I got engaged. Then I got married.
Between those two dates, I built one of the most involved spreadsheets of my life (yup, that’s something I think about). SACM and I used that spreadsheet to choose our wedding venue, predict attendance, invite guests, track purchases and monitor gifts. We’ve also been using it to give advice to friends.
Some of what we collected is private but lots of it is worth sharing for your own planning and budgeting purposes. That’s what I do below.
First, let me say the obvious. A wedding is a celebration of love, of a promise two people make to each other. Spreadsheets are cold data. The data are not the first priority of my wedding, my marriage or my life. But I keep my private life mostly private, so this is just what I like sharing with the wider world.
Please don’t judge me by assuming what I write here is all I care about. My wedding was tons of fun. The process was important for my relationship. But I’m not writing about that here. I’m only hoping to share some facts from this big expensive experience I just went through. I am not making a statement about my relationship with this post. I just think it’s fun. K? Take this with that in mind.
First there were a few rules we were following that others might do differently:
- We planned for 150 people and wanted to have a great big party with a huge cross-section of people who were important in shaping whom we had become. We optimized for a fun time that could balance tradition with our own personalized touches.
- We wanted to put extra effort and money into this day to tell ourselves and our friends and family that this was a uniquely special day we planned on never repeating. That means we did not cut costs in all ways. (Big expensive weddings, after all, just might correlate to happier marriages)
- We were going to get married in Philadelphia, where we met, in a unique venue that had character and a story that fit but that also had enough built-in support and process that we didn’t have to do much work beyond planning and ideas. (Meaning, we used a traditional caterer, with all the large costs that came with it)
- We are aware that, put on a spectrum of the world, we are privileged. We worked hard, found ways to save money, contributed a lot of our savings and were creative generally but traditionally-influenced weddings are still easily expensive — there is an entire industry built on that. And many couldn’t do what we did. We know that.
While we’re here, let me share a few quick lessons from the actual wedding:
- Set a budget and beat it — Use my budget sheet and really plan. Save, so you can make it a big fun party with no worries and all your favorite people.
- Make the ceremony your own — We had family welcomes from each of our fathers, which I’ll remember for the rest of my life. SACM and I wrote our own vows. The officiant, ceremony musician, reception DJ, photographer and other participants were all family friends. Instead of religious readings, we had two friends read from literature we love. We had playful and personal “signature drinks” — an Old Fashioned for me, a real favorite of mine, and cans of Mountain Dew for SACM, a fan favorite of the night. These personal details will be what I remember most for the rest of my life.
- Take an all-in group photo! — Another of my favorite memories is the crowd: this incredible wide range of mentors, friends, family, neighbors and more. Look into the crowd an take it in. Remember that. One way to do that is to actually get everyone who attended into one giant group photo, depicted above. It’s my favorite photo of the night.
- Do what you want — People kept telling me they didn’t eat during their wedding because they were so distracted. Psh. I made sure I ate everything I could. I had as many of my “signature drinks” as I could. We rented arcade games and I actually played them. There was a billiards room, and I used it. And yeah, there was also much dancing.
- Things will go wrong — During the reception, my aunt’s iPhone went missing. Money from a friend’s purse may have too. And so I’m nervous someone may have taken other items. I won’t ever really know.
- Remind yourself that there is no gift requirement — There is a long tradition of giving gifts (toasters and cash alike) to newlyweds to send them off into marriage in as comfortable a financial situation as possible. But you should enter the process remembering that there should be no gift requirement. Of course gifts are great and “cash is king,” but that’s not the point of your wedding. Because you’ll almost surely spend more than you receive, a wedding is a really crummy fundraising mechanism. We had guests from a wide range of financial situations, so of course the gifts varied too. Even just a thoughtful note or kind gesture of coming and having fun is much appreciated. (So if you’re not giving a traditional gift, do do something thoughtful).
Find a template of part of the spreadsheet I created here.
Here are 15 data points that might interest someone who doesn’t know me.
- The overall all-in wedding cost more than $33,000. I know. We could have given a herd of 600 cattle to Rwandan villages. We could have supported more than 30,000 meals for needy Philadelphians. We raised some money for a food pantry at my bachelor party, and we made a donation to our college newspaper in lieu of wedding favors, but I still have guilt about the money spent. We talked a lot about this and ultimately felt that this decision was both symbol and act: we never have, nor likely never will again, spend anywhere near that figure to celebrate anything else for the rest of our lives. That alone signifies how special this process and day were meant to be. It’s also worth noting that that’s a pretty comprehensive total, only excluding our honeymoon and SACM’s bridal party, which I’m seeing as distinct, but including many lead-up costs. Rings and licenses and decorations and a rehearsal dinner are all in there. It’s not just a one-night cost.
