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Inflation is crushing wedding budgets and guests are getting cut

<i>Courtesy M by Michaela Photography</i><br/>A table setting at Jamaicia and Jamal's wedding is pictured here.
Courtesy M by Michaela Photography
A table setting at Jamaicia and Jamal's wedding is pictured here.

Martha C. White for CNN Business

The pandemic lockdowns might be in the rearview mirror, but rising inflation has ushered in the return of “micro” weddings, Zoom ceremonies — and disinvited guests.

Couples blindsided by wedding budgets that have blown up by as much as 100% are scrambling to economize by any means possible in order to contend with the highest inflation in 40 years. 

“As we were planning, our original budget seems to have ballooned very quickly,” said Jamaicia Lewis, a public health scientist who got married in Miami in April.

“Our original wedding budget was $50,000 to $60,000 with almost 200 guests, but it almost doubled,” she said. “To make up ground for a lot of the inflation, we had to resort to using our credit cards.”

But the strain of a rapidly rising wedding budget, plus costs associated with the new home Lewis and her husband, Jamal, had recently purchased in Atlanta, forced them to consider more drastic measures.

Ultimately, they decided to limit the number of guests to 150 — meaning they would have to disinvite some guests, she said. “It was a hard truth, but we just couldn’t stretch the budget any further.”

Breaking the news was a “tough conversation,” she said, even after writing multiple drafts of a script to deliver via phone or text message.

“Mostly, we had a good response,” Lewis said, although a few of the disinvited guests expressed their plans to attend regardless.

“I just said, ‘There will be security,'” she said, adding that she and her husband briefly mulled over the prospect of using wristbands to deter any wedding-crashers. But ultimately they allowed a few non-sanctioned guests to stay anyway. “Weddings take on a life of their own. People feel like it’s their day as well.”

Plans upended as costs soar

Mounting costs are hanging over the heads of many newly and nearly married couples. The Knot, which conducts an annual survey on wedding trends, including size and cost, found that nearly half the couples who got married last year reduced their guest count. The average 2021 wedding had 105 guests, according to the Knot, although the average cost was $34,000 — about the same as the $33,900 reported in 2019, when the average number of guests was 131.

Inflation has only continued to climb since, and the sticker shock is palpable. Couples are haggling more, searching for less-expensive substitutes for everything from entrees to engagement rings, and cutting costs any way they can.

“It’s astounding how much weddings cost,” said Courtney Collins, a nurse in Rutland, Vermont, planning a 130-person wedding in September. “This is my second marriage. I was like, ‘I’m not going to spend 80 grand on a wedding,’ [but] I easily could’ve spent like $80,000 without adding that much more.”

Collins said she hopes to keep the total cost below $40,000 by limiting the open bar during the reception and asking artistic friends for assistance with invitations and decor.

“Ever since the pandemic, everything has skyrocketed,” said Leah T. Williams, owner of an eponymous floral and event design company with offices in West Palm Beach and New York City. “Micro-weddings, as they’re calling them, have been all the rage.”

Designers say the cost of flowers has shot up because of pent-up demand, as well as severe weather and political turmoil in some major export markets. Roses that might have cost 80 cents a stem now cost as much as $3 each — an increase that has a major impact on Williams’ signature floral arrangements.

“Three dollars doesn’t sound like a lot when you’re getting one, but when you’re getting 6,000, that’s a lot. It makes a huge difference when you’ve quoted someone at $8,000 and you come back with a price of $14,000,” she said.

“These markups have been insane,” Williams said, adding that even the cost of supplies has multiplied. “The foam, the bases — everything we need to create a design has totally gone up.”

For example, she said, a roll of floral tape she could buy for about $4 in early 2020 now costs almost $12.

From dream wedding fantasies to financial nightmares

Wedding planners say their job has always been about trying to mesh fairytale ideals with real-world budgets, but today that feat is harder than ever as nearly every aspect of the event, no matter how mundane, is more expensive.

Prior to the pandemic, Fallon Carter, owner of New York City and Los Angeles-based Fallon Carter Events, said the typical price per chair from a rental company was in the $15 neighborhood. “I’m now renting chairs that are $40,” she said.

Many couples think of costs in terms of the per-meal cost from the caterer or venue, she said. But in reality, a $150-a-plate dinner adds up to more like $1,500 a person when decorations, furniture rentals, flowers, music, stationery and other elements are included in the calculation, she said.

