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The True Cost of Marriage: It’s Less Than You Think

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As the wedding season approaches, many couples find themselves asking a crucial question: How much does it cost to get married? The answers often range from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the extravagance of the event. However, the reality of the cost is far simpler and significantly less expensive—getting married can actually cost less than $100.

This surprising revelation often catches many off guard. During a recent class on money and marriage, I posed the question to a group of engaged couples. Their responses varied widely, with one woman mentioning that she and her fiancé had budgeted $30,000 for their wedding. This is a common misconception, as most people immediately think of the myriad expenses associated with a traditional wedding: attire, invitations, flowers, cake, music, reception, rehearsal dinner, and photography.

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A quick online search for “How much does the average wedding cost?” will yield similar high estimates. However, these figures are far from the actual minimum cost required to get legally married. The only essential expense is a marriage license, which costs well below $100 in most states and the District of Columbia.

For instance, a marriage license in New Jersey costs $28. In Colorado and Idaho, the fee is $30—less than the cost of filling up a small sedan’s gas tank. In Florida, it’s $93.50, but this fee can be reduced by up to $32.50 if the couple completes a licensed premarital course. In the Maryland county where I taught the class, a marriage license costs $70 per couple.

Every year, around this time, I receive numerous inquiries about how to afford a wedding or complaints about the high costs involved. Here’s what you might be telling yourself—and how to resist the temptation to spend more than you can afford.

But It’s Our Big Day

Wedding planning is often fraught with emotions, making it easy to discard financial prudence. It’s natural to want to share this special day with family and friends. However, the significance of your big day doesn’t diminish if you forgo a grand celebration. Focus on the importance of the marriage itself, rather than the wedding pageantry.

Family or Cultural Traditions Demand a Big Wedding

Over the years, I’ve engaged in numerous debates about cutting wedding costs. One online discussion began when someone on a tight budget asked, “How do I find a place and feed 100 people?” My response was to stick to the budget, even if it means trimming the guest list. This suggestion was met with strong opposition, as if I had insulted someone’s family.

I’ve attended weddings where the couple invited too many guests and didn’t have enough food. This is unfair to the guests, who leave hungry and frustrated. While many cultures celebrate weddings with grand festivities, it’s essential to abandon certain traditions if they are financially unreasonable. Set a price limit on your special day and have the wedding you can afford.

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When I say “afford,” I mean considering how the wedding expenses could be better used. Long-term, it might be more beneficial to use the funds to pay down debt, buy a home, or invest for retirement.

Yes, We Have Debt, But We’re Saving Up for the Wedding

Some couples justify overspending by pointing out they are saving for the wedding, despite having significant debt. Many continue to pay high-interest rates on large loans. During the class, I asked the couples about their non-mortgage debt. Several had six-figure student loans, and others had thousands in credit card debt. In some cases, the amount they planned to spend on the wedding could have erased all their consumer debt.

You Only Live Once

I often hear from people who argue that if they wait to afford the things they want, they won’t be able to enjoy life. However, happiness is a state of mind, not a lavish wedding reception for 150 people with an open bar.

Here’s my advice to couples: Spend lavishly on your wedding if you can check off the following:

1. You have a robust emergency fund—enough to cover unexpected expenses.
2. You both are saving adequately for retirement.
3. Neither of you has student loans or revolving credit card debt.
4. You can pay for the wedding without accumulating debt.

If you’re planning a wedding, live within your economic reality. Your future financial stability is far more important than a single day of celebration.

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For more timeless personal finance advice, consider reading Michelle Singletary’s “Money Milestones.”

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