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I’d love to attend your wedding, but I can’t afford it

(Washington Post photo illustration/original photo from iStock Photo)

Welcome to Wedding Guest Wednesday, an occasional feature in which Solo-ish explores the joys and woes of attending other people’s weddings. Because it’s not all about the happy couple — it’s a big day for guests as well. 

I accept more out-of-town wedding invitations than I turn down. If I can make it work with my schedule and my bank account, I like to celebrate my friends. I’ll tack vacations or family visits on to the main event; I’m happy to split hotel rooms with friends or guests I’ve just barely met. And I have no shame about wearing the same dress to several friends’ nuptials.

But sometimes it’s just too much time and money to attend. When an invitation arrived recently for a November wedding in Turks and Caicos, I had to say no. I would’ve loved to be there, but I just can’t afford it. I told the bride, she understood, and I’ll happily attend her wedding shower in Baltimore in August without being stressed about finances.

When I contacted a bunch of financial planners, several responded that they had seen people go into debt over attending friends’ weddings. It’s what you might call an “irregular expense,” says Dayana Yochim, a consumer finance columnist for the Motley Fool, a financial services company in Alexandria, Va. “Most of us don’t think ahead and budget for friends’ weddings.”

But we should. A recent study from American Express found that 79 million Americans will attend a wedding in 2015, and they plan to spend an average $673 on each one. That’s $225 for airfare, $170 for a hotel, $116 for dining out and $95 for dressing up. Once you factor in a gift or multiple gifts — and a bachelor or bachelorette party — the cost of attending can easily exceed that average.

A 33-year-old Washingtonian I spoke to has found an effective way to cut down on the costs: She says no to nearly all out-of-town weddings. “If you don’t live in D.C. and I never see you, I’ll go to your wedding,” she tells me. But if the couple lives in D.C. and they’re having a wedding outside the Washington area, she’s not going.

This woman spoke to me anonymously so as not to offend  the couples whose weddings she’s missed. She adds, her policy hasn’t ruined any friendships. “I always take them out to dinner to find out all about the wedding,” she says. She’ll even buy them a gift. But she won’t travel out of town for them.

It’s not just about the money, honey: She thinks weddings are an amazing experience for the couple that’s getting married, but it’s not how she wants to spend a full weekend. She made her out-of-town policy in her late 20s, when she was invited to seven weddings within four months that would require travel. She went to two of the seven — one was a cousin and one was a childhood friend who lives outside Washington.

But for the rest? “I didn’t want to offend anyone,” she says. “I thought the best way, rather than have a miserable spring,” was to say no to all the local couples with destination weddings. “Then I made that rule and it stuck.”

Yochim of the Motley Fool is a fan of this rule. “Every expense should be dictated by your financial situation, not the bride and groom’s budget,” Yochim adds. “What is a wedding about? It’s a celebration for this couple, not that they get their complete 12-piece china set rounded up.”

She also suggests offering your moral support if you can’t be there in person. You can say: “I can’t make it, but I’m here if you need to vent about wedding stuff.” Which might be more valuable to a bride than seeing you for one dance plus a five-minute photo-op.

If you can’t afford to attend but want to celebrate with the couple when your finances are stronger, Jason Hamilton, a principal at KIS Fee-Only Financial Planning, suggests making a special trip to visit the newlyweds nine or 12 months in the future. “Then you can appreciate being there and not sit there thinking about how you’re going to pay for it,” Hamilton says.

Both Yochim and Hamilton stressed thinking about the future when planning for the short term. Don’t travel out of town for a wedding if you have credit card debt, they said. That $673 — invested and with compounded interest — might be worth a lot more in the bank than the experience you had flying to the middle of nowhere for an acquaintance’s wedding. 
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