THE BLOG
09/02/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Have the Wedding Budget Talk with Your Parents BEFORE You Start Planning

Everybody loves a wedding, as long as they're not picking up the tab. Most brides and grooms spend as much on a wedding as a good used car, if not a new Mercedes. The difference is that in this day and age, brides and grooms are paying for their own big days unlike their own parents' weddings that their grandparents paid for. Back in the day, there were very specific rules about who was supposed to pay for what. And most people followed them.

No seriously, tradition says that the "parents" of the groom (not the groom himself) are supposed to pay for the bridal bouquet, the rehearsal dinner, the bar at the wedding reception and a few other things. The bride's parents were the lucky recipients of the tab for everything else. Nowhere in the old-fashioned etiquette books we still so highly revere does it say anything about the bride and groom paying for nada except thank you presents and rings. When did that change?

Both men and women are waiting til they are older and more established in their careers before they step into marriage. The fact that it's more common to live together for an extended period before even getting engaged has also played into this. The truth of the matter is that with the downward economy and screwed up retirements and forced buy-out packages being foisted on so many parents of this generation's brides and grooms, it's not uncommon for the bride and groom to actually earn close to the same amount as their parents by the time they get married.

Some parents have a savings account set aside especially for their daughter's wedding, much like a college savings account. Parents who only have boys joke about not having to pick up the tab at a wedding from early on - as if it's compensation for not having a little girl to play dress up with while she's growing up. But things have changed and parents aren't expected to shoulder the entire financial burden of weddings anymore. I see it less and less with my clients.

What's tricky is when his or her parents say they're going to "contribute" to the wedding budget but don't get specific about exactly how much that contribution is going to be. Are they going to pick up the tab for one entire specific event? Will they expect to have input on its planning? Or are they going to simply hand the bride and groom a check for the "wedding account" and consider their debt, such that it is, paid in full?

When I got married, I didn't think I wasn't going to have real budget problems. No seriously, I didn't. This was before the bottom of the housing market dropped out and people started panicking about their retirements. When I announced my good news, I was relieved (but not surprised) to hear my father say he'd like to help. Until he said, "I'll match whatever your mother gives you." Ouch!

To give this a little more context, my parents went through an acrimonious divorce while I was in college. And my father did just about everything possible to screw my mother financially. After spending the better part of 20 years raising me and my father's other children from a previous marriage, my mom had to go back to work full time and start worrying about her future livelihood that she'd always thought had been assured. So when dad put the onus on mom to fund my wedding, I thought I was in trouble. I started mentally downsizing my plans.

God bless my mother. She knew I would be getting married eventually (I waited til the ripe old age of 31) and she had been planning to help with my wedding. Mostly because she was raised in a certain way and it was very important to her that things be done properly. In order for me to have a destination wedding on the island I loved, the compromise was a full-blown, black-tie formal reception back home afterwards that included her "must invite" list of more than 140 guests that she presented to me 48 hours after I got my engagement ring. In an Excel spreadsheet. Not even kidding.

Oh yes, she was on board with my dream of an island wedding, but she wasn't about to miss out on the amazing affair we'd planned together on so many road trips when I was a little girl (does everybody play "plan my wedding" as a car game or just future wedding planners?). Her compromise was the formal reception back home afterwards for all of our combined "must invites." And she even let me pick the venue. When it came to contributing to the wedding budget, my mother was generous.

Basing the budget on what mom was giving us because dad had promised to match it, and what Bill and I could afford, we moved ahead and booked the wedding venues for both Vieques Island and Washington, DC. When I called my dad, all excited, to give him the dates and details, he totally burst my bubble. Apparently, he'd never expected my mom to be quite so generous.

Plus my older, half-sister had done me absolutely no favors with her church-basement, dessert-only wedding reception in the Midwest 10 years before. Dad was comparing what that "affair" had cost to his native-Washingtonian daughter's island wedding/home wedding game plan and having a fit. Nevermind the damned inflation, and that my sister and I have literally absolutely nothing in common as far as taste and career commitments. Despite the fact he was comparing apples to oranges, my dad decided he was going to give me the same amount he had given her 10 years earlier. And that was that.

My mother and I were pissed. Candidly, my father could have afforded to pick up the entire tab for both events if he had felt so inclined, but he hadn't. And because times have changed, it wasn't his obligation. He did contribute what many would consider to be a generous amount, but as far as the math my mother and I had used to do our planning, we were screwed. And the venues were already booked and the invitations were already ordered.

We didn't have a choice. I cashed in stock options and my mother contributed far more to the formal reception than she'd originally intended because certain things were very important to her and she didn't want me, or herself, to miss out on them. Do not misunderstand me, I very much appreciated every penny my father contributed to my wedding, but because we hadn't all been clear enough on the exact numbers from the beginning, we ended up with bad feelings about it afterwards. I had taken him at his word, but he hadn't a clue what the kind of wedding we all wanted would cost. It was a misunderstanding. But an expensive one for my mom and my fiancé and me.

So I preach to my clients that they need to actually discuss finances with their parents prior to locking in all their big budget items. Brides who casually tell me the groom's parents will be paying for something are often disappointed when the contribution isn't exactly what they'd hoped it would be. Some mothers of the groom want to actually plan the events they are paying for - they consider it their privilege and under the old set of rules, that would be true. But for destination weddings, the bride and groom act as the point people for all of the planning and unless the bride chooses to invite one of their moms to participate in our conference calls, I never meet any of them til they arrive on our island.

Discussing wedding money - with your future spouse and both sets of your parents - is hard. Nobody likes to talk about money - the subject matter is taboo. Unfortunately, it has to be the first discussion point for wedding planning. It's a topic that makes a happy occasion cause anxiety attacks - and so brides and grooms avoid it. But that doesn't solve the issue at the end of the day. They just end up with massive credit card bills they'll be paying off for years.

Lots of my clients are paying for their weddings with credit and different financing - I learned a long time ago not to ask too many questions although I advise everyone to have a plan that allows them to get it all paid off within a year. Many clients do still get "help" from their parents in a variety of ways - and occasionally, it obvious from the cards I'm running that mommy and daddy are covering a whole lot of the wedding weekend.

But it doesn't matter who is paying for it or how much. What matters is that everybody paying is clear on how much they're contributing so the bride and groom know how much money in total is in the pot before they start the planning. Get it over with on the very front end before you've started inviting people or sharing details of your wedding plans. It helps avoid embarrassment all around.

Until next time, happy wedding planning from Weddings in Vieques and Sandy Malone Weddings!

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