What’s billed as the happiest day of your life is also one of your most expensive ones. According to the 2023 First Look Report by Zola, a leading wedding planning platform, the average cost of a wedding in 2023 is now $29,000.
The cost has many couples taking to social media to discuss what they call the ‘wedding tax’ — a phenomenon where people believe they get upcharged for services if they say it’s for a wedding even though the same service for any other celebration would cost less.
CNBC Select spoke to two wedding planners who gave us their two cents on the wedding tax and offered advice on how couples can save without dangerously skirting the rules of the service providers who help make their vision come true.
What we’ll cover
Does a wedding tax really exist?
Well, yes and no. Services for weddings do generally cost more than the same services for other kinds of events — but according to the planners we spoke with, that’s because of the level of care most couples expect to be put into their big day.
“Definitely, there is a gap in cost because of the amount of time you’re spending to work on a wedding versus the time spent working on a retirement party or corporate event,” says Emily Butler, the Co-Owner and Chief Creative Officer of Karson Butler Events, which specializes in organizing a wide array of social and corporate events. Because weddings might be planned a year or more in advance, Butler says the planner and vendors have to spend time “communicating, designing and planning the smallest of details to get all the perfect touches just right.”
The high emotional stakes of the wedding also mean many couples will likely pay for a level of service they wouldn’t otherwise. “This event involves two families bringing together traditions, cultures and expectations,” says Elizabeth McKellar, the founder of Nouveau Romantics, a nationally acclaimed wedding design and planning company. “Certain dynamics get magnified and it brings up a lot of emotions and feelings.”
That means, for example, that instead of hiring a photographer to snap a few dozen pictures and email them to you, you’re paying for several hours on end of photography, edits and more. McKellar compares the wedding day experience to the experience of going to a Michelin-star restaurant versus going to a chain restaurant. Sure, you can save hundreds of dollars on your wedding cake by just buying a sheet cake but when you work with a caterer to create something more personalized, it’s a collaborative process and therefore, a different (and pricier) experience.
So on the one hand, services for weddings do cost more compared to services for other types of parties. But people expect more from weddings and the higher price reflects the extra labor. “I’ve definitely noticed more and more noise surrounding the so-called ‘wedding tax,’ ” Butler says. “Every few years this topic resurfaces. All event services are not created equal and therefore not priced the same.”
How do you save money on wedding costs?
One of the most important ways to save on wedding costs is to create a line budget that accounts for every expense (flowers, venue, etc.). Go over the budget with your partner and agree on what parts of the wedding you can skimp on and what parts deserve as much as you can afford.
McKeller urges couples to be ruthless about cutting the things that don’t matter to them, especially if operating on a tight budget. And, of course, flexibility can help lower the prices of certain vendors, like the venue, says Butler. For example, you may sometimes pay a little less for a venue during the winter than you would in the middle of June.
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How should you pay for a wedding?
Divorced from all of its emotional significance, a wedding is just another large expense. Paying for it with your personal savings is the ideal way to cover costs, since you avoid going into debt. But this requires you to start stashing away cash well in advance of booking your vendors and venue.
Another option is to put some of those expenses onto a credit card that offers a 0% intro APR period. Just make sure you pay off your balance before the intro period expires, otherwise, you’ll have to start paying interest on whatever you still owe.
Cards like the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card gives you a 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 21 billing cycles from account opening (18.74% – 29.74% variable APR afterward), and the Wells Fargo Reflect® Card has a 0% intro APR period for the first 21 months from account opening for purchases and qualifying balance transfers (after, 18.24%, 24.74%, or 29.99% variable APR; balance transfer fee of 5%, min $5).
Wells Fargo Reflect® Card
0% intro APR for 21 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers.
18.24%, 24.74%, or 29.99% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
Balance transfer fee
5%, min: $5
Foreign transaction fee
See rates and fees. Terms apply.
While the 0% intro APR period should hopefully buy you some time to pay off your wedding in full, remember that it’s still important to practice healthy habits with your money. Don’t use this as an excuse to go overboard with the spending, since that money has to be paid back.
Personal loans can also help pay for any wedding expenses you can’t cover with savings. Plus, personal loans tend to carry lower interest rates compared to credit cards. CNBC Select ranks LightStream as one of the best overall personal loan lenders since it doesn’t charge late fees, origination fees, or early payoff penalties and borrowers can apply for up to $100,000.
Annual Percentage Rate (APR)
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$5,000 to $100,000
24 to 144 months* dependent on loan purpose
Early payoff penalty
Terms apply. *AutoPay discount is only available prior to loan funding. Rates without AutoPay are 0.50% points higher. Excellent credit required for lowest rate. Rates vary by loan purpose.
One reason a wedding might be more expensive than throwing a random party for 100 people is that couples tend to expect a higher level of service and vendors have priced their labor accordingly. To weather the costs as best you can, make a budget and determine what expenses you can cut back on, and consider using a 0% APR card or personal loan if your savings aren’t enough.
Meet our experts
At CNBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. For this story, we interviewed Emily Butler, the Chief Creative Officer at Karson Butler Events. Karson Butler Events has been featured by the TODAY Show, BRIDES magazine, Glamour, the Washington Post and more. We also interviewed Elizabeth McKellar, the Founder of The Nouveau Romantics, a wedding planning service that’s been featured in Martha Stewart Weddings, BRIDES magazine and named one of the “World’s Top Wedding Planners” by Harpers BAZAAR.
Why trust CNBC Select?
At CNBC Select, our mission is to provide our readers with high-quality service journalism and comprehensive consumer advice so they can make informed decisions with their money. Every article is based on rigorous reporting by our team of expert writers and editors with extensive knowledge of credit card and personal loan products. While CNBC Select earns a commission from affiliate partners on many offers and links, we create all our content without input from our commercial team or any outside third parties, and we pride ourselves on our journalistic standards and ethics. See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best credit cards and personal loans.
Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.