid dress, skipped the bridal shower (but chipped in for a gift) and opted not to buy a wedding present, because at that point, I simply couldn’t afford it.
Spending outside my means on the wedding was my own fault; I signed-on before I took the time to calculate what it would cost me. It seemed like a good idea to charge the flights and figure out how to pay the rest along the way. But as the year went on and the costs added up, I slowly realized what I’d gotten myself into. As I continue to pay off my bills, I wondered: Do all weddings cost this much? I surveyed some friends to find out.
I asked 20 20-somethings to give me itemized lists of how much they’d spent in recent years as wedding guests and wedding party members. This is by no means a scientific study, but I polled a cross-section of people across the country, many of whom had attended multiple weddings. The median totals I heard per person, per wedding were:
Wedding guest: $540
Many people had never calculated how much they’d spent on each wedding, and those folks all underestimated their expenditures by about $100 to $200. (“Depressing” was the most commonly used adjective to describe this exercise.) Several of my friends said they were in credit card debt largely because of weddings they’d attended. “Dear married people, you can buy me a credit score when I get married,” joked one of my single friends who estimates she’s spent $4,150 in the last two years at weddings.
I propose that we all agree that it’s okay to decline being in someone’s wedding for financial reasons. Or to skip some of the traditional events we’ve been taught to attend and gifts we’re expected to give. I also wish we felt better about being upfront with the married-couple-to-be about our limitations. Maybe they’ll say that the only important thing is that you’re there on the day. Or maybe they’ll say, “We are secretly rich and will buy your plane ticket” (you never know). It can be awkward to talk about money with your friends and family, but it’s way better than resenting them for your debt.
We’re perpetuating a silly cycle: Spend x on your friend’s wedding and he or she will probably spend something similar to x when you get married. The wedding industry has us following a twisted revenge philosophy: “I’d elope, but these assholes totally owe me,” as one of my friends put it.
Here are some of the cost breakdowns among my 20 correspondents. You don’t have to join the cycle! Leave the gift-giving to the folks with money (parents ahem). And couples—if you know all of your friends are underemployed, maybe a destination wedding isn’t the best idea?
Engagement party: The engagement party gift was least frequently mentioned among the expenditures I went over. The few who did buy them spent a range of $10 to $100. I think it’s totally okay to skip the engagement present. There are plenty of opportunities for gift-giving later on.
Bridal shower: I heard a range of $16 to $100 on bridal shower gifts, the median being $65. Again, I think it’s okay to skip the present, or chip in for one nice gift or giftcard with a bunch of friends. If you can’t afford to travel, don’t.
Bachelorette party: I heard a range from $30 to $300 depending on whether travel was required. The median was about $180. This is one of the most difficult wedding-related events to budget for in advance, because incidentals are always involved. (Lingerie for the bride, manis and pedis, spa treatments, so many drinks!) If you’re worried about your budget, I think this is a good event to skip.
Bachelor party: The range I heard was from $150 to $500, with the median cost being about $300. Things people mentioned throwing down for: travel, dinner, (lots of) drinks, table service, limo, strippers, cigars. Guys, you can skip this, but you probably don’t want to.
Flight: If you’re attending a destination wedding, this is the first cost you should calculate. If you can’t pay for the flight out-of-pocket, it’s a sign you probably shouldn’t go.
Hotel: I heard ranges from $50 to $400, which of course depends on where you’re staying and for how long. Median cost was $180. If you’re looking to save money, split a room with someone else attending the wedding, stay with a friend in town or ask the bride and groom to chip in for your lodging. If you’re out-of-country, stay in a hostel, not a hotel.
Local transportation: Don’t forget to budget for cabs or a rental car. Pre-plan with other guests or ask about hotel shuttles.
Ladies’ attire: Bridesmaids I talked to spent a range of $110 to $300 on shoes and a dress, with the median being about $245. Female wedding guests spent a median of $95 (some wore shoes and dresses they already owned, some sprung for a new outfit).
Bridesmaids can also expect to spend about $100 on hair and make-up if the bride expects you to get it done professionally. If you can’t afford this, talk to the bride. If you’re on a budget, wear your own jewelry, bring your own purse and tell the bride you’ll do your own nails. If she doesn’t understand, she is a Bridezilla.
Men’s attire: The men I spoke to said tux rentals averaged about $150 (if you’re clumsy, don’t forget to add on the damage waiver). Men can usually wear their own dress shoes to weddings and might have to spring for a haircut.
Gift: How much you spend on the gift will probably depend on how much you like the person getting married, whether you’re attending with a guest and your budget. I heard a range of $0 to $250 a person for wedding gifts, with $150 being the median. If you’re attending as a couple, $200 total was a popular figure.
Food for out-of-town weddings: If you’re traveling to the wedding, budget at least $30 a day for food and another $20 to $30 for alcohol and tips. If the wedding has a cash bar, you’ll need to budget for that, too. But then again, if it’s a cash bar, why are you even going?
Kalyn Belsha is a freelance writer living in Chicago. If she ever gets married, she promises to have an open bar and homemade cheesecake.