Friday, January 30, 2009

Weddings, money, and family: Advice to parents

There is no shortage of books, magazines, and websites aimed at brides. There are even a few aimed at grooms. But what about the parents of the happy couple -- also known as "the people likely to be footing at least part of the bill"?

After composing my last post, I realized there was an unexplored flip side: advice to parents who may or may not be paying for the wedding. So here is my attempt to address that group, with Bride in Exile's Tips for Parents on (Relatively) Stress-Free Wedding Planning. (Note: I've written this largely as if it's directed to the mother of the bride and the couple is heterosexual, but I think the advice could apply to all parents and step-parents of any couple getting married.)

If you are helping to pay, make your expectations -- and your intended contribution -- clear at the beginning.

Think about the aspects of the wedding that are important to you, the things you consider “non-negotiable” given that you are paying for this shindig, and make sure the bride and groom know about them. Do you want to be able to invite your entire extended family, including third cousins the couple has never met? Tell the bride and groom up front, before they fall in love with a reception site that has a 50-person maximum. Do you hate buffet receptions and want a plated, seated dinner instead? Don’t spring it on the couple after they’ve signed a catering contract. When you offer financial support, tell them “We would love to contribute $x to the wedding fund, with the understanding that you will invite these people/hold the ceremony at our church/rent nice chairs for the reception [hi, Mom!].”

Small digression here: if you are not going to do much of the planning yourself, it is much better to tell the couple a dollar amount that you're comfortable with contributing than to say something vague like "just let us know what you need." What you think the wedding should cost may not line up perfectly with what the couple thinks the wedding will cost. Never be vague about money, it only leads to misunderstandings.

OK. You've decided on your contribution, and you've told the couple what you expect from them if you are going to pay. Now, here comes the hard part: if the couple doesn’t like your requirements, they may decline your financial help. That will probably sting, and you may feel rejected and cut out of the planning. That’s understandable. But try to focus on the good: this means your son or daughter is mature enough to be honest about what they want, and also mature enough to assume the cost of doing what they want. Which means you've done something right in the parenting department!

Even if you are paying, you should still be willing to compromise.
You may think you've covered all your bases up front, but other issues will almost certainly come up during the planning. For example, it may not occur to you to mention that you think hydrangeas are ugly and you don’t want to serve fish for dinner – until your daughter tells you all of the flowers will be hydrangeas and suggests menu choices of salmon and tuna.

When these little clashes of taste or style do arise, your first thought may be, “No way. It’s my money, and I don't want my friends and family sitting in a room full of hydrangeas and eating fish!” And honestly, that’s not entirely crazy. It is your money and you want some say in how it’s spent.

But wedding planning will be much smoother and more harmonious if you listen to what the couple wants too. It may be your money and you may be the hostess, but it's their wedding and they are the guests of honor at the reception. If you veto everything the couple suggests without a second thought, you will be resented, and rightfully so. Pick your battles (e.g., say "OK" to the hydrangeas but push for a different menu) and don't use your money as a weapon, unless you want the couple to call from Vegas with the announcement that they couldn't deal anymore and eloped.

Be realistic about costs.
$5,000 will pay for an absolutely lovely wedding. But in 2009, it will not get you a plated, seated dinner for 200 people at the local country club. Some of the most stressful wedding planning experiences I’ve seen involved parents turning over the planning to the couple, and then complaining that the couple’s choices were “cheap” or “not very nice” and pushing for more expensive options that simply were not in reach of the budget. If having fancier, more formal touches at your child’s wedding is incredibly important to you, be prepared to cover the additional expense.

The same goes for the guest list. It's a basic equation of wedding planning: more guests = more food, more chairs, more alcohol, more cake, more rentals = more money. Please do not get on the phone with the bride and tell her you're sure she can squeeze in 50 extra people if she "just budgets a little bit better," unless your intention is to drive her insane and/or goad her into attacking you with a grapefruit spoon.

If you are convinced the couple is spending their budget foolishly, ask to see their catering bids, facility contracts, and other relevant research – you may be surprised to find that food, facilities, and flowers really are that expensive, and that your son or daughter has made smart, cost-conscious choices. Or, if it turns out the couple is spending a lot of cash in areas where you think they could cut back, looking at their budget information will help you come up with constructive and specific suggestions for how you'd like to change things up, e.g., “Tina, Frank, I noticed that you chose surf and turf as the entrĂ©e. That sounds delicious, but it’s also the most expensive option on the menu. If we went with a different entree, we could afford to invite more people.”

If you are not helping to pay, do not make demands.
This applies whether your financial help was declined or you simply couldn’t afford to contribute. You can certainly ask if your cousin Mary and her children could be added to the guest list, or if the couple would be willing to add a beef option to the menu. But if the couple says “we’re sorry, we can’t afford any more guests” or “having a vegetarian reception is very important to us, we don’t want to serve beef,” thank them for considering your request and leave it at that. Do not start screaming about how you will be "humiliated" by their "ridiculous hippie reception," because that will get you nowhere. And if the couple says "we can't afford that," don't belittle them for being "cheap" or try to guilt them into spending beyond their means -- no, not even if you're doing so in the name of scoring invitations for 30 family members who "have" to be on the guest list. It's a wedding, not the last chopper off that scary island on "Lost." Your cousin's children will get over their emotional trauma if they are not invited.

What other advice should we give the parental half of the planning equation?

1 comment:

Abbie said...

Since no one else commented... amen.