This is part of Say Yes to the Mess, a pop-up Slate series on the unsettled state of the American wedding in 2023.
It’s a question that perennially plays through the minds of wedding guests: What did all this cost? As the pandemic has waned, people got married in droves—more in 2022 than in nearly 40 years—but after years of canceled parties and Zoom elopements, their approaches varied wildly. Some realized they didn’t need a big party, or stuck to small ceremonies for safety. Others gave their guests the blowouts they had dreamed of for two years. I spoke to three couples, who agreed to speak candidly and completely about how much money they put into their celebrations. Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Accidental-Blowout Wedding: Asif (33) and Carter (32)
Wedding details: Casual wedding at a ranch in Arizona, fall 2022
Actual cost: $110,000 to $120,000
Financial support: $30,000 from Asif’s parents
Attendees: About 70
Asif: When we first started, I was like, “We can do this for $30,000 all told.” Because, I was thinking, for what we want—and it’s going to be a small wedding—$30,000 seems reasonable. But I haven’t really been involved in a lot of wedding planning, so I really had no concept of what modern weddings cost.
We picked the venue, and we were comfortable with the budget for the venue. And then, because it’s in the middle of nowhere and they don’t have a ton of amenities, we had to pay for things like port-a-potties, we had to pay extra transportation fees for the photographers and for the kitchen staff, and we had to pay for their lodging overnight. Maybe our venue didn’t do a good-enough job of being like, “These are the types of costs that you will probably incur if you choose to go with us.” They were more like, “Our schedule is already full because everyone wants to get married this year, so you have to make a decision right now, and if you don’t, you probably won’t get the venue.”
That was the other piece of it that was just upsetting, for lack of a better word. The demand for anything wedding-related skyrocketed after the pandemic cleared up. So it really fucked us. Because, at the same time we were wedding shopping, catering shopping, everything, so were thousands of other couples. And as a result—the vendors were doing their best, but obviously supply and demand, just the prices were gonna go up. I would describe it as being a project manager, mixed with the trauma of slowly watching your bank account be drained, and finally getting to a point where you’re like, “What is money, anyway? Who fucking cares?” I talked about it a lot in therapy.
It’s my nightmare to be at a wedding and hear that stupid song that’s like “I got a feeling …” I was like, “I do not want that shit.” You know, even if you tell the wedding DJ, “Don’t play corny shit,” they’re still going to. So we decided to go with a live band, because we were in the desert, and it felt maybe more vibe-y.
Music: $6,600 ($5,400 for the band, $1,200 for the sound system)
My partner is a fashion designer, so it was a lot of pressure. He designed my garment. Sewing and cutting would have been a lot of work to do while you’re also getting married, so we hired a friend of a friend to do the garment production, and they worked with a seamstress to make it all come to life.
We went with a vendor that served a family-style meal. When I saw the price, I was like, “Holy shit, no.” And then I looked around and was like, “Actually, that is reasonable.” Because they did the whole shebang—they brought the waiters, everything. It was turnkey, and I didn’t have to worry about it, and they were highly, highly rated by everyone we talked to. But what happened was they quote-unquote “forgot” to include a fee to set up a mobile kitchen in the desert, so we were supposed to source all of that through the rental company. There was a crazy long list of stuff that I didn’t know about: skillets, a range, propane, knives, and all this other shit.
Two weeks before the wedding, they were like, “How’s your kitchen order going for the mobile kitchen? What do you need from us?” And I was livid. I kind of went, like, full Karen on them and wrote this really long email. They eventually did choose to waive the fee—they brought up their own kitchen, and they paid for it themselves. At one point they came to me and were basically like, “Here’s another thing that’s $2,000, and it’s not a big deal, right?” I was like, “No! Absolutely not. I’m not paying for that.”
There’s no guidebook when you set out to get married. I know that there are some Amazon books, like So You Decided to Get Married or whatever, but there’s no official “Here’s an estimate; here’s some sample budgets.” You just sort of figure it out on the fly, or at least that’s what we did. Maybe I should have done better research, but I was flabbergasted by the total. It’s sad that this is the truth, but when it was all said and done, I wouldn’t have done that again, and it kind of makes me sad that we did it. I mean, obviously it was a fabulous day. I wouldn’t change that, and I loved the way everything turned out, and our guests had a wonderful time. But it really had financial repercussions. Like I said, it was great and wonderful. But it was also fucking terrible.
The Microwedding: Eric (42) and Johanna (32)
Wedding details: Casual wedding at a medium-upscale restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in spring 2023
Actual cost: $10,000
Financial support: None directly, but Johanna received a $50,000 gift from her parents around the same time to spend at will
Attendees: About 35
Johanna: It was just like our neighborhood restaurant, and it’s one of the first places we went when we moved in together. I think I literally Googled “this restaurant’s name + weddings,” and we Googled some of our other favorite places and asked for a couple quotes. Overall, this was so much more affordable.
Eric: Not even just was more affordable, but was more in line with the vibe. At least for me, I was always thinking about a more traditional-size wedding, but given the realities of COVID and elderly relatives, and the fact that housing prices have shot up by 75 percent in the last three years, the idea of spending $30,000 to $40,000 on a wedding just seemed absolutely absurd to me. We wanted something A) local, B) meaningful to us, and C) that helped cut down on the number of random, individualized vendor-style choices that we had to make.