The supply of goods — from rental furniture and linens to food and flowers — as well as labor remains highly constrained, as weddings postponed in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic are still being rescheduled. All those rebooked events mean that venues that might have previously held one or two weddings a week on the weekends are now booked up on weekdays as well — just one facet of the staffing crunch that has bedeviled the food-service and hospitality industries.

Social media-fed fantasies can also create unrealistic expectations, planners say. “They are experiencing quite a bit of sticker shock because what they see on Instagram or TikTok, they have no idea what it costs,” said Oniki Hardtman, owner and creative director of Oh Niki Occasions, a wedding and event design company in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.

Janae’ Hunte, an attorney who lives in New Jersey, initially planned on a wedding budget of $60,000 to $80,000 when she and her husband got engaged in late 2020. But when final quotes started rolling in shortly before their July 2022 wedding, Hunte did a double-take.

“We got our floral bill back and it was around $20,000,” she said. That was double the maximum they had budgeted for flowers. Her final quote to rent furniture, linens and tableware came in at more than double her $8,000 budget, and the menu for the couple’s rehearsal dinner jumped by close to 30%.

“I ended up picking the color scheme to go with the chairs they had in stock,” she said. “Another thing we did is cut back on chargers and silverware… and we cut most of the rentals with the exception of linens.”

“We were able to take a lot of things away or scale them back,” Hunte said, but with a 150-person guest list, economizing had its limits. The final tally, she said, came in at “a little under” $120,000.

“It’s not the vendor’s fault, it’s not the wedding planner’s fault, it’s just one of those things,” she said. “With so many moving parts during Covid and just not knowing what you’re going to be able to get.”

Downsizing and digitizing

Vendors, like planners and photographers, say they are subject to more haggling and that events seem to be growing smaller.

“It’s no longer just about selling our services,” Hardtman said. “It does have to be an education of how we’re going to end up saving them money in the long run.”

“There’s a total squeeze on budgets. I just got off the phone with a bride and it’s budget, budget, budget,” said Chris Todd Griffiths, co-owner of Christopher Todd Studios in California’s Orange County.

Griffiths also said more couples appear to be shrinking the size of their weddings. “I’ve been photographing a ton of elopements. I’ve probably shot 50 in the last year and a half,” he said. “I had a couple of huge weddings that ended up being smaller. They’re shaving down the guest lists.”

“We like to tell people, at this point, you need to make a guest count that’s realistic,” Carter said, although some opt to keep the guests and lose the attendants instead. “A lot of people are saying, ‘We’re not going to have wedding parties anymore,'” since the cost of paying for hair, makeup, flowers and gifts quickly adds up.

Collins expects around 130 guests at her wedding in September. “If I had it my way with all the friends I wanted to have, it would be way bigger, [but] I can’t afford to have a wedding with 200 people.”

The Zoom celebration, a pandemic-era stand-in when large gatherings were curtailed, has been repurposed as a way to include a bigger group of friends and relatives without the expense of an in-person event. But although she already planned to hold a virtual champagne toast on her wedding day for far away or immunocompromised relatives who couldn’t attend in person, Collins agonized over excluding a friend group that had grown more tight knit since the pandemic.

Adding another $1,200 to her budget was a nonstarter, she said, so she approached her friends with a different proposal. “I’m having an after-party, and that’s way cheaper,” she said, adding that the response she received was positive. “People were totally excited to even be invited.”

While some of these solutions likely won’t become wedding traditions, some industry pros feel that the pandemic reset societal expectations to the extent that separate parties, virtual events or rescinding invitations don’t represent the kind of norm-busting faux pas that they might have been five years ago.

“Thankfully, certain things from the pandemic have made it more acceptable to invite people to your wedding via Zoom, for instance, or have a secondary celebration,” Hardtman said.

Even celebrities are opting to go low-key, if the recent whirlwind wedding of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck at a chapel in Las Vegas is any indication.

That’s good news for couples planning to tie the knot, because higher prices will probably remain a fixture for a while, industry experts predict.

“I personally don’t think prices are going to come down to where we once saw them pre-pandemic,” Williams said. “I think that the market sees and understands that we’re in a multibillion-dollar industry, and they’re going to capitalize on that as much as possible.”

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