- We covered more than 70 percent of those costs. That’s most and it took a lot of effort for us to get there, but we know we’re extremely privileged. Between SACM’s parents buying her wedding dress, her mother making paper flowers and my father contributing generously to the venue costs, our family supported us in a way that most people in the world can’t have. Nonetheless, we took seriously that these costs had to mostly be our own. Needless to say, we saved a lot leading to the wedding and are still working to get back to a good place financially.
- 60 percent of the overall wedding costs were covered by wedding gifts. In my budget, I planned an average of $100 per person in cash gifts — accounting for no gifts and unique, non-financial gifts. When taking into account family support, our guests were more generous than my estimate, and excluding family support, that estimate was pretty accurate. And to clarify, as discussed farther below, this figure includes family contributions that throw off the average. Separating out the lager family contributions puts this figure closer to 40 percent.
- Two-thirds of the overall wedding costs were represented by venue, food and beverage: And really, 95 percent of those costs are the food and beverage — anyone will tell you that catering is your biggest cost by far for the average wedding. Try to feed 150 people with high-end food for much less without making it all yourself. We priced out 10 options and also had the specifics of a friend’s wedding to add context. From there, we developed a budget we were willing to invest. The overall venue costs, including food and beverage, from those 10 options ranged from $4,000 (for a family-style BBQ block party) to more than $32,000 for the beautiful open gardens of the Morris Arboretum. Our choice, the historic Stotesbury Mansion in the Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia, was actually in the middle of the pack in terms of costs, despite having an in-house caterer, though we liked ours.
- 82 percent of invited guests came to the wedding — We sent out 98 invitations representing nearly 200 potential guests. Eleven invited people/pairs responded that they would be unable to attend. A dozen people came single, though they were invited “with a guest.” All told,156 RSVPd for the reception, and three others came just for the ceremony and a few we didn’t hear back from at all.
- The cost for food and alcohol was $153.92 per wedding guest — Yeah, we spent a lot of money on this great big party of friends and family. We didn’t do a sit-down dinner or buffet but “stations,” which refers to a model of having lots of our favorite foods spread throughout the venue. This figure includes an upgrade for sushi as a major part of our food and a mid-tier alcohol package — we needed Jameson for my Old Fashioned, after all.
- The all-in cost was $216.16 per wedding guest — This includes things like the photographer, venue, invitations, wedding bands, our wedding suite, and other real costs beyond catering.
- The average gift was $131.85 per person — This was a wonderful act of generosity. To arrive at this figure, the cost of physical presents from our registry were included.
- The normalized average gift was $94.50 per person — When cutting out the few abnormally generous gifts from close family, my original guess of $100 per person is fairly accurate estimate.
- The average gift from our friends (as opposed to family and work associates) was $47.46 per person — It’s a highly variable number, including far more generous gifts and a handful of people who just came for the party, but all told, it gives evidence to the sense that age and place in life matters: our friends, who were almost all 35 years old or younger, gave half even the lowest overall per person gift average.
- Of 73 gifts, 38 included checks, 15 included cash, 11 included a Honeyfund.com contribution and 12 included a physical present. There was some cross-over, in which people gave pieces of all or some of those options.
- The average gift by way of a personal check was $214, the average Honeyfund.com gift was $170, the average gift of cash was $155 and the average estimated cost of a physical gift was $79. To normalize this comparison, I removed noise from the data — larger family contributions and small playful add-on gifts ($5 gift cards, for example). And remember, this is not a -per person- total but rather a gift from each invitation — some were two people, some were one, some were families of several. I don’t think we were smart about our use of the Honeyfund website and think that could be its own post.
- 7 pairs who did not attend gave gifts anyway — That was one of the most unexpected and warmest gestures by people whom either (a) couldn’t attend or (b) we had a unique relationship in which they were important to us but not coming to the wedding. I decided to not include them in the average totals above.
- 11 percent of guests did not give any gift — I am saying this, not to complain (remember, you ought not expect gifts), but rather to help you plan your own budget. I was particularly surprised when even more than 16 percent of guests didn’t give a gift on the wedding day. So in your budgeting remember: a percentage of your guests really will wait (four guest pairs did send a gift afterward) and others won’t be able to. Five guest pairs said a gift was forthcoming but even three months later, remember some say you could wait a full year to give. Others didn’t give a physical gift or card, nor specifically suggested one was coming, so I assume one won’t be — which, it’s worth reminding the world again, is OK! The point of the wedding is to celebrate. Nonetheless, to followup on the above point about age being a determining factor, of the seven pairs who did not give a gift, all but one were friends (as opposed to family or work associates). #Planning not #ranting.
- 25 hotel nights booked — But we still guessed we’d book more, so we actually missed the price break our hotel gave us if we hit 30 nights. (Several friends from out of town crashed with other friends rather than getting a hotel. Keep that in mind).
Interesting right? And let me say two things again: I have a lot of emotional feelings about my wedding but the purpose here was to share fun data to help others and also, we’re very aware how lucky and privileged we are. We don’t take that lightly.
Anyone else care to share?