I got engaged in San Francisco, exactly 35 years after my parents’ 1974 wedding. Their San Francisco wedding cost about $2,000, which in today’s money is roughly $10K. So naturally, when we started planning, my mom thought that if I made the same good practical, frugal choices that she and my father had made, I should be able to pull off something similar for $10K. I just needed to be smart about it.
In fact, when most people get engaged, I think we generally assume it should be possible to get married for $10k BECAUSE THAT IS A FUCK TON OF MONEY. And yeah, if you cut some corners, in many parts of the country you actually can pull off a pretty nice wedding for $10K. (Hell, I've built a whole business around helping people do just that.)
But by today’s standards, my parents’ wedding was BEYOND. They got married in San Francisco's reigning massive church, Grace Cathedral, three days after Christmas. They had a whopping 300 people in attendance, and a cocktail reception at the swanky Marine's Memorial Club. Their cake alone was so big that when we tried to re-create their wedding, we couldn't even find a baker that still made cakes that large.
And yet their budget was only $10,000 in 2017 dollars.
"When most people get engaged, I think we generally assume it should be possible to get married for $10k BECAUSE THAT IS A FUCK TON OF MONEY."
As sticker shock began to set in (one quote I got for “affordable invitations” would have been one-fifth of the proposed $10,000 budget) it became really clear that $10,000 wouldn’t buy me a wedding anything like my parents' bash. But if you’ve planned a wedding, you know how breaking that news goes:
"Well, in my day, we were able to do that for a dollar. If you just got down to business and weren't so self involved/financially irresponsible/addicted to your iPhone, you could do it for that cost too."
“Well, my coworker’s best friend’s cousin’s daughter was able to plan her wedding for only $500! So I know it can be done.”
“Well, maybe if you were just willing to do things a little more simply. How much of that stuff do you really need? I’m sure if you just ask them, they’ll offer a discount.”
The problem is it’s really hard explain WHY things are so goddamn expensive, when everyone around you keeps pointing to your bad choices and blaming millennials and Pinterest.
So, with the help of my cooperative parents, my staff and I set out to re-create their wedding in today's economy, to show exactly what wedding inflation looks like. Luckily, my dad is a mathematician who remembers every number ever, so we were able to re-create their line-item wedding budget with astonishing accuracy. He gave us a line item on costs that added up to $2,195, or just under $10,000 in today’s currency. Then we made a bunch of undercover phone calls to see what the same things would cost in real life 2017 Wedding Dollars.
This is what we came up with.
The Ceremony: My parents got married in Grace Cathedral — aka a huge-ass church in the middle of San Francisco. They weren’t members of the congregation, but they were able to snag the membership discount in exchange for a kneeler, needlepointed by my grandmother. (Totally how weddings work now!!!!) The total cost for a Saturday morning wedding was $100 for the cathedral, $100 for the organist, and $50 for the verger (who assists with the ceremony). In 2017, the cost for nonmembers is $7,500 (or $7,250 if you pay by cash or check). There’s also an additional fee of $150 for the carillon (aka church bells), which my parents still talk about as being magical.
1974 cost: $250
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $1,201
What it actually costs in 2017: $7,650
Invitations: My parents sent out engraved wedding invitations, which, if you’re not familiar, is basically the most traditional, formal, and expensive method you can choose. Engraving is so fancy that most online retailers don’t even offer it. In 1974, they paid $250 for 300 invitations (they invited 600 people, because…1974), which translates to $1,201 when adjusted for inflation. In 2017, you can get a set of 300 engraved invitations in a simple design for $2,209 (with the invitation card, envelope and RSVP included, but no other bells and whistles.) The funny thing is, at $250, the invitations were easily one of the bigger line items on my parents’ wedding budget (certainly the most expensive detail). But in our 2017 calculations? They ended up being one of the least expensive things on the list, not because they were cheap, but because everything else was so damn expensive.
1974 cost: $250
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $1,201
What it actually costs in 2017: $2,209
My parents got married three days after Christmas, so for the ceremony, they used the flowers that were still up from the holidays — which means their floral needs were relatively small: one bridal bouquet made with holly, ivy, and irises; three bridesmaids bouquets full of daisies; flowers for the flower girl (same); and two arrangements for the cake table at the reception with chrysanthemum and ivy. All in all? $50 in 1974 terms.
Had they wanted decorations for the church? Grace Cathedral currently has an “approved florist list,” and the first one I clicked on had a minimum order of $8,000.
And in case you thought you’d be thrifty and reuse some of your ceremony decor at the reception? NOPE, not allowed. Which might seem reasonable if those altar flowers didn’t cost EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS AT MINIMUM.
As it stands, flowers can come from anywhere, so we sent some photos of my parents' bouquets to our friendly florist Belle Flower for a quote, and the estimate came in at $1,400. (That said, many florists in San Francisco these days don't get out of bed for less than $4,000, so in reality you may end up with more flowers than my parents had...and a much higher bill.)
1974 cost: $50
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $240
What it actually costs in 2017: $1,400
Photography: My parents met their (very experienced) photographer when he shot my aunt’s wedding. He had subsequently raised his rates, but was willing to honor the old price…which was a whopping $50. And while with enough elbow grease (or Craigslist skills) you can find photographers at almost any rate these days, most professional photographers working in San Francisco will be priced at $2,500 or above — and that’s on the conservative side. The experienced photographers often start around $4,000.
