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Once in a Lifetime: The Wedding Hustle

15 Experts Share Secrets & Strategies to Help Manage Costs

Experts tell us that the wedding industry typically inflates the estimated cost of wedding services. Social-media sites are driving up the costs even higher by creating unrealistic expectations.

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Eyes lock across a crowded room. Love blossoms into a steady relationship. A memorable engagement is followed by a one-of-a-kind wedding. This is the stuff of dreams.

Fifteen experts whom we consulted warn that wedding dreams today cost more than what most couples expect when they start to plan. Weddings are more customized than ever before. What’s worse is that the expected costs that are cited by many wedding-service providers often are inflated.

AT WHAT COST? The Wedding Report, which analyzes the wedding market, projects that $58 billion will be spent on U.S. weddings in 2016. That’s up from $55 billion in 2013. The Wedding Report expects the market to grow to $60 billion by 2018.

Wedding-planning websites typically disagree on the average wedding cost. For example, The Knot weighs in at a hefty average cost of $32,641 in 2015. Thumbtack, which is an online service that connects people to wedding-industry professionals, among others, puts the average cost at $12,189. That’s a $20,452 difference, so what’s the explanation?

The truth is, The Knot, Thumbtack and every other wedding-industry site include different costs in their “average wedding” calculations, experts tell us.

Thumbtack bases its $12,189 average on what it calls “essential services” for a wedding that has an average of 98 guests. Thumbtack includes a band, a cake, catering, decorations, flowers, hair services, a limousine, makeup services, an officiant, photography and videography in its calculation but excludes the cost of a wedding dress, the rings and the venue. (Those last three items seem to be more essential to us than is a limousine.)

The Knot says the average number of guests that it includes in its $32,641 calculation is 139. The site bases its average on 19 services including a wedding dress, the rings and the venue. (The site says the venue cost an average of $14,788 in 2015.)

However, experts believe that the use of a median cost rather than an average cost is a more accurate reflection of what the typical couple spends. Slate magazine’s Will Oremus, who was the first writer to address the average and median discrepancy in the wedding industry, says the use of average instead of median is the wedding industry’s “pricey little secret” that has been going on for years.

For example, consider five weddings that cost $5,000, $12,000, $15,000, $32,000 and $50,000. To calculate the average, you add up all of the figures and divide by five for a $22,800 result. To find the median, you find the figure that’s in the middle: $15,000.

Because the industry promotes averages instead of medians, the cost of high-end weddings skews the figure and creates the illusion that couples spend more on their wedding than they really are, Oremus says. In other words, the industry uses the average figures to persuade couples to spend more money on their weddings, experts say.

The Wedding Report, which is a wedding-market-research company, says the average cost of a 2015 wedding was $27,021, compared with a median cost of about $15,000. Shane McMurray of The Wedding Report says 80 percent of couples spend less than $30,000 on a wedding. Forty percent spend less than $10,000. Just 7.5 percent of couples spend at least $30,000. Even fewer couples spend at least $50,000.

However, you should keep in mind that even median costs are inflated, experts say. Wedding-industry sites cater to couples who can afford premium weddings, and all of the sites’ data are self-reported from their users.

“These are couples who are going to have higher end weddings,” says Meg Keene of A Practical Wedding, which is a website that explores “realistic” wedding budgets. “They’re not getting the numbers from people who are having weddings in their church basement.”

Keene says the median cost of her readers’ weddings is $10,000.

“Weddings can be flexible; they can be whatever you want,” Keene stresses. “We’re trained by the wedding media that weddings have to look a particular way: They have to have a sit-down meal; they have to have a dance floor. Once you add those elements, the wedding is going to be expensive, because those elements are expensive.”

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