The matrimonial season is upon us—I now pronounce you deeper in debt.
Some people I know would rather attend four funerals than a wedding. I, on the other hand, relish in the whole gooey spectacle—gasping for breath after seeing the bride’s emotional entrance; catching the bouquet, then remembering I’m a commitment-phobe and promptly dropping the bouquet; the quadruple-decker cake. (Oh, the cake.)
One thing that years of watching TLC’s A Wedding Story did not prepare me for, however, was the exorbitant cost of bearing witness to the first day of the rest of a couple’s life. The average age of Canadians when they first marry is 28 for women and 31 for men. For potential wedding guests, that can mean sizable gouges in our bank accounts at a particularly vulnerable time. Costs may include the dress or tux, the bridal shower, the bachelor and bachelorette parties, and, finally, the wedding gift. If we’re still mired in student debt, contemplating a down payment on a house or even looking for a full-time job, we might not consider the champagne and conga lines worth the financial hassle.
A recent American Express survey notes that guests anticipate spending an average of $539 per wedding this year. (Expect that amount to nearly triple if you’re in the bridal party.) And many of us are called upon to attend three or four weddings over the next few months. Mazel tov, everyone: Your eternal love has bankrupted us all.
For a big-picture rundown of our obligations as wedding guests, I spoke to Laura Atendido, a creative director at the GTA-based wedding-planning boutique Laura Kelly Wedding Design. (You may have also seen her negotiating matrimonial costs with bride- and groomzillas on seasons five and six of the Slice Network’s Rich Bride, Poor Bride.) She says that while all weddings involve some degree of shelling out, the extent of your contribution depends on the couple. “I’ve had bridesmaids say to me, ‘The last time I went to a wedding, I was seven. I’m really not sure about the financial expectations.’ It’s so subjective. Some couples want to inconvenience people as little as possible, but some don’t have that attitude.”
On average, bridesmaids can expect to spend an average of $200 to $300 on a dress and alterations, adding another $150 to $200 for professional hair and makeup. Guys should budget between $180 and $250 for a tux rental. There’s also the very real financial danger of a destination wedding, which would mean costly flights and accommodations. As for the gift, Atendido says cash is usually preferred, and standard wisdom holds that guests gift about $100 to cover their plate. Nope. Jack that up, too: She estimates the expected amount hovers around $150.
Even if the financially responsible thing to do would be to RSVP with an apologetic “decline,” most of us would rather pay for a Williams-Sonoma waffle maker than jeopardize our dearest friendships. Do we just face down the debt and say, “I do?”
Rather than refusing to attend right off the bat, Atendido suggests being upfront about your financial situation with the couple-to-be. “Give them a chance to say, ‘It’s important that I have you here,’ so finances aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker, then look into alternative ways of participating.” If you’ve confirmed your attendance, there’s the small matter of the gift, and Atendido says you can finesse that, too. “Plan well in advance and look for discounts. Most couples register at The Bay or HomeSense or Crate & Barrel, which have big sales regularly. If the couple is asking for a $180 gadget, and there’s a 40 per cent off sale this weekend, you’ll be able to get something of higher value for a lesser amount. It’s much easier to hide the actual value spent when you’re purchasing a gift—it’s impossible to do that with a cheque.”
If your budget absolutely forces you to decline, however, Atendido recommends looking at the order of importance. “Consider your closest friends first. You don’t necessarily have to rank them, but it’s easy for people to get invited to five weddings a year and only be able to afford three,” she says. And even if you’re sitting out a ceremony, you should still send a gift, says Atendido—a smaller one.
Considering they’re ostensibly built around warm, fuzzy concepts like soulmates and “happily ever after,” weddings can take an ugly turn, especially when it comes to the stark economic realities of attending them. I’ve heard of friendships ending after wedding-related money and gift disagreements. But, as Atendido says, it’s important for couples to remember it’s about “presence, not presents,” and for guests to keep their bank balances in mind when responding to invites. I’ve got three weddings this summer alone, so, guys, might I suggest City Hall? That way, we can have our cake and eat it, too.