Weddings happen all around the world, and here in the US, they are a booming, overpriced billion-dollar industry. If you want a regular cake, it could cost you $40. But if you mention the word “wedding” in the same sentence, that same cake, with some fancier frosting and fondant, could cost you $800 or more.
According to The Knot, in 2016, an average wedding cost around $35,000. On top of that, couples spend about $5,000 on their honeymoons.
We married in April 2017 and paid for all of it ourselves. QL had just finished residency a few months prior to the wedding and I was less than two years removed from business school. We were still paying off student loans, so in a way were borrowing for the wedding. As a frugal person, this entire process was painful for me.
Our wedding was far from simple. First of all, we live in Chicago but married in California. Most of our friends flew in or drove from the Bay Area to attend. Second, the distance made it difficult to do most of the setup ourselves so we relied heavily on our vendors. Third, we ended up with about 260 guests. We didn’t exclude young children and gave all of our guests plus ones if they wanted. It was essentially a destination wedding for a very large group.
We didn’t keep track of the wedding cost down to the penny, but below is the rough compilation and description of the damage. Believe it or not, this is with me trying to control costs as much as possible.
Finding a venue was challenging. Starting in November 2015, QL bookmarked venues through online search and reading local wedding magazines. We flew in for a weekend to visit our top six venues. It came down to three options: an Italian-inspired mansion, a romantic winery, or a local Chinese restaurant.
QL loved the winery but since the venue was new in the wedding industry, they didn’t have any preferred vendors. We would be responsible for everything from renting tables/chairs to hiring servers. It also didn’t have a plan B option for inclement weather. The Chinese restaurant was conveniently located in her hometown and food better aligned with most of our guests’ pallets. However, we wanted to have a scenic backdrop for our special day. In the end, we chose the mansion.
Once we selected the venue, the costs started piling up.
We settled on the venue in February 2016. To reserve the date, our venue required $2,000. In October 2016, six months before the wedding, we paid another $2,000. Luckily I was able to put these on our Chase Sapphire Preferred. Another $2,000 installment was due in January 2017, but I asked whether I could use several $300 gift cards that I had from manufactured spending. They agreed, and I paid $3,900 using those gift cards! The balance was due a week before the wedding once the guest list had been finalized.
As you can see from the table above, our costs in this category are for the Food, Venue, Ceremony, Beverage, and Hotel.
We chose a buffet option for our guests. One of the things that we didn’t like about this venue was that they didn’t offer a free tasting. Thus, a few months after booking the venue, QL took her family for Mother’s Day brunch to sample the food. It cost $50 per person + taxes. Her traditional family didn’t particularly enjoy the food but loved the venue, decor, and service.
The wedding buffet price was $40/$20 per adult/child. We ended up paying $12,362 for the food and it was included in the final invoice.
Neither of us particularly cared for a cake. We also had noticed at other weddings that most people didn’t eat cake. Instead, we opted for a Vietnamese che (sugary tapioca based concoctions) station catered by Bambu, our favorite dessert store that we frequently visit. A few friends picked it up the morning of the wedding. It cost $400 and was a huge hit.
Our venue was in a secluded location so Uber/Lyft was not available. On top of that, the majority of our guests were QL’s family friends so we didn’t think there would be many big drinkers.
We could choose one of two options
- Hosted beverage package (unlimited beer, wine and soda)
- $22.50 per adult
- $8.50 per child
- BYOB + corkage fee + non-alcoholic package
- The corkage fee was $1/bottle for beer and $10/bottle for wine
- There is a rule of thumb of one beverage per hour per person. With 260 guests and six hours that formula results in 1,560 drinks. We adjusted it down to 1,008 drinks (22 cases of beer and 12 cases of wine)
- The non-alcoholic package was $8.50 per guest, including the children
- The corkage fee was $1/bottle for beer and $10/bottle for wine
In the end, we went with option 2 and spent $6,001 on beverages. We paid for a portion when we purchased the beverages from the liquor store and Costco, and we paid a portion to the venue as part of our final invoice. Our guests ended up drinking roughly half of the alcohol we estimated, so a portion of the corkage fee was refunded to us. That is included at the bottom in the table above. We gave the unopened alcohol to our friends and family as alcohol couldn’t be returned after purchase.
Venue and Ceremony
Our wedding was too large to host indoors (there is seating for 175 inside), so we used the large tent outside. That cost was included in the venue rental of $6,000. There was another charge of $1,000 to use the wedding ceremony site.
