Saving Money as a Serial Wedding Guest

Being invited to a wedding or asked to be a member of a wedding party is an honor, but a costly one. No one knows this better than the serial wedding guest.

There are points when the frequency of weddings and wedding-related obligations in life increases due to factors largely beyond a serial wedding guest’s control. In my 20s, it was simply a matter of timing: Friends had finished school, met people, and opted to get hitched. Some wedding required flights and/or hotels (Las Vegas and West Palm Beach come to mind), some just required hotels and a train or bus ticket (Salem, Mass., and Long Island), and some just fell well beyond my budget (Honolulu, where I sent an off-registry garage door opener instead).

Years later, I find myself heading to multiple weddings for different reasons. A friend’s second wedding close to home and a cousin’s first at age 40 have me feeling a bit wistful, but also have also made me remember that these are events that require some budgeting. The latter is 3,000 miles away and includes me in the wedding party, which requires not only a flight and hotels, but some additional time for events, photos, and the like.

I’m grateful for the invitations and grateful that I have the means to accept them, but weddings are becoming a serious financial consideration resulting in both monetary and emotional debt. An 30-year-old account manager in England recently moved back to her parents’ house after amassing nearly $2,900 in debt attending 20 weddings and 12 bachelorette parties in four years.

Joe O’Boyle, a financial adviser and retirement coach with Voya Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif., starts financial conversations with clients by asking three questions: “What is your monthly take-home income, what are your monthly expenses, and how much are you saving each month?” After breaking down fixed costs, he points out three expenses that can be reduced. The first is restaurants and eating out. The second is clothing and accessories.

“The third is one that they almost never plan for, which is travel for weddings and bachelor or bachelorette parties,” O’Boyle says. “We have some clients who go to two, three, or four of these events a year, and it can cost a couple thousand dollars once everything is factored in. They never plan for that.”

Boston Globe “Love Letters” columnist Meredith Goldstein, author of “Can’t Help Myself,” estimates that she spent close to $15,000 on weddings during her seven years of peak wedding attendance. That sum includes bridal showers, dresses, and bridal-party salon visits where “You’re going to get a blow dry you’d never get in real life.” She warns serial wedding guests not to underestimate the costs of their popularity.

“If only one person got married a year, it would be an annual expense that you could anticipate, but it never works that way,” Goldstein says. “It’s easier said than done, but you’re allowed to say no to things and explain your financial situation to people. Sometimes it means saying no to being a bridesmaid and being maid of honor.”

Kimberly Fusaro, longtime weddings editor for Glamour magazine, suggests weighing every wedding invitation and every wedding-party invitation as you receive it. Think about your relationship with the bride and groom, your finances, and your calendar. If you have a bunch of close friends getting married within the same year, it may be a scenario where you swallow the costs for a year and go.

But a distant cousin, a neglected college roommate, or that coworker who invited you to their wedding likely aren’t going to miss you. And Fusaro notes that the rule of thumb is that roughly 20% of the people invited to a wedding will decline. That percentage only gets higher for a destination wedding.

“It’s a wedding invitation, not a subpoena,” Fusaro says.

While it’s hard to turn down an invitation from a member of the immediate family, Fusaro warns that if you don’t support your sister’s marriage or don’t want to watch your dad say “I do” for the fourth time, don’t go. She notes that you can always just send a gift, if you can bear it.

It’s similarly difficult to make it to destination weddings. While couples will sometimes hold weddings far from home just to thin the guest list, Fusaro notes that those who plan on actually attending shouldn’t feel the need to splurge. Fly on off days, check out hotels or home rentals that aren’t recommended by the couple, and consider staying a bit further from the wedding venue and taking a cab or ride-share from the festivities.

Meanwhile, Goldstein notes that couples who plan destination weddings may learn that their relationships aren’t as strong as they may believe. Goldstein remembers being invited to a friend’s wedding several thousand miles out of her way that would’ve required her to go alone, rent or split a room, and buy various presents. When she offered to come to the friend’s shower instead, the friend wasn’t happy.

“In that particular situation, if anything, it revealed that she didn’t know much about my life at that point,” Goldstein says. “She was asking for things that reflected a friendship that had not been as close because of distance, which is fine, but I couldn’t deliver on something that she just assumed I could deliver on.”

Goldstein was willing to go into debt for weddings, but acknowledged that some required debt she didn’t think she could recover from. This is a particularly acute concern for members of the wedding party. Fusaro recommends cutting costs by checking out less expensive shops (like David’s Bridal, Men’s Wearhouse, or The Black Tux) or even bridesmaid dress rental site (Weddington Way, Union Station, and Vow to Be Chic are options, as is Rent the Runway).

Fusaro also notes that the only time you’re obligated to attend an engagement party, bachelor/ette parties, or showers is when you live in the city where the event is being hosted. When you agree to be in the wedding party, you’re committing to the wedding day and the night before, maybe brunch the day after. Bridesmaids are somewhat stuck with the salon visit unless they’re able to style their hair and nails on their own, Fusaro says, but they should remember that it’s more about the camaraderie than the expense. Meanwhile, it’s always fine to send a gift to a shower or party instead.

As for gifts, Fusaro points out that the old rule is that the guest should cover the cost of his or her plate at the reception. However, with most couples reluctant to talk about the cost of the wedding, Goldstein says you shouldn’t spend any amount that makes you uncomfortable, and you shouldn’t feel too badly about small gifts. Goldstein says she’s gone off of a couple’s registry if there’s nothing left, but she’s also failed to get couples a gift in general because she ended up “thinking so hard about what I could get them that would be creative.” Her solutions have included dinners, pub crawls made of gift certificates, and meaningful books and journals, but she admits that even a small item on a couple’s registry is worth getting.

“It’s OK to get that one fork,” Goldstein says. “Weddings are practical at the end of the day: They are about setting up a life with someone and, if they’re a young couple, they don’t have anything and they are going to end up using that fork.”

However, the costs of being serial wedding guest aren’t bankable. Goldstein warns that brides and grooms who spend absurd amounts of money at other people’s weddings shouldn’t expect it all back at their own wedding.

It’s a vicious cycle often built on payback, and it makes little sense at a time when people are sharing money with friends on apps like Venmo and trying to keep spending as equitable as possible. The serial wedding guest can stop the cycle by saying no every so often and keeping spending within reason, but couples sending out invitations may want to consider curtailing some of that wedding-to-wedding resentment themselves.

“It shouldn’t just fall to the people being asked,” Goldstein says. “I wish that the the people having the wedding would allow the people in their lives to know that nothing is mandatory. I want it to be on the brides and grooms to say, ‘I’m asking you to do this, but none of this is required. Please let me know if this is a hardship.’”

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.