Financial Lessons Learned at the Bridal Show

bridal show cakes

This past weekend I went to the annual bridal expo with a friend who is getting married soon. As my wedding was many years ago, I was astounded to see how far the bridal industry has come. Or maybe I should say I was astounded to see how far the bridal industry will go (to separate people from their money, that is).

As we walked amongst the booths, I found myself thinking that this expo was a microcosm of what’s wrong with our economy and the “spend at all costs” mentality in this country. At one booth we were cheerfully informed that the average wedding now costs $28,000. The consultant went on to explain that this sum of money would buy you an average wedding. To have a wedding that people will remember and talk about for years, the bride should plan to spend upwards of $35,000. All I could think was, “Holy cow! Thirty-five grand is like two decent cars or a very nice down payment on a house.”

We journeyed on. Two national banks had booths selling wedding financing. Right there on the expo floor you could venture into a private cubicle, talk to a banker and come out with a loan to cover that $28,000 (or more) wedding. Or a high limit credit card. Whichever “works best for your unique wedding.” Who knows what interest rate you would get, but that’s not the point. These banks are selling the once in a lifetime experience and happily feeding into the idea that money is no object. One bank’s signage read, “Let us help you make your wedding day dreams come true.” It should read, “Let us help you go into debt for this one day so that your future decisions will be hampered by your wedding day debt load.”

Onward and upward. I was amazed at how unabashed most of the booth operators were at asking for my friend’s money. At one booth that was selling party favors, the operator told my friend that she had to have this item for her wedding. “If you don’t have it, people will think you’re cheap. Your guests want good favors and you don’t want to disappoint them.” There was no shame in making my friend feel guilty. When she started to walk away, after giving a polite, “No, thank you,” the operator called after her that, “It’s your wedding. Do you really want people to feel like you couldn’t be bothered to care about them?” I couldn’t believe it. At several other booths the guilt pitch was also in full force. We were told that my friend’s guests would view her wedding as “just another wedding” if she didn’t buy a particular music package. That she would deprive her family of treasured memories if she didn’t buy a certain photographers wares. That her dress would be “instantly forgotten” if she purchased anything other than a certain designer’s gown.

As if this weren’t enough, we encountered a wedding planner who’s slogan was (I kid you not), “You can plan for your marriage later. Plan for your wedding today.” My friend, who has a warped sense of humor, actually sat down to hear what this person had to say. The planner told the group of women not to waste time planning for the marriage. Forget about talking about money, or kids, or jobs, or housing, she said. Spend the months of your engagement focused on your wedding, ensuring it is the best it can be. If you have a great wedding, the marriage will work itself out.

Hmm. I think this is reversed. How many people end up on Dr. Phil that have been married for a year and are looking for a divorce because something like the fact that their spouse didn’t want kids or had $100,000 in debt caught them by surprise? Too many. Shouldn’t the engagement be a time for planning the marriage with the wedding being secondary? I thought so, too, but no one at this show shared my view. In the quest for the almighty buck, these people were advocating that the bride shouldn’t worry about her marriage, but only about the wedding itself. What troubles me is the fact that I know that too many people will take this advice seriously.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any ruder or more blatant, we hit the booths where brides encourage (or beg) others to spend money on them. The registry booths. Here we had booths urging brides to register for everything from china to power tools to money. There were a couple of banks encouraging brides to set up accounts so that guests could just deposit money straight into the account, no gift shopping required. It isn’t the gift registry that bothers me as much as how clearly consumer oriented the wedding has become. Having been a guest at more than a few weddings lately, I’m always astounded at how much stuff some brides register for (and from how many stores). Giving a gift now feels like an obligation for a wedding guest, rather than a gift of generosity. When you’re all but handed a sheaf of papers detailing the “wants” of your bride, it feels like an ambush. Some invitations even come with instructions: “Please deposit money into the accounts of Miss X and Mr. Y at the Spend It All Bank.”

I wondered where the brides were getting these outrageous registries and where the encouragement to be so blatant about gifts was coming from. When I got married, I registered at one store, predominately for china and housewares. I only told people where I was registered if they asked, not wanting to make anyone feel like they had to get a gift. And I certainly didn’t enclose my registry in the invitation, as one bridal friend did recently. What happened to make te wedding into a shop fest? Having been to this show, I now know where the push is coming from.

The operator of one of the bank booths was handing out printed cards with the bank’s name and contact information preprinted. There were lines for the bride to write in her name or the groom’s, and a blank line for the money amount to be written in. These cards were to be tucked in the invitation so that the guest could take the card to the bank, write the gift amount on the card, and hand it to a teller for transaction processing. I thought it was tacky and said so, but the booth operator told me, “Well, how else are people supposed to know where to give the money?” Several department stores were encouraging girls to “Register for everything you might want. You probably won’t get it all, but there’s no harm in shooting for the stars and if it turns out you don’t want an item, you can exchange it.” One store was handing out wedding themed 8 1/2×11 envelopes in which to place the registry for giving to guests. With all this going on, I decided it was no wonder that gift giving had gone from being a quiet request to, in some cases, a demand.

