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Who Pays for the Wedding?

The bride’s parents aren’t the only ones footing the cost of the wedding anymore—in this day and age, it’s all up for grabs.

Traditionally, the bride’s parents picked up the tab for the wedding ceremony, the reception, flowers, music, stationery—the whole shebang. The groom’s parents skipped away with the rehearsal dinner, and thanked their lucky stars they had a boy. And the happy couple? They were more or less along for the ride.

Well, every facet of weddings has changed since then, from who’s getting married where and by whom; at this point, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify a completely traditional wedding. Just as couples are breaking the mold and working their personal definition into the wedding celebration, so too is the bill being divvied up to suit each case. The three main stakeholders are the bride’s parents, the groom’s parents and the couple themselves, but grandparents, siblings, and other relatives and friends may contribute.

If this sounds disconcertingly like a contract, take a deep breath and heed the words of level-headed, head-over-heels-in-love newlywed M.E. Kirwan: “You get married for love but the wedding itself is a business deal. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. You really need to discuss the budget openly and honestly, and talk about who wants to pay for what and what they can afford.”

That attitude was sweet music to the ears of Kirwan’s wedding coordinator Rita Swanson. “I’ve been in the business 11 years, and I’ve seen quite a change,” says Swanson, owner of Premier Planning Services. “Ten years ago, I worked more with just the couple, but now I’ve been working a lot with the couple and their parents, especially with higher-end weddings—few young couples are in a position to take it all on.” When a couple’s parents are footing the bill, it can be hard to get the betrothed to make a decision without approval from the purse-string holders.

Even though Kirwan and her husband Chris’ wedding bills split along old-school lines, with her parents paying for the wedding and reception and his parents covering the groom’s dinner, they talked exact numbers rather than vague categories. “My parents are the most generous people in the world and they had decided long ago to give me the wedding of my dreams,” says Kirwan, of Minneapolis.

“Dreams are made up of real numbers—we made a budget and stuck to it. Chris’ parents offered to pay for the groom’s dinner but some early estimates were about $5,000, which they agreed to, but thought was a bit steep.” By working with the staff at Christo’s, one of the couple’s favorite restaurants, they arranged a fun and relaxed rehearsal dinner for less than $2,000.

Christina Anderson, proprietor of Christina Marie Events, concurs on the importance of straight talk about the touchy subject of money. “Couples need to have that conversation with parents right away in the planning process. But not communally—bride’s parents and groom’s parents separately,” she advises. “There’s less pressure that way.”

Over the past three years, Anderson has seen couples footing more and more of the bill. “They want to show their success and really provide their guests a good time, so they’ll take what parents offer and bump it up with their own money.”

“I see couples covering a large portion of the cost themselves,” says Eve Deikel Wendel, owner and creative director of EVE Events. “This is especially true with second marriages, older couples and when the couple’s vision for the wedding is not what the parents can afford. Her parents may say ‘No way’ to the $5,000 designer dress, but if the bride has her heart set on it, she’ll spring for it herself.”

Russell Toscano, artistic director with Wisteria Design Studio, sees the bride’s parents’ slice of the bill getting smaller, with groom’s parents and the newlyweds themselves picking up the slack. “I get a lot of couples who don’t want to make their folks pay—they feel their parents have done enough already. Usually the parents insist on paying for something, particularly if it’s something they feel strongly about, like an open bar or really special flowers. If the groom’s family has the means and they want the reception to be a bigger deal, they’ll pay for it.”

Splitting the wedding bill more equitably was already happening before the recent economic downturn, but the recession is buoying the cost-sharing trend, says Nicolle Sellers, wedding planner with Mother of the Bride. And the bigger the budget, the more stakeholders involved. “When you throw your money out there, regardless of what portion of the whole you’re paying, you get a vote,” says Sellers, who gets all paying entities together occasionally to make democratic decisions. Paying a larger chunk of the bill does not necessarily confer more influence in the decision-making process, though. For example, “parents of an only child are usually very vested in the wedding, even if they aren’t contributing a lot monetarily,” says Sellers.

The budget doesn’t have to be laid out in spreadsheets and contracts to be effective. “Soon after we announced our engagement, my parents and my fiancé’s parents gave us a very generous dollar amount to use as we pleased,” said one Minnesota bride who married in August. “They didn’t talk to each other about it and they didn’t earmark the money for anything in particular. My fiancé and I contributed what we could, so it just sort of evolved.” She admits that talking money is tricky, but like most brides, she knows their first job is to make sure parents and other contributors know how greatly their generosity is appreciated.

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