When my husband and I married four years ago, we paid for the whole wedding, and frankly, it felt good. Not only were we proud to foot the bill ourselves we were able to invite our parents to be honored guests, not harried hosts—as parents of the bride and groom often are when they’re picking up the tab.We were hardly mavericks; these days, more than half of engaged couples report that they’ll pay for most of their wedding expenses themselves, according to a recent Bridal Guide survey. Still, many parents will chip in: For example, they might offer a monetary gift to be applied to the total bill, or pay for one aspect of the wedding, like the photography, the music or the cake. Of course, that means the issue of who’s in charge of wedding decisions may get muddied: If Mom is footing the floral bill, for instance, does she get to choose the centerpieces and bouquets? Clashes may result, putting a dark cloud over what’s supposed to be a blissful time.
There’s no question money does often translate to power, confirms Barbara Bartlein, RN, MSW, a psychotherapist and the author of Why Did I Marry You Anyway? 12.5 Strategies for a Happy Marriage (Cumberland House Press). “Some people are naturally controlling and feel it’s their right to dictate what will happen to the money they contribute,” she says. But this is your wedding day, after all, and you and your guy should be calling the shots—or at least most of them. Of course, diplomacy is required! Here’s how to negotiate gracefully and effectively.
Wedding planning, especially in the early months of engagement, is like a feel-good fantasy bubble, while talk of money is a giant straight pin threatening to burst it. No wonder many couples are reluctant to sit down and discuss dollars and cents. The risk of not ironing out financial specifics early on, however, is assuming that things will magically sort themselves out. They won’t.
Recent bride Jaime King, who was wed in June near San Francisco, California, approached her parents shortly after she got engaged. “I asked them if they were willing to give me any money, or if I should plan on eloping,” she says. They told her that they had $25,000 set aside for her wedding. “It was great to be given a total figure so I could budget accordingly,” she says.
Bartlein applauds Jamie’s proactive approach and adds that it’s also smart to go to your parents armed with an estimate of what your ideal affair might cost. This way, you can nail down specific figures. You might say something like, “We think we can pull together the wedding we’ve got in mind for about $20,000. Do you think you might be able to pitch in, and, if so, how much?”
If the answer’s yes, consider asking them to write a check for the agreed upon amount. You can deposit it in a bank account you’ve opened just for wedding expenses and pay bills as they arise. This way, invoices are sent directly to you instead of to your parents, neatly sidestepping any opportunity for them to second-guess your decisions.
Now, taking charge this way does not mean you steamroller your parents with demands of cash and zipped mouths. There’s a line between getting what you want and pleasing people who, in all likelihood, only want the best for you. Yes, my husband and I paid for our wedding. But, out of love and respect, we also granted several requests our folks made. For instance, my parents, hearing of our plan to save money by hiring a DJ rather than a band, made it known they preferred live music. So we crunched some numbers and ended up spending extra for a great ensemble, and everyone was happy.
Of course, sometimes you'll have to disappoint the ones you love. When is it appropriate to put your needs first? You might ask yourselves: Does this request from Mom and Dad clash with our overall vision of our wedding day? Maureen Dunn, who's planning a June 2005 wedding in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania , is currently grappling with this very question: Her future mother-in-law wants children to be invited to the wedding, while Maureen and her fiancé feel a reception is not the place for tots under 10. "She's offered to pay for the kids to come, but for us it's not the money—it's simply our preference," says Maureen. The couple will take their time deciding what they'll do, in order to give the matter the careful consideration it deserves.
It's also important to establish up front how much decision-making power your parents will have if they're contributing cash. Right after Mom says, "I'll pay for the flowers" and you thank her, you should ask, "What does this mean to you, exactly?" If she replies that she'll foot the bill you present her, obviously you're fine. If she says she'd like to be consulted and take part in the selection process, that's fine, too. But if she insists on choosing blooms outright, the buzzer sounds and you go another round or two.
Try to avoid the impulse to go into these negotiations prepared for combat. Remember that often a difficult parent just wants to be heard and appreciated, and will use money as a way to "make" you listen. So, in the flowers scenario, you could ask Mom to agree to attend meetings with the florist and offer suggestions but to let you have the final say. And beforehand, you two can have fun together poring over magazines and catalogues for ideas. But if she's truly autocratic and vetoes your wishes, "you might want to tell her, gently but firmly, that you'd prefer to pay for the blossoms yourself," says Bartlein.
One final thought: While often hard, these talks about money and control issues are great practice for married life!
The Traditional Way
In past generations, the bride’s family paid the majority of the wedding expenses, including the engagement party (optional), the wedding gown and almost all reception expenses, from the invitations to the food, photography and cake. The groom’s parents covered only the rehearsal dinner and an engagement party (optional), while the groom himself paid for the honeymoon, the bride’s rings, the marriage license, the bride’s bouquet, corsages for the mothers, boutonnieres for the dads and the officiant’s fee.
The Modern Way
Because many couples today are marrying later and are financially independent, they may pick up all or most of the tab, and both sets of parents may chip in, too. Another popular option: The couple, the bride’s family and the groom’s family each contribute one-third of the total cost.
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