It’s OK to spend less on wedding

My kids love a show called “Avatar” whose superheroes bend air, water, fire, and earth to their will. If you haven’t seen it, imagine the waterbending superheroes parting water like Moses. The airbenders can control and manipulate air. And so on.

If any Avatar creators are reading this, you are missing an obvious element, “moneybenders,” whose superpower is to slip into a state where they can bend money to their will, without the nuisance of math.

Last week at a soccer game I think I met my first confirmed moneybender. This delightful grandmother and budgeting ninja we will call “Grandmother Beth,” told me with a wink and a grin that spending on grandkids’ back to school clothes is immune to her budget.

I think we can all get behind this logic that grandparents have moneybending powers when they spend on grandkids. So to my own mom I say, “Carry on! And thanks!”

But there is a perception of moneybending that I know doesn’t work: moneybending for weddings.

Even Grandmother Beth admitted her moneybending powers were no match for wedding math, and so she and her husband made a deal with their daughters. Here is what we have saved. Do what you can with it. Anything more is on you.

Wedding spending has all the hallmarks of moneybending. We see every detail of wedding expenses flooding into Instagram in 3-part 260-piece photo dumps. We stare in awe and wonder how it could possibly be affordable to plan personalized champagne bottle favors or $100 invitations. If you just thought, “Oh, $100 for invitations, that’s reasonable,” then you are not understanding me. That’s $100 per invitation.

The only explanation is mystical, as if the Instagram Happiness Intensity Meter (patent probably pending) scoring the curated photos must somehow defy the reality of the math that paid the $5,000 photographer. Maybe weddings are a giant trust exercise.

Just let go. Just spend the money. It will all sort itself out.

And we do. And we will. But will it?

This year is predicted to be the biggest wedding year since 1984, with 2.5 million weddings to take place, according to a recent story in The New York Times. The Instagram wedding machine is never satisfied, and this perfect storm of Instagram and wedding volume will likely result in an arms race of planning details. That professionally photographed doughnut wall was fine for 2019, but in 2022? It’s not enough. Maybe this year’s doughnut walls will require photos of the happy couple emblazoned across the icing for them to be considered Insta-married.

I do wonder if each Instagrammable wedding embellishment has a cost considered in isolation or if it all blends together under the pressure of perceived perfection. Someone’s bank account was $300 richer before the doughnut wall and $300 poorer after it. If someone showed up with $300 cash in an envelope at your doorstep how would you feel? If you felt a little flutter or lightness then this column is for you.

That’s real money. And real time. The expense burden is often felt after the wedding, as the new couple must struggle to make the engagement ring payments and the bills flood in, challenging this new, fragile first year of marriage.

Or the cost weighs on the parents who are in their critical final years of employment where every last dollar could be better used on their ability to retire. Or both.

On April 2, I attended what was advertised to be a wedding and certainly had many hallmarks of one. My sister, Lizzie Phillips Sanford, exchanged vows with a wonderful man, Joseph Sanford. They said those familiar words, “I do.” I even got a video of the officiant signing the Pulaski County marriage license. From every indication they seem madly in love and inseparable. I feel like I legitimately scored a new awesome brother. But if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, was there a sound? If a couple had a wedding and no one saw a photo on Instagram, are they married?

Here’s where it gets interesting. They had a guest list of only 30 people. The cost of her dress didn’t have a comma in it. There were no bridesmaids or the costs of those dresses. A professional florist did the gorgeous bridal bouquet, but a team of novices collaborated on the rest of the flowers. There was no doughnut wall. There wasn’t even a wedding cake. Gasp all you want, they preferred tiramisu.

Ask the bride and groom what they wanted? A small gathering of close family and friends for a low-stress affair. They wanted time during their engagement to be together and not caught up in planning a large event. They wanted great food (to my husband’s delight, steak!) and an amazing jazz band to play in the background of the sit-down dinner.

Now, folks, I am not here to judge those who spend a lot on weddings or who post 795 photos of it on Insta. If that is your takeaway, you are mistaken. Instead, I am here to give permission to spend less time and less money on a wedding if that is an authentic desire.

When I asked the Sanfords why they said no to so much, they replied, “Every aspect of a wedding is a choice, not an obligation.” Now that quote should be at the top of every wedding budget.

Speaking of budgets, meet Alexis. She and her future husband set up a savings account for their wedding. They gave themselves a year to plan their wedding, with the goal of having what they could afford and not bringing debt into their marriage. So they started a savings account together and have banked every windfall from tax refunds to bonuses to birthday gifts. Alexis found a clever budgeting app called Digit that secretly scrapes money out of her checking account without her noticing it and deposits that money into the wedding fund.

For Christmas, they asked family to help with pieces of expenses for the wedding. For instance, her mother-in-law is gifting them with a cake, tux and stamps, and her mom is helping with the venue and wedding dress.

Are they on pace to have everything that Instagram requires for a wedding? No. They won’t have it all. But will they have what they want? According to Alexis, “Absolutely! It is all about prioritizing your must-haves for your big day and determining the things you can live without. For us, we aren’t going to look back on our wedding photos and think ‘wow, I wish we had spent that extra $800 on chair covers or $5,000 on flowers,’ so we learned quickly to prioritize what we wanted and either DIY or totally nix the other things.”

At the end of our discussion, Alexis said that she and her fiance were remarking on how much they were able to save in such a short period, a number they would have thought impossible when they first started. In the conversation they found themselves excited to dream about future financial goals they could accomplish once they were married.

If you can’t moneybend to an Instagram wedding dream, then take inspiration from these couples showing that it is possible to have a wedding of your own dreams. And maybe more importantly, imagine starting out a married life getting on the same page together with the use of money and time. I promise no amount of moneybending could accomplish something greater.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book “But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life,” published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at [email protected].