COVID couples can’t catch a break as inflation makes weddings more expensive than ever

In June, Second Rodeo Brewing in Mule Alley in Fort Worth hosted a shotgun wedding for three couples who were sick of COVID delays and the increasing cost of planning a wedding. The event included an officiant, live band, cowboys, beer bouquets and wedding guests.

Adrian Atilano, 25, and Adriana Becerra, 24, who got engaged six months ago, were one of the winning pairs. The Hurst couple applied because they have two expenses to focus on that are even bigger than a wedding: a baby on the way and buying a house in today’s competitive market.

The couple has no regrets about hurrying their big day.

“We didn’t spend a dime except on parking,” Adrian said. “It was stress-free.”

Three couples won the opportunity to have a wedding at Second Rodeo Brewing free of charge in June. Fifteen couples applied for the opportunity to have a wedding without the stress and financial strain that often comes with it. The brewery plans to do the event again next year. Couples from left to right: Michelle Barrios and Alex Garcia; Adrian Atilano and Adriana Becerra; Eric Henry and Gabi Lowry.(Courtesy of Second Rodeo Brewing)

Other couples haven’t been so lucky as they plan perhaps their life’s largest — and most expensive — event while inflation is at a historic high. Vendors across the board, from wedding cake makers to photographers to makeup artists, have had to raise their prices as their own costs have gone up.

In 2021, the average wedding cost a historic high of $27,063, up from about $24,700 in 2019, according to The Wedding Report and The Knot. The wedding sites haven’t produced a cost estimate for this wedding season, but an 8.6% spike in consumer prices over the last year has touched all that goes into a wedding.

“It’s the small business vendor community who powers the wedding industry, and just like we have seen the cost of goods like eggs and butter rise, so have, for example, bakers making wedding cakes,” said Emily Forrest, spokeswoman for wedding website Zola.

Wedding website Zola found that 70% of couples say they are spending more on their wedding than they originally planned, while also thinking about what comes next.

“We are in the market to purchase a house that’s big enough for a family,” Atilano said. “Sadly you have to pick between the two — do you want a loan for a house or a wedding?”

On top of the financial stress facing engaged couples, there’s the race to book venues and vendors as a backlog of COVID brides hope to finally seal the deal in 2022.

“You used to always need to book a year in advance,” said Lisa Yarbro, a long-time high-end wedding planner in Dallas. “Now you probably need to book a year-and-a-half ahead.”

A whopping 2.6 million couples plan to marry in 2022, up from the 2.2 million weddings that happen in a typical year, according to The Knot.

The combination of higher prices and less supply is being felt strongly in Dallas, a well-known wedding hub, industry experts say.

“In Dallas, the culture is about doing big, beautiful weddings,” Yarbro said. “We do everything big here.”

She said there are a lot of brides this year but relatively few venues to pick from. She’s seen prices rise about 10% to 25%.

Budgets vary widely depending on the family, the size of the wedding and the location. For example, 33% of couples surveyed by Zola spent $10,000 to $25,000 on their wedding, while a little more than 5% spent over $100,000.

In 2021, about 38,000 couples got married in North Texas, according to The Wedding Report. The average cost of a wedding in the metro area was $33,400, ranking it 47th out of 933 metro areas for average wedding costs.

But across the budget spectrum, brides face the hard decision on whether to go over their budget, make their wedding more intimate, push it off until prices fall or elope.

For many, trimming the guest list might be the easiest way to cut costs. Before COVID, Yarbro said a typical wedding that she planned was about 300 guests. Now, it’s around 175 guests to 200 guests.

“They’re not inviting as many, and not as many are coming,” she said.

What the finance expert says

Emily Irwin, Wells Fargo’s senior director of advice and planning for Texas and the Southwest, said weddings are coming up frequently in conversations with clients.

Rather than cutting back, Irwin said most couples are increasing their budgets. However, she’s also seen more couples opt for local weddings and receptions in backyards to keep costs down as opposed to destination weddings.

“For a lot of people, this is the first big gathering they’re planning post-COVID, and they’re thinking, ‘How do we make this happen where everyone can gather again?’” she said.

Irwin suggests that couples decide where they don’t want to scale back, such as their dream venue or band, and then pick other vendors where they’re willing to spend less, such as flowers or party favors. This will help them to be able to afford other financial milestones such as buying a home, paying off student debt, starting a family and retirement.

When it comes to who signs the checks for the big day, Dallas couples tend to follow the tradition of having the bride’s parents pay for the wedding, Irwin said. But she is seeing more parents provide a lump sum rather than leaving the budget open, since parents also may not have anticipated inflation’s impact.

“Now, more than ever, it’s important for both the parents and couple to overcommunicate on expectations for contributions,” she said.

One positive is couples are being forced to have hard conversations about finances, Irwin said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to have their first big financial conversation with their future life partner,” she said. “Finances are a hot topic during marriage.”

Here’s how four North Texas couples have worked through the sudden increase in wedding costs, making the best out of an unpredictable economy.

Jake Crews, 27, his fiancee Jacqueline Pytel, 26, and their dog, Duke, sit behind a laptop...Jake Crews, 27, his fiancee Jacqueline Pytel, 26, and their dog, Duke, sit behind a laptop showing a current expense report for their wedding, at her home in Dallas. Pytel and Crews are getting married in November and have noticed costs seem to have doubled since 2019 when Pytel’s sister-in-law got married.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Jacqueline Pytel and Jake Crews

When Jacqueline Pytel, 26, got engaged to Jake Crews, 27, in November, her sister-in-law who got married in 2019 sent her an Excel sheet of what local vendors cost then.

“I started making calls and nearly everything for that Excel sheet had about doubled in price since 2019,” she said.

