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New Rules: Who Pays for the Wedding?

With wedding costs soaring, are parents still on the hook?

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Relax, Mr. Banks: The days of the father of the bride paying for the entire wedding are largely over.
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In Father of the Bride, George Banks (played by Steve Martin) suffers sticker shock at the price of an elaborate wedding cake. "My first car didn't cost $1,200!" he complains. "Welcome to the '90s," sneers the wedding planner, Franck (Martin Short).

Two decades later, parents confront even more astronomical costs. The national average for a wedding is $35,329, with regional averages ranging from about $20,000 in rural areas to $80,000 in East Coast cities, according to a survey of 13,000 couples by The Knot, a wedding website.

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Thankfully, the bride’s parents are no longer automatically expected to pick up the tab. “The father-of-the-bride-pays rule is archaic,” says Ivy Jacobson, The Knot’s planning editor. “The only rule is, do what’s financially best for your family.” That’s reassuring, considering many celebrations have mushroomed into three-day productions, all memorialized on video.  

Who pays now? Because couples are marrying later — at an average age of 29 for women and 31 for men, according to The Knot’s survey — they have jobs and can afford to kick in. Typically, the bride’s parents now pay about 44 percent, the couple pays 42 percent and the groom’s parents pay 13 percent.

But even within families, this breakdown can vary. That was the case for the family of Susan Teague Sheehan, 63, of Rockville Centre, N.Y. Her two 30-something sons set wedding dates that were four months apart, and one son’s wedding was much pricier than the other’s. So she opted for “equitable rather than equal.” For each son, she and her husband paid for the rehearsal dinner and a portion of the reception bill, plus a “generous wedding present.”

In doing her research, she found, “There are no rules anymore. Wedding costs have gotten too out of hand for one set of parents to pay everything, in most cases.”

The road to a wedding is filled with potholes, and money is just one. We asked experts how to keep a joyous event from turning into hurt feelings — and empty pockets.

The Wedding Planner

Donna Anello has planned weddings in the New York area for nearly a decade. Her advice to parents:

Suggest they set a budget. “The engaged couple needs to find out who is contributing and how much, so they know their limitations.”

Provide friendly reality checks. “Couples have never planned a wedding before, so they come in with a binder full of photos and unrealistic expectations.” Half the budget will go for the reception alone, so all those “enhancements” like a photo booth or cigar-rolling station may be trimmed.

Pick a sensible date and location. The priciest weddings are on Saturday night during peak season, from April to October. Lower the cost by choosing a Friday or Sunday, holding the event in a small town rather than a big city and hosting a brunch or lunch rather than a dinner.

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The Financial Adviser

Keith Maderer of Buffalo, N.Y., is the author of Cut Wedding Costs — Before the Big Day. His advice for parents of the couple:

Avoid borrowing. “A financial hangover can last for years.” At the same time, don’t tap your 401(k); that’s a big mistake with a possible tax penalty. If you must borrow, “home equity is probably a better way. And interest rates are good now.”

Give a lump-sum gift. But don’t give it all at once. Tell the couple you’ll dole it out as the bills come in. That way they are more conscious of their spending.

Say yes to the dress … within limits. A budget of $1,000 is reasonable. After that, the bride should pay.

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Curtail guest-list battles. At $125 or more per person, cutting 10 or 15 names can save substantially. Cut until the budgeted number is reached. Expect some unhappiness all around.

The Etiquette Expert

Lizzie Post is the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and coauthor of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th Edition. Her tips for preventing family rifts:

Be clear on any money stipulations. “If there are any expectations that come with the parents’ contributions, they should let the couple know.” Those expectations can be rejected, but the money can also be declined.

Remember whose wedding it is. “I encourage parents to let the kids dictate the list.” Still, the couple need to consider if parents will be hurt professionally if colleagues aren’t invited.

Make conversations candid but caring. There will be tense moments; it’s a wedding, after all, when emotions tend to run amok. “Try to keep a positive tone in your voice and convey that the other person’s opinions and feelings are important.”

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