Don’t be fooled by wedding costs

Will Oremus / Slate /

Published Jun 30, 2013 at 05:00AM

NEW YORK — Weddings are expensive. There’s no way around it. Well, maybe one. But for most couples, eloping doesn’t start to seem like a really good idea until you’re neck-deep in the wedding planning process, and by then it’s too late.

Just how expensive are they? It depends, of course, on three factors: where you get married, how many people you invite, and whether you or anyone in your immediate family is the sort of person who can’t imagine a celebration without Chiavari chair covers. But when you’re starting to plan a wedding and trying to get a rough idea of how severely it is likely to dent your bank account, “it depends” isn’t a very helpful answer. So my fiancée and I did what most couples do: We asked Google how much the typical wedding costs.

The answer from all quarters — wedding sites, credible news outlets, the New York Post — is remarkably consistent, precise and definitive. It is also grossly misleading, and almost certainly wrong.

“Average wedding cost $28,400 last year,” reports CNN Money. “Average U.S. wedding costs $27,000!!” enthuses the New York Daily News. “Average cost of U.S. wedding hits $27,021,” declares Reuters, which should know better. That’s more than just expensive. For a lot of people, it’s prohibitive.

These reports often point out that the national average doesn’t tell you everything, because the average cost in some states is much higher than in others. In New York City, for instance, the average cost is an eye-popping $76,687, according to CNN Money. Say “I do” in Alaska, and the figure plummets to $15,504.

But even accounting for regional variation, these numbers seem exorbitant. And the New York number is positively Gatsby-esque. My fiancée and I always knew we were not particularly well-off by Empire State standards, but we couldn’t believe that our fellow Manhattanites were shelling out a sum that exceeds our combined annual salaries on a single decadent day’s worth of nuptial festivities.

In fact, most of them aren’t — and nor is the typical American couple dropping $28,000 on a wedding, or anything particularly close to that number. So why does everyone report this number like it’s a fact?

The first problem with the figure is what statisticians call selection bias. One of the most extensive surveys, and perhaps the most widely cited, is the “Real Weddings Study” conducted each year by TheKnot.com and Wedding Channel.com. (It’s the sole source for the Reuters and CNN Money stories, among others.) They survey some 20,000 brides per annum, an impressive figure. But all of them are drawn from the sites’ own online membership, surely a more gung-ho group than the brides who don’t sign up for wedding websites, let alone those who lack regular Internet access. Similarly, Brides magazine’s “American Wedding Study” draws solely from that glossy Condé Nast publication’s subscribers and website visitors. So before they do a single calculation, the big wedding studies have excluded the poorest and the most low-key couples from their samples. This isn’t intentional, but it skews the results nonetheless.

But an even bigger problem with the average wedding cost is right there in the phrase itself: the word “average.” You calculate an average, also known as a mean, by adding up all the figures in your sample and dividing by the number of respondents. So if you have 99 couples who spend $10,000 apiece, and just one ultra-wealthy couple splashes $1 million on a lavish Big Sur affair, your average wedding cost is almost $20,000 — even though virtually everyone spent far less than that. What you want, if you’re trying to get an idea of what the typical couple spends, is not the average but the median. That’s the amount spent by the couple that’s right smack in the middle of all couples in terms of its spending. In the example above, the median is $10,000 — a much better yardstick for any normal couple trying to figure out what they might need to spend.

I don’t blame TheKnot.com or Brides for publishing these figures. But the media is doing a disservice by parroting them without a hint of context or skepticism. At times the results border on the absurd. Witness the Huffington Post article that breathlessly reports, “Average Wedding Cost Exceeds Median Income in U.S.,” without ever pausing to ask how that could possibly be the case.

There are a lot of sites and publications, TheKnot.com included, that offer excellent tips for saving money on your wedding. And once you realize that the typical American wedding costs closer to $15,000 than $30,000, it becomes that much easier to say “no” to things you don’t need and embrace the expenses that are important to you. My fiancée and I realized this a little late in the game, and ended up spending more than we would have liked. But we’re still paying less than half of the reported average for our chosen location, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the wedding will be beautiful.

There’s nothing wrong with spending 28 G’s in 24 hours if you’ve got the means. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that there’s anything average about it.

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