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Carolyn Hax: When weddings and money mean trouble

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Weddings are going to cost you — and the question of how much isn’t just cash? Here, a round-up of columnist Carolyn Hax’s advice on sticking to a budget, who should pay and how to keep dollars from getting between you and family.

May 2010: Make wedding plans with everyone’s finances in mind

My girlfriend and I just got engaged and now it’s time to start the wedding planning. What would you say is customary and appropriate as far as paying the bill these days? Should it be split evenly? Divided proportionally by guests? Is the bride’s family still expected to foot the majority of the bill? Thanks!

Thank you so much for asking, because it gives me a chance to say: Pleeeease start your planning with the goal of paying for the whole thing yourselves. Not with credit cards, either, but with your savings. If you have no savings, then read that as a message to start managing your money like the grown-ups you are.

If you have only enough savings to pay for a small wedding, then read that as a message to live the life you can afford, and have a small wedding.

If you have enough savings to stage a Wedzilla for the ages, then use that as a discussion starter about treating the things you need as the base line for your decisions, and not whatever shiny things you can have.

And if your families respond to your minimalist wedding plans with offers to help with the costs, treat that extra money as a frill. Think in terms of fashion, or home decorating: Pick what reflects who you are, and refuse the rest. Besides, any gift comes with strings; even if your families don’t use money as a means of hijacking your plans, taking something from them now that you don’t need may keep you from getting something later that you do need.

If all this sounds anti-fun, then consider asking around -- include your fiancee, and see how people feel now about their weddings large and small. Ask people in happy marriages, strained ones, even veterans of failed ones. If you find you identify with certain people more than others, you’ll see preferences start to take shape.

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November 2011: Hey, there’s a string attached to this money!

My fiance and I are eating crow in a major way. My parents were paying for most of our spring wedding, but we were butting heads over certain things, such as their insistence that we invite a number of irrelevant family members and acquaintances of theirs instead of our own third-tier friends. We had a falling-out last month that ended with me saying we would plan and pay for the wedding ourselves.

They backed off. Well, as it turns out we cannot swing it ourselves. Not even close. Fiance is neutral but I’m torturing myself trying to decide whether to grovel for help and accept the strings that come along with it.

Please please please please PLEEEEEEASE greet this challenge by having the wedding you can afford, and not one frill or bubble more. It can be intimate and beautiful and a love letter from each of you to the other, which is what a wedding ought to be anyway, at least at its heart. SO much cooler than groveling. Even though I’m groveling to you. But that’s different.

Plus, developing and owning a habit of living within your means is a love letter from each of you to your marriage, and, if you have them, to your kids someday.

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June 2001: You can’t sell tickets to your wedding

Young couple (one of them is the offspring of one of us), have been living together several years, are now planning a wedding they clearly can’t afford. But that’s their call.

A couple of weeks ago they announced they will be “collecting the money” for the cost-per-person of the reception dinner. After we got over our shock, we tried to tell them nicely that they can’t sell tickets to their wedding. Gave them the benefit of the doubt, thought perhaps they were acting on bad advice, or really did not know any better. Bad (defensive) reaction from the groom, implying we are the only ones who have a problem with this.

Our first attempt at damage control was to offer the money for the reception as our wedding gift. Offered, but not insisted -- accept or decline, we would respect their decision. No response. Hubby is ready to boycott the wedding, which risks a serious rift. I am more inclined to shut up, pay up, and refrain from offering any further advice, ever. My question to you, and your “peanuts”: were we wrong to point out that hosts DO NOT charge admission, ever? If we didn’t speak up, who would? Did we make it worse by offering the money? Any advice on where to go from here?

Oh boy do I feel your pain.

I also think you did what you could, and you were right about all of it. Have you tried repeating the offer privately to your offspring alone? Or maybe suggesting a form of arbitration, in which you agree to abide by the judgment of a neutral third party? Otherwise, I don’t see you have much choice but to wince and go. Their humiliating themselves will be difficult for you, but not as difficult as the fallout from not going.

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September 2011: Post-wedding financial woes

I just learned that my husband feels our recent wedding celebration was not worth the money. It came up because an engaged couple asked for our views in the context of their own spending, and that’s the view my husband plans to share with them. I am a little defensive because I feel like he’s bailing on decisions we made jointly — we planned the wedding together, equally, and I recall him being happy with everything at the time.

I guess I’m hurt that he now regrets something we did together. Is that a fair thing to say to him? How about in front of this other couple?

— Disagreeing about money in public

It sounds as if you’re putting emotions where his money is. Unless he’s actually blaming you for making expensive decisions that he was a party to making, I don’t think his regrets necessarily mean he’s “bailing.” His experience might simply have told him that 50 of the 150 guests didn’t really add anything because he had no time to enjoy them, and that the most moving parts of the day, for him, were the ones that would have been the same at a $5,000 wedding as a $500,000 wedding — seeing you come down the aisle, the vows, your favorite music playing at the reception, the look on Mom’s face, having your closest friends and family laughing it up with his.

If (IF) that’s what he wants to say to this other couple, then I hope he does, and then goes on to preach it far and wide. It would make sense, though, for you to ask him to explain his views a bit, and warn him that your reflexive response so far has been to feel hurt and defensive. Just don’t go into that conversation assuming that because he has a negative opinion on the budget, he has a negative opinion on the whole wedding experience. Again, it could just mean that the good time he had and the memories he took away can be bought for less than you and he spent.

And if it turns out he is shifting blame to you, then this is an even more important thing for you both to wrestle with openly. Whether he’s failing to own his own choices, or you failed to listen to him when he was objecting gently to expenditures, or a combination of both, this is a communication issue that will keep piling up consequences until you figure out how to resolve it.

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