The wedding planner her sister-in-law used for $5,000 in 2019 is now $9,000, she said. The makeup artist who charged $175 in 2019 is now getting $300. The church raised its price from $775 to $895. Pytel decided to cut her guest list from 175 guests to 125 to balance out the higher costs.

Pytel, a corporate recruiter, said she and Crews, who’s in software sales, are looking into doing their own florals after discovering most florists have a $3,000 minimum. Her backup plan was to use H-E-B, but the popular grocery chain is fully booked for flowers, she said.

Across the board, brides and wedding planners said the cost of flowers has risen the most as florists are having to pay more because of inflation, shipping costs and supply chain issues.

“We used to be able to promise flowers, and now we are having to ask brides to simply pick a color because nine times out of 10, there are going to be substitutions,” said Khrystine Nguyen, creative director at Carolina O’Hara Florals & Designs.

Nguyen said increased gas prices are part of what’s been driving up the cost, since many popular venues are 45 minutes from Dallas.

Pytel said she always dreamed of a “big wedding with all the bells and whistles,” but now, with sky-high costs, that vision is shifting as she approaches her November wedding.

“I would have been fine with a lot smaller wedding,” Pytel said. “Half of the planning is discouraging because of how expensive it is — the sticker shock.”

Soon-to-be bride Lauren Garcia of Dallas shows off her high heels, joking that she needs...Soon-to-be bride Lauren Garcia of Dallas shows off her high heels, joking that she needs them to reach her 6-foot husband. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer )

Lauren Garcia and Troy McGee

Lauren Garcia, 27, and Troy McGee, 25, are analysts at Goldman Sachs and got engaged in the summer of 2019. They started booking vendors just as the pandemic flared up in April 2020. She made sure vendors would honor original prices if the virus canceled her wedding.

“I’ve seen a lot of girls who didn’t get it in their contract to not raise prices, and vendors took advantage of that,” she said. “But I worked for a law firm back then so knew to get it in writing.”

She ended up moving her wedding to this month, and some vendors honored the original contract, while others increased their price anyway, she said. For example, her DJ raised the price by $500, while her floral estimates went up by about $1,000.

The Dallas couple is getting married in Canada. That means increased travel costs for her North Texas guests, who are paying more to stay in hotels and buy wedding gifts. Garcia said some guests have voiced concerns about the higher travel and hotel prices.

The couple said they’ve had to go more than $10,000 over their original budget of about $70,000.

“The only times I’ve cried during the planning process is budget-related,” she said. “I had a good meltdown this week. Are we going to be in debt? No, we can afford it. But it’s stressful.”

Ian Root and his fiancé Hannah Farag outside their home in Dallas.Ian Root and his fiancé Hannah Farag outside their home in Dallas.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Hannah Farag and Ian Root

Hannah Farag, 26, helped as an event planner for weddings in college so she was confident she knew what to expect for wedding expenses. She got engaged to Ian Root, 26, in May and the Dallas couple plans to get married in May 2023.

“I knew a nice wedding is $35,000 to $40,000,” she said.

But that was back in 2017.

“Everything I’ve looked at so far is completely over my expectations,” she said.

Some venue pricing sheets had an asterisk indicating that prices for Saturday weddings in 2023 are subject to increase between $500 and $1,000.

“I think they have an incredible demand right now because all of the COVID brides had to push their weddings back,” she said. “People are willing to pay because they waited so long to make it happen.”

By switching her wedding to a Friday, she was able to find an all-inclusive venue for $13,500.

Her parents provided a lump sum of $25,000 toward the wedding, and the couple was hoping to DIY a lot of the accoutrements so they could save their money for a honeymoon and a house, she said.

“Now, looking at the prices, we’ve come to accept that we’re going to need to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 of our own money,” she said.

It’s not just about the cost of the wedding. There are also expectations of an engagement party, bridal shower, bridesmaid proposal gifts and a photoshoot for save-the-date cards, she said.

“Everything has increased because of social media making it such a big hyped experience,” she said. “Those are additional costs you don’t even factor into the budget originally.”

Since the couple is OK with waiting to start a family, they can spend more on a wedding now, she said. But for those who don’t want to wait, they’re going to look at eloping or going to the courthouse “because there’s just realistically no way that you can afford it,” she said.

As a global event coordinator and a religious person, Farag said a wedding is something she has dreamed of her whole life and feels has sacramental value, so she wouldn’t want to elope or do a courthouse wedding. The planning process has also led to important financial discussions with her soon-to-be husband, who works as a senior solutions consultant, she said.

“It is preparing us for real-life discussions that we’re gonna have to deal with as they come up,” she said.

Blake Helm, 40, and his fiance, Cristina Graham, 36, got engaged at the end of March and...Blake Helm, 40, and his fiance, Cristina Graham, 36, got engaged at the end of March and started making calls to vendors shortly after. The Dallas couple was in for a shock.(Courtesy of Cristina Graham)

Cristina Graham and Blake Helm

Blake Helm, 40, and his fiancée, Cristina Graham, 36, got engaged at the end of March and started making calls to vendors shortly after. The Dallas couple was in for a shock.

“We researched and did location visits for three weeks and then decided to take a pause and step away,” said Graham, who runs her own marketing business.

Since they are in their mid-30s and early 40s, the couple knew from talking with family and friends that prices had gone up dramatically.

“It’s hard to justify the price tag right now for basically one day or weekend when we are thinking of starting a family and adding on to the house,” said Helm, who works in corporate finance.

The sticker shock was great enough that the couple adjusted their plans, opting for a small private ceremony in New York, where Graham lived for 15 years.

“If and when things calm down, we may do a reception-style party but, at least for now, I don’t think a traditional wedding format will work for us anymore,” she said.