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Wedding Costs: 1981 to 2021

By Caroline Shively Sucher

Photos Courtesy of Connolly Family and Tony J Photography

If you look at the photos, you can see so many similarities between Charles and Mollie Connolly’s wedding in 1981 and their daughter Keegan’s 36 years later – beautiful brides, similar sized wedding parties, and receptions at the Easton Elks Lodge.

The big difference? The price.

“You do have a little sticker shock,” Charles says.

He doesn’t know much about weddings, but as an accountant Charles knows a lot about budgets. That knowledge, some creativity and attention to details meant Keegan and husband Pat Fetherman were able to have their dream wedding.

They think you can too.

If you’re getting married this year or next, your head may be filled with visions of dresses and flowers and honeymoons, but Charles advises, there’s another thing to add to those dreams: spreadsheets.

“Look at what are the really important things about the wedding,” Charles says. “The costly little things that might get you trapped can sneak up on you really quickly.”

Anne Marie Ferdinando, member outreach manager at Navy Federal Credit Union, agrees. She tells her clients, “Your wedding is personal so make sure your spending accommodates the things that matter most to you on your big day.”

That’s exactly what the Connolly’s did.

“We came up with a number that we were all comfortable with, then said, ‘Let’s look at the big-ticket items first, the gown, the photographer and the venue.”

Charles and Mollie found that a lot had changed between 1981 and 2017.

Mollie’s gown in 1981 cost about $200. Keegan’s was $1,200, but even that was a bargain. She shopped around until she found a boutique that sold never-worn dresses for steep discounts. Even though her gown was six times the price of her mother’s, it had originally been priced at $12,000.

The 2017 reception, held at the same spot in Easton, Maryland, also saw a hefty price increase over nearly four decades. “I think theirs was $22 per person and ours was about $5 per person,” Charles recalls.

Then there was the wedding cake.

“My wife and I had a cake made by a local person. I think ours was $100 or $150 and my daughter’s cake was around $800. Things have gone up in price exponentially but you’re looking at a 40-years-time difference,” he says.

Tuxedos have also jumped in price.

“The tuxedos 40 years ago, rental was probably $30 per person including the shoes and everything,” Charles remembers.

According to Savvi Formalwear, a tux rental today will cost an average of $135. That’s four and a half times as much as Charles paid in 1981. High-end designer rentals will be closer to $185, but menswear is actually a place where grooms have gotten creative. Keegan’s husband Pat and his groomsmen were all members of the military or police, so they wore their uniforms for the big day. Charles himself just wore a black suit with a black tie.

Entertainment is another expense that can eat up ten percent of your budget. But it doesn’t have to.

Pat had a friend who was a DJ, so instead of giving a wedding present, he donated his services for the big day, saving them hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars. That’s an opportunity that more and more couples are finding.

Anne Marie with Navy Federal says, “It’s becoming more common to ask guests to chip in on things like a dog sitter for the ceremony or other items that might help make your day more affordable and manageable.”

While chipping away at the costs is a great money-saver, Anne Marie and Navy Federal advise that to keep track of the entire budget, you create a designated savings account for your wedding, separate from your other personal accounts. That way, you can easily track your progress and make automatic deposits. If your account is solely designated for the wedding, it’s easier to notice if the balance is going down too quickly, so you know to slow your spending or adjust your plan.

There might be one big expense that you can put off until well after the wedding. Keegan and Pat waited until a year after they said, “I do” to take a honeymoon.

“Everything was just so rushed and crowded because of the wedding and the presents and moving in and stuff like that so they waited a year and it just seemed to work,” Charles says.

You can also break your savings goal down into segments, so the total cost doesn’t overwhelm you. You should have enough in the account if you’ve done our homework, researched vendors and figured out your priorities.

“Overspending often comes from an unrealistic budget,” Anne Marie says.

Another tip from Navy Federal - don’t forget about adding in extra funds to account for any unexpected costs or fees. That bargain tent rental company might go out of business or your future mother-in-law may decide that she needs to invite all her second cousins to the reception.

Charles warns that there’s another hidden cost, but this one you won’t find in your bank account.

“Remember your time is involved as well. All the time you put in going to different places, looking at different things, shopping for the wedding dress, the time driving around and the gas mileage. Those are hidden costs that you don’t really see.”

While the accountant in him tends to look at those costs, as the father of the bride, he has a different point of view. “It’s about the groom and the bride, and you just are so happy for them and to be a part of their day.”

He hopes you remember that even as you struggle with spreadsheets, priorities and planning, there are more important things to focus on — the people standing at the altar.

Charles thinks the world of his daughter and he says, “I could not have picked a better son in law if I had made him myself.”

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