I understand that the wedding industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and that every vendor is competing for a tiny slice of a relatively small pie. Only so many people get married in a year and, according to census statistics, that number drops every year. Therefore, these vendors have to get what they can out of each customer. They know that a bride also brings in other business in the form of guests buying presents, so they want a bride to be very direct about asking for gifts. They are also very aware that if they contribute to a happy wedding day, the bride and groom are more likely to shop with them in the future. The chance to get a customer for life is a very powerful motivator for these businesses. I understand that they have to make money. What I have a quarrel with is the method.

The vendors know that many women planning a wedding are excited, anxious, happy, and willing to spend a little more if it will fulfill a fantasy or save them time. They prey on those emotions, convincing women that this one day is more important than long term goals like buying a house or retirement. Unfortunately, many brides are led to the financial slaughtering ground.

I was appalled at how low some of these vendors were willing to stoop, and even more worried about how many women seemed to be buying into the idea that the only way to have a “good” wedding and a “successful” marriage was to spend many thousands of dollars. I don’t doubt that there were women at this show who could easily afford $35,000 or more. For them a show like this is just a chance to compare offerings. But for most women, who can’t afford that kind of money or will have to go deeply in debt to do so, this show seemed dangerous. The messages being thrown around, “You’re a failure if you don’t by this,” “People will hate your wedding if you don’t hire this DJ,” “You’re entitled to a boat load of gifts, so don’t be shy about telling people what you want,” “This is a once in a lifetime experience and you need to spend this kind of money so you don’t regret it later,” and, “You don’t want your guests to think you’re cheap,” encourage overspending. In fact, they demand it.

As my friend and I rode home, I thought that the whole show pretty much summed up the consumer mentality of this country. You should have everything you want, when you want it, cost be damned. You’re entitled to good things, so go get them. You can always pay for it later. You only go through life once so have those special moments, regardless of price. Bigger is better. And so on. It’s the same mentality that has a lot of people facing foreclosure and trashed credit ratings. Since a wedding is (usually) one of the first big expenses in a lot of people’s lives, I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the overspending starts here: Spend big on a wedding then it’s easier to spend big on a house, on kids, on cars, on furniture and everything else. Heck, you’ve already dropped $30K on one day, surely a $500,000 house is worth it. Give in to these vendors who want you to overspend on your wedding and maybe you’re setting yourself up to overspend on everything else.

But the thing I couldn’t escape was this: The girl who gets married in a small, intimate, lovely ceremony is just as married as the girl who spent $40,000 on her wedding. The point of the wedding is the marriage. But you wouldn’t know it if you went to a bridal show.

Image courtesy of Manassas Cakery

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17 Responses to Financial Lessons Learned at the Bridal Show

  1. Patrick says:

    I am going to be attending one of these in the near future. Very helpful. Any suggestions on what to do instead of going there? Just don’t bring any forms of ID’s or credit cards right??

  2. Jay Gatsby says:

    My wife and I got married last year, and this post couldn’t be more accurate. She dragged me to multiple wedding shows over the year of our engagement, and everything is completely true.

    Our wedding did cost approximately $30,000, but we’re in our 30s and could afford it (although our respective parents did contribute as well and did so also because they wanted to and could afford it).

  3. Christine says:

    Here’s a clue.

    Those vendors are there to market their products or services. You have the right to tell them to sod off.

    Any bride too immature or too insecure to know her own mind or desires before she starts to plan her wedding is not mentally prepared to marry in the first place.

    For your own security, may I suggest that you never read a magazine, watch TV or surf the internet. You may find yourself exposed to businesses interested in marketing to you. Their goal, after all, is to convince you to part with your money in exchange for what they have to offer.

  4. just me says:

    Thats not a bridal show, thats the twilight zone!!

  5. That’s such crap! I’m so glad I never went to a bridal expo.

    Our wedding was under $5,000 but very nice and memorable. We had a sit down dinner and a live band, pretty much all the trimmings. But we did it by relying on local talent and skipping bridal stores for just about everything other than clothing. We also did a lot of stuff ourselves.

    I’ve had friends and family that had much smaller weddings and theirs were still nice and memorable.

    Most guests don’t care about favors. I don’t need more clutter, especially something personalized with someone elses’ wedding date. We just told people that they could take the candles that we had bought and used for decoration. (They were very happy about that.)

    The scary thing is that I’ve heard some brides say that they expect to recoup their costs with gifts and even make money, which is why they want to go all out. Of course, I think that’s dumb on many levels. Weddings shouldn’t be about making money, but it’s also a pretty bad way to make money, especially if you don’t know anything about business. My experience is that brides overestimate the amount they get in money, and even with registries, don’t get the gifts they wanted/expected.

  6. Cortni says:

    wow- I can’t believe that wedding planner that encouraged women to plan for their wedding instead of their marriage! But she’s probably thinking that if people actually follow that advice, they will probably be in need of her service again to plan their 2nd wedding since their first one ended in divorce.

