Think the Average Wedding Costs $30K? Here’s Why That’s Not True

average wedding cost

Been invited to a lot of weddings lately?

No surprise: We’re striding steadily toward peak wedding season, and love — or at least “I do” — is everywhere.

But in between dancing the Cha-Cha Slide and taking advantage of the open bar, you might find all those white party favors are turning your thoughts a little green.

No, I don’t mean with envy — although maybe that, too.

I’m talking money, honey, and how much of it we spend on getting hitched.

Weddings are Expensive — But How Expensive?

It’s pretty well-established that weddings are expensive. But it turns out some of our go-to figures for the “average” cost are bogus.

In fact, the amount most of us spend on our day of matrimonial bliss is probably orders of magnitude below the figure published by publications like The Knot every year.

That’s what Slate writer Will Oremus discovered when he crunched the numbers. Although his piece is a few years old, its findings hold true — and they’re super important for newlyweds-to-be.

Here’s why the “average” wedding cost is all wrong.

Selection Bias

First of all, that “average” cost you’re citing? To get it, someone (well, a lot of someones) had to self-report their expenses.

And the couples excited enough about their weddings to take part in that kind of survey are probably more willing — and able — to spend a decent chunk of change on their special day.

Almost all the “average wedding cost” data on the Internet — even the stuff published by names like Reuters and CNN Money — comes from the “Real Weddings Survey” conducted by The Knot and The Wedding Channel, writes Oremus.

That means those figures 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.

Just by virtue of the fact that this is the easiest way to get the figures, the studies inadvertently skew the numbers “before they do a single calculation.”

“The big wedding studies have excluded the poorest and the most low-key couples from their samples,” writes Oremus.

“This isn’t intentional, but it skews the results nonetheless.”

Mean vs. Median

The other problem with our go-to wedding cost benchmark?

The average of a given set is more easily skewed by an outlier than other statistics, like the median.

In case you’ve forgotten most of your sixth-grade math (like me), here’s a quick review:

The mean, or average, is what you get when you add together all the examples you’re talking about — in this case, all the self-reported wedding costs — and divide them by the number of examples.

I’ll let Oremus, who’s doubtless better than me at math, take over:

“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.”

($10,000 x 99) + $1 million  = $1,990,000. Divide that by the 100 couples who responded, and you get $19,900 — not exactly a representative figure, right?

But the median is the number smack-dab in the middle of a set — the one about which you could accurately say, “half of couples spent more, and half spent less, than this number.”

And as it turns out, the median wedding cost is much lower than the average. Here’s Oremus again, using The Knot’s numbers:

“In 2012, when the average wedding cost was $27,427, the median was $18,086. In 2011, when the average was $27,021, the median was $16,886. In Manhattan, where the widely reported average is $76,687, the median is $55,104. And in Alaska, where the average is $15,504, the median is a mere $8,440.”

I’m not saying $18,000 is a cheap soiree, but it’s a long shot from $30,000, right?

And bear in mind, these numbers still come from the affluent and enthusiastic people who do things like respond to wedding cost surveys.

Why Soon-to-Be Newlyweds Should Care

You may be thinking, “OK, so it’s not as high as I thought it was — but it’s still five figures and it’s still a huge expense. Who cares if the actual cost of most weddings is lower than I thought?”

Well, you should care, because the industry uses those numbers to price their services.

“Complain about a reception venue’s $250 ‘cake-cutting fee,’ or its $10,000 food and drink minimum, and you’ll be curtly informed that it’s standard in the industry,” writes Oremus.

“Photographers who charge $2,000 for an evening’s worth of snapshots point out that The Knot’s reported average is $2,379, so you’re actually saving $379.” (emphasis added)

And if you believe the “average” wedding should cost $32,641, as most recently reported by The Knot, the $13,000 you spend on your soiree will feel downright frugal — even though it’s still a giant sum.

Want to Save Money on Your Wedding?

Now that we’ve dispensed with the illusion your wedding should cost more than your first salary, here are some ways to get seriously frugal on your big day.

Here are 101 creative ways to save money on your wedding, which cover everything from the ring to decor.

Another creative idea? Put off your reception.

And while you’re waiting for the party, put these 20 gifts on your registry to save a ton of dough down the line.

After all, it’s not about the party, it’s about the person you love. And although it’s hard to come by, true love does have the perk of being 100% free.

Your Turn: What did YOU spend on your wedding?

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. If she ever gets married (doubtful), she’ll probably elope.