Wedding Etiquette: Should Your Family Pay?

Last Updated Jun 13, 2011 10:28 AM EDT

Shortly after my engagement last fall, I picked up a book called "The Anti-Bride Etiquette Guide" by Carolyn Gerin and Kathleen Hughes. I found it for just three dollars at a flea market in New Orleans. So far I've already learned that we don't "need" to have any silly party favors (savings: $3 to $4 a pop) or even a cake (savings: $12 a slice)! I'm confident the book will more than pay for itself once we get in the thick of things.

But what about asking our families for money for the wedding? TheKnot.com recently unveiled its 2010 wedding survey and found that one in 5 brides is spending more than $30,000 on their wedding, and 12% of brides are spending more than $40,000. Historically, my parents would host and be the ones footing the entire ceremony and reception costs. But I'm the anti-bride, and as such we're planning on covering all the costs ourselves.

Frankly, we don't think it's even appropriate to bring up the M word (Money, not Marriage) to our families. My fiancé and I are financially independent and not having family money in the mix allows us to make wedding plans with complete freedom. My guidebook says our way is, in fact, the "cleanest twist we can take."

But everyone's situation is different. I just read a wonderfully written piece in TabletMagazine about a 27-year-old single woman who actually had a "wedding fund" set aside for her. But with no marriage in sight and a heap of student loans compromising her ability to save, she bravely asked her mother if her "wedding fund" could instead go towards her debt. It's a must-read.

So, what is the proper etiquette? Should my fiancé and I, despite my anti-bride tendencies, ask our families for some financial aid? "It's always a conversation worth having," says Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and wedding etiquette expert at The Emily Post Institute. She says that it's worth an initial discussion no matter what your circumstances - whether it's your first or second marriage; whether you are an older couple, or planning to pay everything on your own, or the last to get married in your family. "Sometimes it's not about the money. It's about parents wanting to do this for their children," says Post. (Check out fellow MW blogger Kathy Kristof's piece: "Wedding Rules for Parents: 8 Dos and Don'ts.")

And who knows? Perhaps this is something mom and dad have already been saving for. "Money and tradition are a very interesting intersection," says Post. "On the one hand, there's the practicality of being able to pay for a wedding yourself, and there's some sense to that. However I understand parents wanting to do this one last thing for their child. You just don't know. All families are different and their expectation around money versus tradition is a very complex formula."

Complex, indeed. Here is more of my conversation with Post on the etiquette of asking family for money for your big day.

Q: How does one even start the conversation?

A: First, ask to have the conversation. Don't spring it on [your mother] in the kitchen. Ask, "When would be a good time to talk to you and dad about whether or not you'd like to cover the cost for the wedding?" Ask first if they would like to contribute, not how much. And don't expect them to have the money right on the spot. Tell your parents to take some time to think about it because weddings can be expensive.

Q: Traditionally the bride's side of the family pays for the reception. But these days should the couple just approach both sides and ask about whether they'd like to contribute?

A: Here's the order of operations: Talk with your fiancé(e) to see what his or her feelings are and what you both can contribute. Maybe you think you can pay for it all. From there, approach the bride's parents -- whether they are together or divorced -- and then go to the groom's parents afterward, but not long afterwards. If possible, you could approach all sides together at once.

Q: So let's say it's decided that the bride's family will pay 50% of the costs. The couple will pay the rest. Who gets final say on wedding details?

A: It's a compromise. At the end of the day, it is the bride and groom's day. That said, they can't ask for things that disrespect the actual budget. You can't hold someone hostage just because [he or she is] paying. When you're accepting someone's help you at least have to listen and consider their ideas and always respect the limits of their budget.

Q: What if, say, you're a female with three sisters, all who've gotten married with the financial help of your parents. You're older, not sure if you're getting married anytime soon. Should you even expect your parents to contribute to your wedding?

A: You could certainly talk to your parents now and ask: "Should I start saving separately?" The thing about money is that things can happen in the family that changes the circumstances of what they can do for one child over another. If mom and dad had all their money in the stock market when one daughter got married in 2005 and you plan to get married in 2011, those are very different circumstances. My hope is that they'd want to help and contribute equally to all daughters. But much of this comes down to family circumstances and politics.

Q: Any parting advice?

A: Tradition is such an interesting factor in these money decisions. The biggest thing to remember is that, at the end of the day, when anyone contributes in any way -- be it a house, a rehearsal dinner -- don't think of it as something that's required or owed to you. Just appreciate it. That is the best attitude.

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    Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv and on Twitter at @farnoosh.

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