  7. Carolina Bound says:

    I think the trouble with these shows is not that they are just marketing their products — they are setting a false standard. Most of their customers have not put on a wedding before, so they are vulnerable to insinuations that they are not going to do it right; they are going to be tacky in some way; they are going to embarrass themselves. In my opinion this is not marketing, it is unconscionable manipulation.

  8. Shannon says:

    Wow! That is a bit over the top. I hope your friend told the vendors who kept talking about the wedding being forgettable that she and her fiance are the only ones who really need to remember it!

    That said, the most memorable weddings I have been to were not the ones where the couple spent the most but the ones where they tried to save money and, as a result, wound up with very creative and personal ceremonies, often on their parents’ property.

  9. Hilary says:

    In many ways, I think this post sums up how women have been viewed for the last 50 years. “Make your family happy with a Color TV!”, “Buy a Microwave and dinner is easy!”, “This cream makes you look 10 years younger!”. And of course, how could we even imagine a man helping to plan the wedding? Why would HE care?

    I hate how I endlessly hear about how women are so financially irresponsible, and yet we’ve been groomed to be concerned with appearance, clothing, and now apparently weddings. I’ve been told “Are you a woman?” because I didn’t paint my toenails. And then, of course, I hear financial planners telling me how debt happens when people “Buy dresses at the mall and don’t think about the price,” as if men don’t also get into credit card debt.

    Women are constantly being socialized to think of themselves as great consumers, and also financially irresponsible (which is, of course, good for vendors). I am sick to death of it.

  10. baselle says:

    That’s why we call it the wedding-industrial complex.

  11. cptacek says:

    We just got married at the end of January. We had a full Mass, 5 attendants each, 325 guests, an open bar, a meal for all the guests, a dance until midnight and a week long honeymoon. It cost us about $8500, including the honeymoon.

    My mom, his mom and I have all had wonderful compliments on how much everyone enjoyed the wedding, how classy it was, how beautiful it was, how much fun people had. And we didn’t even have favors, let alone cheap ones!

    Now, I am 30, so I pretty much knew in my mind what I wanted and if a vendor at the one bridal show I went to tried to pressure me to buy something, and I thought it was silly, I practically laughed at them. I was just there to get pictures of the decorations so we could make them ourselves!

    I personally think that people started putting so much emphasis on weddings and not so much on the marriage when people stopped inviting God into their preparation and marriage. If there really is no difference for the couple between living together and being married, then all you are having is a big fancy party.

  12. Boo31 says:

    I was to go to one of these bridal expos and my best friend was very ill and in the hospital–I’m glad, after reading this I did not go.

    My husband and I planned our whole wedding by ourselves with some help from the internet and my best friend, one of my maids of honor. We sent out invitations (I printed on my home printer), we planned the ceremony to the reception with the help of our hostess and DJ. We had all of the music picked out.

    We found a reception hall a few towns away from us that had an outside garden. This is where our wedding was held, with the DJ playing the music. The DJ, the wedding cake and a Limo came with the package. Our photographer was a friend of ours from work.

    For Our wedding ceremony, I made a disc from my computer due to the fact I did not want any glitches in the music for the ceremony. I included what is called a Rose ceremony.
    Our wedding was May 29, 2004 and to this day people still talk about our wedding. We had an H’orderve reception and an open bar. Everyone enjoyed themselves–lots of dancing and having fun–it was simple. I think simple is the best way to go.

    We spent $5,700.00 on my gown, his tucks, the wedding/reception package and a night in a hotel. We also had to pay our JP and the extra music outside for the ceremony.

    We had our wedding we will never forget. Our marriage gets better and better everyday.

  13. My wife is the matron of honor for her sisters wedding. I swear I could write a book on the two of them bickering back and forth about what to spend, etc… I thought they were over reacting, but when I saw a $4000 wedding cake I almost passed out! YIKES!!

    Ben @ Trees Full of Money

  14. Pingback: Monroe on a Budget » Blog Archive » Weddings on a budget: Financial lessons from a bridal show

  15. Gail says:

    I found it very interesting that the last wedding I went to that was a hugely elaborate affair, took 5 months to receive a thank you note for the gift we did give them! When my hubby and I got married 6 years ago it cost us about $2000 and the thank you notes were all out within 3 weeks. There is no excuse to not send out a thank you note within a reasonable amount of time.

  16. Rob says:

    Wonderful post! I actually just finished adding something similar to my blog this morning and then stumbled on your post.

    I could not agree more with what you wrote.

    With all due respect to Christine, there is a difference between good marketing and predatory practices.

  17. Amanda says:

    I just stumbled upon this blog…much later than it was written, I know. I’m not sure where this show took place, but I am familiar with that scene. I also wanted to mention that not every bridal show/expo is like this. As a wedding photographer, I do advertise at bridal shows. However, I do not push any bride into anything or make her feel guilty for not booking with me. I provide the information and show my work, and leave the decision to her. Brides want to come to these shows to learn what is available out there, not to be hounded into feeling guilty. People that run their shows this way are ridiculous. My main point is that not ALL bridal expos are this way, and not ALL vendors that participate in bridal expos are this way.

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