By Kristina Russo | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
8 Min Read | December 15, 2021 in Money
Twenty-five years ago, I got married on the most expensive day of the week, in the most expensive month of the year, in the most expensive region of the country – but not on purpose! When I adjust my own wedding costs into today’s dollars, I’m not surprised by any of the average costs I uncovered for this article. But even now, I remember being shocked by them. Thankfully, it was worth it – I’m still married!
Understanding average wedding costs can help you create a more accurate wedding budget and build a better plan for your event, which is especially important since 60% of couples end up increasing their wedding budgets after initially underestimating them.1 Let’s discuss the average cost of a big, formal wedding, highlighting the major cost components and key cost drivers like size, location, and timing. Because 2020 was an atypical year for large gatherings, most industry experts look at 2019 data when forecasting. I’ll do the same.
The U.S. national average wedding cost for a ceremony and reception is roughly $29,000, based on the average of three different wedding cost surveys.2,3,4 Like most years since the turn of the century, there were about 2.2 million marriages in 2019,5 making weddings an approximately $70+ billion-a-year business.
But because the national average is inherently skewed by regional outliers – the average wedding cost in New Jersey is about $53,000, while Utah averages around $19,000 – some experts say the median wedding cost is more meaningful.6 Median is a different approach to averaging: it’s the number in the middle. In this case, the U.S.’s median average wedding cost for 2016, the most recent year for which median data is available, was $14,399, meaning that half of all U.S. weddings cost more than that and the other half cost less.7
This means that in reality, most Americans spend far less than $29,000 but a good chunk of couples spend way more. My point: Don’t worry about deviating from the average, up or down. Here’s another way to avoid worry: When considering whether to use your credit card for a large wedding cost, you can find out in advance if your charge can be approved by using one of the tools for checking your spending power that some companies provide.
Based on my own analysis of multiple sources, here are the five largest cost components of an average wedding reception, with their average costs as a percent of all wedding costs:8,9
The ranges are very broad for most of these components, driven by different couples’ styles and choices. But using these percentages, you can estimate the range in which your costs should fall based on your wedding budget, and then adjust for which components you’ll want to splurge or scrimp on. I did something like that to give this article a stronger grounding in dollars. I did more analysis to apply these percentages to the median total cost of $14,399 – you can see the results in the accompanying “Median” average wedding costs pie chart. Then, you can see how the dollar amounts rise when I applied the same percentages to the “Mean” average wedding costs pie chart.
Now let’s dive deeper into each component, using the average wedding cost of $29,000. But remember: Because the numbers below are mean, not median, average wedding costs, it’s likely that most Americans are paying less. By the way, don’t expect all the numbers below to match the pie chart perfectly, as I made additional assumptions and estimates.
Reception venue and food catering prices are generally quoted as an all-inclusive per-person price, though they are sometimes also broken down into various parts, such as catered food, venue and equipment rental, and bar and beverage. Catered food, the largest cost, can be variable depending on your food choices, and averages about $40 per plate. Buffets generally cost less than formal plated dinners, but not always.
Bar and beverage costs run about $15 per guest.10 In some regions of the country, “cash bars” are popular, almost eliminating this cost. In other regions, couples tend to personalize their weddings by adding champagne fountains, signature drinks, or top-shelf offerings.
In the U.S., 89% of couples hire professional photographers.11 Photography costs are increasing as many couples opt to expand their documented memories with “first look” sessions and next-day brunches. Wedding photography costs average about $3,000 and videography averages another $3,000.
Band or DJ? It’s an ages-old wedding planning question with no right answer but significant cost implications. If you prefer the vibe of a DJ you’ll probably spend about $1,200 for the night.12 Popular add-ons include giveaways, dancers, and extra hours for after-parties. If you favor live music, the average cost is about $4,500 for a six-person band. Band prices increase with the number of musicians and performance hours. This was an area I splurged on, finding myself among the many couples paying between $6,000-$10,000.13
In 2019, the average amount spent on wedding flowers was $2,000.14 Floral costs are driven by both quantity and quality. The number of table arrangements, bridesmaid bouquets, ceremony flowers, accessory arrangements – e.g. entryway, guest book, bathrooms, cocktail hour – can quickly multiply costs. Additionally, your choice of flower significantly affects prices due to seasonality, bloom size, and country of origin. Flexibility and a cooperative floral vendor are helpful in managing floral costs.
One innovative cost-saving option is a rent-back service where you can rent your wedding flowers to another local couple. After a wedding ends, the florist transports the arrangements to another wedding for use the next day. Typically, the first couple receives a 10% refund and the second couple pays 40-60% of the cost the first couple paid.15
The average price paid for a wedding gown is about $1,600 plus $250-$400 for accessories.16 Almost all brides opt for in-person shopping, making an event of the day. However, you can save by buying online or selecting used dresses or family heirlooms. Attire costs are expected to increase in the future as more brides opt for multiple wedding day outfits. The groom’s attire cost often amounts to a “rounding error,” compared with the bride’s, so isn’t even discussed in most of the analyses I found.
Since the average number of wedding guests in the U.S. was 131 in 2019, and the average wedding cost cited above is $29,000, that works out to an average cost per guest of $221.17 Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t mean that the average cost of a wedding for 100 guests would be $22,100. Instead, experts advise that because weddings include costs that vary by headcount (like food, flowers, equipment rental) and others that do not (like venue, photography, attire), you might only save about $1,000 if you trim your guest list by 10 people – that’s an average of only $100 for each guest.18
Where you get married is a major factor for wedding costs. Wedding cost averages tend to correlate with an area’s average household income. And of course, weddings cost more in larger cities. As of 2020, the five most expensive wedding locations are:19
Weddings are a seasonal business, with highest demand – and cost – in May through October. October is the most popular wedding month in the U.S., followed closely by September. Most wedding vendors offer lower rates during off-peak months, like January or February. Saturday, the most popular day for weddings, has the highest price tag. Shifting to a Friday, Sunday, or coinciding with a popular holiday can significantly reduce overall costs.
1 “Wedding Wire Newlywed Report 2020,” WeddingWire
4 “2020 Wedding Statistics for the United States,” Wedding Report
5 “U.S. Marriage & Divorce Rates by State: 2009 & 2019,” U.S. Census Bureau
6 “This Was the Average Cost of a Wedding in 2020,” The Knot
7 “How Much Does the Average Wedding Cost,” Supermoney
8 “How to Create a Perfect (for you) Wedding Budget,” A Practical Wedding
9 “Wedding Flowers Cost Guide,” WeddingWire
10 “Wedding Catering Cost Guide,” WeddingWire
11 “Wedding Wire Newlywed Report 2020,” WeddingWire
12 “This Was the Average Cost of a Wedding in 2020,” The Knot
13 “Live Wedding Band Cost Guide,” Wedding Wire
14 “Here's How Much Couples Spend on Wedding Flowers,” The Knot
15 “How to Save on Wedding Flowers,” The New York Times
17 “Average Cost of a Wedding: By State and Feature,” ValuePenguin
18 “How Much Does the Average Wedding Cost?,” NerdWallet
19 “Average Cost of a Wedding: By State and Feature,” ValuePenguin