The mansion had 11 guest rooms that you have to rent for $3,000 if you elect for an evening wedding. The occupancy tax was $360 and we were required to pay $200 for an overnight guard. $3,560 was included in the final invoice. We gifted these rooms to our wedding party, friends from out of state, and families.
QL had been tracking photographers in the area for a while. In February 2016, she flew back to California on her own and met with one she liked. The meeting went well and we signed a contract with Passion Studio, paying a $2,000 deposit. One week before the wedding, we paid the remaining $3,000 and gave the crew a $200 tip on the wedding day.
Our photographer recommended a florist and QL reached out to CL Decor in May 2016. Another $2,000 deposit ensued. A couple months before the wedding, we made a $1,000 payment and then paid the balance,$2,564, the week before the wedding.
We put off on hiring a DJ until December 2016 because we thought about getting a live Vietnamese band. Our DJ didn’t ask us for a deposit, so we signed a simple contract, talked on the phone a couple times, and decided to meet at the walk through the day before the wedding. His fee was $1,000, which he allowed us to pay on our SPG card the evening of the wedding.
Two weeks before the wedding, I sent in the final check for $21,042! We seriously debated putting this on a credit card, however we would have had to pay the $421 processing fees and that deterred us. If the venue had rung up as a restaurant, we would have considered it for 2x points.
Attire and Gifts
In February 2017, QL went to Vietnam with her mom to buy some things for our wedding. Buying things in Vietnam seriously drove the wedding cost down. She spent:
- $170 on dresses and accessories for her three bridesmaids
- $44 on the two flower girls’ Ao Dais
- $44 on the three groomsmen’s Ao Dais
- $22 on my Ao Dai
- $150 on her three wedding dresses and veil
I wore some Allen Edmonds shoes and a navy suit I already had. I asked the groomsmen to rent a navy suit from The Black Tux, and wear any dark brown shoes they had. I spent $200 in March 2017 before the wedding buying ties, tie clips, matching socks, and mini bottles of Woodford Reserve for everyone.
A couple months before the wedding, QL spent $600 on clutches and small purses for her bridesmaids.
We had 200 paper invitations printed in Vietnam for $115. It was a great deal and QL picked them up in February 2017 when she was there with her mom.
I ordered simple platinum wedding bands for us in March 2017, a month before the wedding. They cost $765.
We flew back a couple days before our wedding and went to the county clerk’s office one morning to get a marriage license. That cost $65.
One of our good friends served as officiant and he covered the $20 fee to get ordained online through the Universal Life Church.
The night before the wedding, we rented a couple rooms downtown for our wedding party so the girls could get their hair and makeup done and we could all take pictures before the morning tea ceremony. The rooms cost $400 (included in Hotel category in the table above) and hair and makeup by Orchid Duong Artistry for QL, our moms, and the bridesmaids cost $1,300. That price also included a bridal trial, tips, and some makeup products.
The morning of the wedding, we had a traditional Tea Ceremony at QL’s home. That cost $3,000.
We had a Vietnamese engagement party in October 2015. That cost $3,200, which also included our engagement session in Paris.
What is the Opportunity Cost?
On a gross basis, our wedding cost $49,526. I ignore the wedding cost net of the cash gifts because we’ll return those gifts and more to family and friends in the future when they or their children get married.
We also spent about $5,500 on the honeymoon (first post in the honeymoon series), and I’m mentally blocking out the cost of QL’s diamond solitaire because I believe diamonds are a scam.
In our case, if that $49,526 wedding cost were invested, assuming an annual equity market return of 7%, in 10 years when we hope to be retired, we would have roughly $98,000, likely nearly two full years of expenses.
What this shows you is that the one day wedding cost is not $49,526. Rather the long term cost is nearly $98,000, potentially more. Is one day worth that cost? The answer to that is very personal, and it will come down to what types of memories you want and value. For us, we decided to go through with the traditional wedding. Our families and we waited almost a decade for this union. Despite the painful dings to our bank account, it was a very memorable day with my wife.
In a way, by spending a lot of money on our wedding and trying to reach financial independence early, we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too. Hopefully if things work out, it will just be a year or two later than we could have reached financial independence had we not spent so much on our wedding.
One final thing – here’s our wedding video from the talented Passion Studio’s team.
How much did your wedding cost? Is there anything you would do differently?