Here’s the Truth About That “Average Wedding Cost” Number

Notes on nuptials.
June 12 2013 1:57 PM

The Wedding Industry’s Pricey Little Secret

That widely used “average wedding cost” figure is grossly misleading. Here’s a much more accurate number.

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Apologies to those for whom this is basic knowledge, but the distinction apparently eludes not only the media but some of the people responsible for the surveys. I asked Rebecca Dolgin, editor in chief of TheKnot.com, via email why the Real Weddings Study publishes the average cost but never the median. She began by making a valid point, which is that the study is not intended to give couples a barometer for how much they should spend but rather to give the industry a sense of how much couples are spending. More on that in a moment. But then she added, “If the average cost in a given area is, let’s say, $35,000, that’s just it—an average. Half of couples spend less than the average and half spend more.” No, no, no. Half of couples spend less than the median and half spend more.

When I pressed TheKnot.com on why they don’t just publish both figures, they told me they didn’t want to confuse people. To their credit, they did disclose the figure to me when I asked, but this number gets very little attention. Are you ready? In 2012, when the average wedding cost was $27,427, the median was $18,086. In 2011, when the average was $27,021, the median was $16,886. In Manhattan, where the widely reported average is $76,687, the median is $55,104. And in Alaska, where the average is $15,504, the median is a mere $8,440. In all cases, the proportion of couples who spent the “average” or more was actually a minority. And remember, we’re still talking only about the subset of couples who sign up for wedding websites and respond to their online surveys. The actual median is probably even lower.

Back to Dolgin’s point. If TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com are publishing their figures solely for the benefit of those in the industry, then using only the average makes sense. If you’re in the wedding business, one big-spending couple can make more of an impact on your bottom line than 10 typical couples. Dolgin assured me that’s the survey’s real purpose. “We would never want a bride to use the average as a way to decide how much to spend on her wedding,” she said. “Couples calculate their budget based on a variety of factors and those factors are the only things that should be considered—not what other couples did or spent.”

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She’s right that couples shouldn’t base their budgets on what others spend. But wedding planning is often a one-shot deal, so a lot of couples aren’t going to have much context about how much they should expect to pay. And I can tell you from experience that people in the wedding business don’t just use the average numbers as a sign of the industry’s health. They use it as justification for their exorbitant prices and as a bludgeon with which to beat would-be frugal couples into submission. Complain about a reception venue’s $250 “cake-cutting fee,” or its $10,000 food and drink minimum, and you’ll be curtly informed that it’s standard in the industry. Photographers who charge $2,000 for an evening’s worth of snapshots point out that TheKnot’s reported average is $2,379, so you’re actually saving $379. If you’re not careful, you start to believe them. Just look at the New York Post writer who boasted ecstatically of how she had “saved” $30,000 on her wedding by spending “only” $15,000. I hate to be a spoilsport, but she didn’t “save” anything. She spent the equivalent of a down payment on a Lexus for one day’s worth of partying.

I don’t blame TheKnot.com or Brides for publishing these figures. But the media is doing a disservice by parroting them without a hint of context or skepticism. At times the results border on the absurd. Witness the Huffington Post article that breathlessly reports, “Average Wedding Cost Exceeds Median Income in U.S.,” without ever pausing to ask how that could possibly be the case.

There are a lot of sites and publications, TheKnot.com included, that offer excellent tips for saving money on your wedding. And once you realize that the typical American wedding costs closer to $15,000 than $30,000, it becomes that much easier to say “no” to things you don’t need and embrace the expenses that are important to you. My fiancée and I realized this a little late in the game, and ended up spending more than we would have liked. But we’re still paying less than half of the reported average for our chosen location, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the wedding will be beautiful.

There’s nothing wrong with spending 28 G’s in 24 hours if you’ve got the means. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that there’s anything average about it.

Stop the Scourge of Wedding Presents: They’re outdated, inefficient, unfair, and unnecessary,” by Matthew Yglesias. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

The Long Walk to the Altar: Prudie offers wedding advice on family estrangement, inappropriate toasts, and an extravagant bride, just in time for summer,” by Emily Yoffe. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

My Big Fat Disney Wedding: I’m a tomboy, not a princess. Here’s why getting married at a huge theme park was a delightfully practical decision,” by Rachael Larimore. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

This Is the Last Time I Will Ever See You: After every wedding, there is a dear friend who will immediately disappear from your life. And that’s OK,” by David Plotz. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Click Here to RSVP: Online invites are now far better than paper. And yes, you should even use them for your wedding,” by Farhad Manjoo. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

How to Be a Better Best Man: Flirt with the mother of the bride, but don’t grind with her,” by Troy Patterson. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

The Guest List Is Full: Seventeen years ago we didn’t want to invite our parents’ friends to our wedding. Now I regret it,” by John Dickerson. Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013.

Calling Dear Prudence: Emily Yoffe answers your wedding questions on our call-in show,” by Emily Yoffe. Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013.

I’m a Gay Man Who Wants to Get Married: But how do I have a wedding that’s not so…. straight?”  by J. Bryan Lowder. Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013.

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