1974 cost: $50
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $240
What it actually costs in 2017: $2,500
Bridal attire: Getting married in December meant my mom was able to get a nice wedding dress from the premier department store of the time during a half-off sale the previous spring. It cost $150 in 1974, and her super-long cathedral veil and satin flats added an extra $45. All told, her attire would have cost $937 if you adjust for inflation. Recently (and blessedly) we’ve had an explosion of retailers offering more reasonably priced wedding dresses, so 50% off a dress of similar style and fabric would come in at around $1200, compared to the inflation-adjusted cost of $721. Her veil, on the other hand, would have cost four times as much, even from a relatively affordable brand like BHLDN ($144 in inflation dollars compared to roughly $650 in today’s dollars). Though once you start adding embellishments like lace, you could easily get upward of $1,000. The only thing that came under budget during this whole experiment? Ballet flats. Which you can get for $50 pretty much anywhere.
Bridal attire: 1974 cost: $195
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $937
What it actually costs in 2017: $1,900
Cake: My parents’ cake was ridiculous. Wedding cakes were bigger back in the day. And my parents got it into their heads that they wanted to serve birthday cake–size slices of cake, not teeny wedding cake slices. As a result, that cake will go down in history as only slightly less absurd than the woman who baked a life-size cake in the shape of herself. We’re talking five tiers — with every tier in a different flavor — and enough servings for 600 people. There was...a lot of leftover cake.
In 2017? Of the handful of bakers we called for quotes, most of them didn’t even offer a cake that big anymore. At most, we could get five tiers that would serve 300 people and then the offer to supplement with sheet cakes. But given the original cake’s extravagance, this is one area where wedding inflation wasn’t as bad as it could have been — because, hey, it was only triple the cost.
1974 cost: $100
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $480
What it actually costs in 2017: $1,500
Reception & Catering: My parents had their reception at San Francisco's Marines’ Memorial Club, where they got a sizable discount because my grandfather was a founding member. (Today’s membership discount is 2.5%.) My father says, “We served hors d’oeuvres and wedding cake. My mother-in-law, who paid for the reception, gave us the choice of limiting the guest list or eliminating full champagne service. We gave up the full champagne service and served champagne punch instead.” Total cost for the reception? $1200 (which, if you adjust for inflation, would be $5,769 today).
In 2017, my parents would have had one of the cheapest options offered by the Marines’ Memorial Club: an afternoon hors d'oeuvres package. I called them up to see if it’s possible to forgo the included open bar for a similar champagne punch setup, and was told that it would only save $10 per person on the built-in $80 per person cost (which I was told “they wouldn’t advise”). Translation: We will offer you discounts that are so menial you won’t even take them. All in all? Getting the same package they got in 1974 would cost $24,000 today, before taxes and tip (and more than $30K after).
1974 cost: $1200
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $5,769
What it actually costs in 2017: $30,128*
*Includes 2.5% discount
So all in all, this is what we’re looking at...
Total 1974 cost: $2,095
What it should cost in 2017 dollars: $10,068
What it actually costs in 2017: $47,286
You read that right. That is a 370% increase in what it would cost to throw my parents’ wedding. Why? It's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. Sometime between 1974 and today, people realized that weddings weren't necessarily a side business. And now there's a whole industry around weddings. An industry that, as Rebecca Mead writes in One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, has been “assiduous in working to establish the trappings of the lavish formal wedding as if they were compulsory rather than optional.” And wedding vendors aren’t out to get you; most are small business owners who are charging for the increase in time, attention, and ~perfection~ that couples and their parents have come to expect.
Basically, expectations around weddings are much higher than they used to be, and everything is now considered mandatory in order to have a “real wedding.” Which you already know if you’ve ever heard someone say, “Well it’s not a wedding if you don’t… [serve three kinds of steak/hire a professional photographer for 14 hours/wear a crystal-studded thong].” And the phenomenon of higher expectations feeds into higher costs which feeds into even higher expectations, and the whole thing just snowballs until you feel like saying “Fuck it, let’s elope.”
Wedding vendors aren’t out to get you; most are small business owners who are charging for the increase in time, attention, and ~perfection~ that couples and their parents have come to expect.
But there’s hope! Here are some things you can do to help mitigate the sticker shock:
- Don’t spend money (or time) on things you don’t care about. No one shows up to a wedding for the details.
- Prioritize fun over pretty (it’s cheaper and more effective).
- Remember that just because you can’t do what your parents did doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
And of course, the next time someone suggests that they know how to plan your wedding better than you do, tell them you’d gladly take them up on their offer to be your wedding planner. After all, wedding planners aren’t cheap these days.
After several reader requests, this post has been updated to include a photo of the author’s parents’ big-ass wedding cake. (Seriously, it's huge.)
Meg Keene is the founder and editor-in-chief of A Practical Wedding, your friendly neighborhood feminist wedding blog and the nonjudgmental big sister you wish you had while planning your wedding. Meg has published two essential wedding planning guidebooks: A Practical Wedding and the A Practical Wedding Planner. She recommends this handy planning checklist as the best place to start when you're engaged.