BBC Capital

Pay It Forward

First comes love, then comes wedding price shock

About the author

Kate Ashford is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and health. She has written for Money, Real Simple and Redbook magazines.

(iStockphoto)

(iStockphoto)

Ramji Kamakoti and his wife, Archana Mani, live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but when they got married in 2011, they had a traditional wedding in Chennai, India, that lasted for four days. In addition to several smaller events, there was a wedding ceremony in front of 900 guests and a reception with more than 1,100.

“Indian weddings are not necessarily about the bride and the groom,” said Mani, 33. “They’re about two families and two communities coming together. Traditionally, the bride’s parents bear the lion’s share of this mammoth event. “Once a girl is born, they start saving up for her wedding,” said Mani.

In the United States, the bride and the groom bear more of the costs than they used to, but parents still kick in for a big chunk of the wedding expenses — 44% from the bride’s side and 12% from the groom’s, on average, according to wedding website TheKnot.com.

In China, after a man proposes to his girlfriend, both families meet to discuss the wedding arrangements and fiscal responsibilities. Traditionally, the bride’s family provides items such as jewelry, clothing, the wedding dress, and things for life after the wedding, and the groom’s family pays for the wedding and reception. In Singapore, the groom’s parents often present the banquet as a wedding gift.

If you are a parent footing a piece of the wedding pie, do not wait until the engagement party to think about how to pay for the sit-down dinner and hand-beaded dress. Here is how to have your wedding cake and afford it, too.  

What it’ll take: The traditional Indian celebration usually lasts about three days — the buffet tab alone might be as much as RS 7000 ($128) per plate for 500 guests, according to the Times of India, and weddings can easily climb to 50lakh ($90,875) and more. In Singapore, it is not uncommon for weddings to top S$100,000 ($79,560), according to Channel NewsAsia. In Chinese urban cities, the average wedding costs the equivalent of $32,000, according to Raul Vasquez, president of Weddings Beautiful China, a wedding planner certification company. And in the US, the average wedding costs about $28,000 in 2012, according to the latest numbers from wedding website TheKnot.com — up 5% from the previous year. The cost in the US can also vary widely based on location. In Manhattan, average nuptials run about $76,000, for instance, reports TheKnot.com.

How long you need to prepare: The sooner you can start funneling money into a wedding fund, the better. On the plus side, you’ll have more time to save than you might think. The average US woman and man marry for the first time at ages 29 and 31, respectively. As with all savings, compound interest is your friend. If you set aside just $30 a month from age five to age 30, earning a modest 5%, you’ll have more than $15,000 on hand. It may sound ludicrous to start saving so early, but in China, families save from a child’s birth for weddings — particularly parents of sons, who are expected to provide an apartment and a sizable (monetary) betrothal gift to their brides, according to the Chinese Marriage Situation Survey Report, co-produced by the Committee of Matchmaking Service Industries of the China Association of Social Workers and Baihe.com, a matchmaking site.

Do it now: Make wedding saving a priority after you have already put money aside for retirement and college. Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account on paydays to a taxable brokerage account even if it is only $10 at a time. Don’t forget to bump it up whenever you get a raise or pay off a loan. In some countries, these funds may be earmarked for more than just a wedding. Some 70% of Chinese women, for example, believe men should buy a home before getting married, so families there save to buy an apartment, too.

Do it later: If your savings won’t be enough, you have some options — within reason. “If it’s going to mean the kids having debt and you having debt that you can’t get out of, it’s not going to help anyone in the long term,” said David Rae, a financial planner in West Hollywood, California. In the US, some careful credit card juggling can help you cover a short-term need. Say you $5,000 now, though you are expecting a big check soon, you can turn to a zero-percent interest credit card and pay off the balance before the zero-percent introductory period ends.  If you need more time for the pay-off, Rae recommends a home equity line of credit — if you commit to a timeframe to pay off the credit loan. You do not want to “pay $100 a month for the next 30 years”, he said. Outside the US, loan options also exist, but in many cultures it is outside the norm to go into wedding debt. “It’s rare for couples to borrow for their wedding in Singapore,” said Weiwei Tan, a wedding consultant with Chere Weddings & Parties in Singapore. “People save up rather than borrow heavily.”

Do it less expensively: Of course, you can also spend less. One big place to save: the location. “Of the average $28,000 US wedding, $12,905 of that is going to the venue,” said Jamie Miles, editor of TheKnot.com. It pays to scout a few places and look for something unusual or out of the way, which tends to cost less. An Indian wedding celebration includes multiple events, so consider whether you could hold smaller ones in a home instead of a reception hall. In Singapore, prices for the wedding banquet vary tremendously between restaurants, hotels and venues such as country clubs, so shop around.

Other budget tricks: send electronic save-the-dates, shop sample sales for dresses, have the wedding on a nontraditional day, offer a signature cocktail instead of an open bar, and cut a small cake during the ceremony. (The guests get sheet cake — and rarely notice.) And the biggie: Trim the invitees. “If you cut 10 people from the guest list, you’re going to save that much more money,” Miles said. “You need less food, tables, cocktails, invitations, everything.”