Johanna: And I had always wanted to just take each of our immediate families out for a really nice dinner and buy 12 people steaks or something, so this felt like a really nice compromise. The other venues that we looked at required 40 to 50 people.
Venue : $900
Food and drink: $3,280
Johanna: Flowers are happening. I had been like, “Oh, I’ll just go on Etsy and order dried arrangements or buy bud vases and tell my sister to go to Whole Foods and put things in them.” And then I saw a tweet from a friend’s sister-in-law being like, “I’ve spent the past two days doing the flowers for my friend’s wedding, it’s been an exercise in therapy and something-something grueling.” And then she showed a picture of bud vases, and I was like, “OK, this is one of those things you think you can do, and then it ends up being harder than it looks, and you have your sibling or friend crying because it’s difficult. So I emailed a flower store.
Johanna: We hired someone through a website that’s like Uber for photographers. This was mostly a move out of desperation.
Eric: Because it’s a restaurant, there’s not gonna be room for dancing, there’s not a band, there’s not a cake in the corner that we’re gonna be cutting. So the structure of the wedding informs the usefulness of a photographer being there for seven hours–type of thing. That was the other thing: It was difficult to find wedding photographers outside of this service that weren’t selling a full package that kind of assumed you were gonna have separate bridal parties and seven people each, and a bunch of families, and going to multiple locations.
Johanna: We can plug in anything that fits a standard jack, and at first when we learned that, Eric was like, “Oh, let’s buy an iPod” so that we can just have a dedicated thing that’s not our phones and won’t die on us. That would be $300, but that’s our music expense. But then we learned you can’t buy iPods anymore.
Music: $280 (cost of an iPad)
Johanna: I thought I’d get a blowout and then buy some new makeup at Sephora and do it myself. But I’m getting it professionally done. It took me several stages of grief to part with that money for hair and makeup. Or no—grief would be the wrong word—acceptance. But ultimately, I concluded this would be a nice thing to do. Even though I don’t have a wedding party, those three people are all going to be helping me out the day of, and also, having that traditional experience of getting ready with your friends for your wedding actually was worth the money—you don’t really get to have that again.
Hair and Makeup: $1,200 (bride, day of: $450 and trial: $300; hair for sister, good friend, and officiant: $450)
The Last-Minute Wedding: Jane (36) and Ted (38)
Wedding details: A church ceremony with a reception at a sculpture garden in Northern California in fall 2021
Actual cost: $70,000
Financial support: Jane’s dad got the bar
Attendees: About 80
Jane: We started planning six months in advance. Everything was rushed. I think some people just plan it all in two years, and they feel like it’s rushed. Every vendor was like, “You have how many months? We’re supposed to do what, in what time?” It was shocking to me how much lead time people wanted.
Ted: I would say, though, that seems to be wild hype—not from you, but from the wedding industrial complex. My anecdote for this is that we literally changed our venue two weeks before the wedding, and it was totally fine. We called an audible on where we were gonna do it because we were trying to do a restaurant, and they raised the price.
Jane: We weren’t getting great vibes from the restaurant. They had initially told us $35,000, and then they told us $55,000, and then it was going to be, like, another $5,000 to move furniture. And we just pulled the plug—it got so crazy.
Ted: Then we talked to our wedding planner, who was like, “Yeah, three of the best spots in the city are available. It’s fine, you can do it.”
Jane: People booked hotels in the wrong part of the city because we changed venue at the very last minute.
Venue: $9,300 ($2,300 for the church; $7,000 for the sculpture garden)
Jane: We actually thought about canceling because we ended up doing it in, like, peak Delta variant. Everything was outside.
Ted: One unexpected budget line item was $1,000 on COVID tests, and I just had to go and drive around and corner all of the Abbott tests from every Walgreens in the area. They would let you buy five at a time.
Jane: We were actually prepared to pay $7,000 to have nurses test everyone, but Ted very smartly said, “Why don’t I just go collect tests? And he was actually able to do that, which was great.
Ted: Yeah, because I didn’t care about it being HIPAA-compliant.
Jane: These services had popped up during the pandemic, event-based testing services. They would tell you about these very expensive packages—one of them was going to fly these nurses in from Boston, and so you had to pay for the nurses’ time and pay for their hotel rooms, and then you have to pay for the testing. It was all very elaborate.
Ted: It was bad news when one of them wanted to get their CEO on the phone with us to pitch.
COVID Tests: $1,000
Ted: The photos were a debacle.
Jane: We didn’t end up loving our photographer, and it was so expensive. It was our most annoying cost in the end. It didn’t seem like she really liked us very much, which was not ideal. And her style was so corny. At our engagement photo shoot, it was all these really corny poses, and we’re too old for that, I think? We posted none of the photos anywhere.
Jane: One of the great things that we spent money on was a photo booth. And that was awesome. We had friends who brought cardboard cutouts of world leaders. So those are some of my favorite photos from the wedding.
Photo booth: $800
Jane: The best money we spent was the planner. She did so much stuff for us. She found us the venues. I really underestimated how much planning the wedding would take, and she stepped in to do a ton of it.
Ted: My wedding recommendation to other people is: There’s no particular incentive for anyone to do a good job on your wedding because you’re not coming back, you know? If the DJ is late or the wedding photographer is shitty or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. You can’t get alignment on the cost problem, but by hiring a wedding planner, you can get alignment on the quality problem, because the wedding planner interacts with all these people every single weekend. So that is a way to mitigate some of the risk.
Wedding planner: $2,100