Come wedding time, whose bank account was hit the hardest used to be clear: the bride’s parents. Things just got complicated.
Back in the 20th century, the bride’s family was on the hook for the bulk of wedding costs: the gown, reception, band, photography, videography, flowers, transportation, you name it. The groom’s side, as dictated by formal etiquette, footed the bill for the rehearsal dinner, honeymoon and select personal flowers such as groomsmen’s boutonnieres.
But society wedding planners say the custom is dissolving, as parents and their progeny divvy the costs according to their wealth and desires. “There is really no normal anymore,” says wedding coordinator Sara Fay Egan, co-owner of Jackson Durham Floral Event Design. When Egan started in the wedding business 10 years ago, the bride’s father was “in charge and paid for everything,” she recalls. But in the last two years she has seen that almost disappear. “Everybody handles it differently, depending on their financial status,” says event planner Mary Wright Shah. “The wealthiest of brides’ families host, depending on traditions and customs, whether they are Indian all the way to American Southern.” Todd Events maestro Todd Fiscus has seen more grooms’ families throw the party in the past two years than ever before. “It’s becoming less of a rite of passage for parents of the brides to have the onerous responsibility and more of a family affair,” he says, “and I think that’s really cool.”
A key reason is escalating costs, which planners say average $300 per person and can rise to $400 for a posh reception — which means a wedding with 500 of your closest friends in attendance nears the quarter-million-dollar mark. Divorced parents who may have remarried two or three times also change the dynamic. Each situation is as unique as a snowflake. Sometimes the groom’s family has deeper pockets or just wants to add to the pot. People are also willing to pay to play. Maybe the groom’s side would like a better bar than the bride’s teetotalist clan. Or, the groom might be a music fanatic who ponies up for the band of his choice.
Distinctions also arise with the ages of the betrothed. A man in his late 40s or 50s marrying a younger woman may bear the whole expense. Some established couples and second-timers pay their own way, thus gaining total control, or split the bill evenly between families. Often the bride has been socking away money to pad her parents’ budget. And, “it’s a different ballgame when both people are employed and both families are well off,” says Julian Leaver, Rosewood Hotels’ Dallas catering and events director. “Five or 10 years of savings makes a big difference. The real split comes with a bride in her early 30s. It’s much more traditional if they are younger.”
Assigning the tab to the bride’s parents evolved from the ancient custom of the dowry, a provision of money or goods to the groom that was intended to ensure the young woman’s future. Now, even the Emily Post Institute states, “Wedding expenses are no longer the exclusive responsibility of the bride’s parents but frequently are shared by the couple, the groom’s parents or any combination of the three.” Fiscus sees guest lists more evenly split between families and a rise in invitations listing both sets of parents as hosts. “It used to be the parents of the bride sent the bulk and the bride and groom sent 100 and the parents of the groom got 50,” Fiscus points out. “It used to be a low-man-on-the- totem-pole kind of thing.” It has made the whole process a bit more democratic, if potentially more contentious with extra cooks in the kitchen. “I think the hardest part beyond the budget,” says Dallas etiquette expert and Southern Living editor-at-large Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, “is making sure that every family member is happy — because even though it’s the bride’s day, it’s really everyone’s day. It’s important that everyone works together.”