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SuperMoney Guest Post: How Modern Wedding Budgets Compare to The 1930s

By Andrew Latham

“Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, A Sixpence in your Shoe” — Victorian wedding rhyme.

Finding something borrowed for your outfit shouldn’t be difficult when one in three couples pay for their wedding expenses with a credit card.

It’s no surprise that so many people get into debt to pay for their big day. Weddings are not just expensive; they are practically an industry in their own right. In the United States alone, weddings generated $72 billion in sales in 2016, according to IbisWorld’s 2016 Wedding Services Market Research Report. That’s the national budget of Ukraine, Kenya, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico combined (source).

Think about that for a second. American couples blew in one day what three governments spend on 106 million citizens in an entire year. Have Americans always spent so much on their wedding day? The answer will probably surprise you.

Are couples spending more on weddings?

Yes and no. We are certainly spending more than our parents and great-grandparents spent on weddings. But that doesn’t mean weddings were cheap back in the day. In 1945, the average couple would fork out $2,240. If you adjust for inflation, that is the equivalent of $30,483.

In 1990, the average was $15,200. However, the average cost of a wedding has dropped by $1,012 since 2007, when it peaked at $28,732.

Finding reliable statistics for the cost of weddings before 1990 is not easy. It’s not that people, particularly the rich, didn’t spend big bucks on weddings, but more so that the wedding industry was not as organized as it is now. So, you’re not going to find the wealth of market research available today.

One study that does shed some light on the cost of weddings in the 1930s is a survey carried out by University of Illinois professor of sociology, B.F. Timmons. The report was published in 1939 in the American Sociological Review and looks at the wedding expenses of 154 couples.

As Timmons said back in 1939, “there is little information on the cost of weddings in this country, and little, but common-sense, knowledge about the ceremonial usage connected with weddings. Both of these matters seem worthy of research.”


First, some caveats. The couples in Timmons’ study were mainly friends and relatives of Timmons’ students. So, they are mostly people in Illinois and nearby states. Timmons explains that “none of the couples could be classed as wealthy or as very poor.” Whatever that means coming from a University professor.

In other words, the study is biased toward middle-class Midwestern couples and is probably not representative of the entire country. However, it does give an interesting snapshot of wedding expenses in the 1930s.

It’s also worth noting that wedding surveys are probably even more biased than Timmons small survey. Today, most wedding surveys focus on big spenders. Frugal couples don’t usually join fancy wedding planning websites or make it on wedding reports that survey businesses in the wedding industry.

I chose the data for this article because it is an actual market research agency and not a wedding planning site. Their survey is less skewed toward wealthy couples, and it’s not just a click-bait gimmick. They make money from providing detailed data to businesses that serve the wedding industry.

How much did Americans spend on weddings in the 1930s?

The average overall cost of a wedding in Timmons study was $392.20. That’s a lot of money when you consider the median family income in 1935 was $1,160, and the average annual family savings was $11 (source). Once you consider inflation, $392.20 is about $6,873 in today’s money.

Source: American Sociological Association 1939.

Just as today, wedding budgets varied widely from couple to couple. One of the couples in the study spent only $7 on their wedding– $2 on the license and $5 on the officiant. That’s what I call frugal. On the other extreme, one couple spent $1,927 on their wedding. That is $34,719 in today’s dollars, which is very close to the average cost reported by some surveys in 2016.

The average cost for a wedding dress in the 1933-37 survey was $55.36, just under a $1,000 in today’s dollars. That is about $100 more than the average bride spends on a dress today.

The cost of wedding rings hasn’t changed all that much either– $604 (adjusted for inflation) vs. $991.

The big changes are in the cost of catering and renting the venue. In 1935, the average cost of the reception was $541 (adjusted), while in 2016 the average was $6,044 – once you include bar service, food service, venue, and venue rentals.

Another difference is that extravagant weddings are more common today.

“My luxury client in New York City averages a wide range depending on quantity of guests and location. In New York City, on average, my clients spend approximately $1,200 per guest. If my client has 250 guests, that would be $300,000. This includes everything, including my planning fee,” says Jessica Jordan, the owner of a high-end event planning company based in Manhattan.

How are people paying for these weddings?

Loans and credit cards are popular.

“We’ve seen a HUGE increase in people using credit cards for weddings. A few years ago, most payments were made out in full through checks, but now, about 50-60% ask if they can pay on credit cards. I know ours and other vendor services have gone up about 10% over the years, but people are still fine with the prices,” says Brandon, the owner of Uptown Down Entertainment.

Should you get a loan to pay for your wedding expenses?

It is definitely best to pay for weddings with savings. Debt is certainly not the best way to start a marriage. However, for many, paying a little interest is worth it if they can have the wedding of their dreams or invite more friends to their big day.

If you go that route, make sure you compare rates and terms.

These are just a few insights of SuperMoney’s Guide to Wedding Costs.

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