Add the word ‘wedding’ into any service or product and the price suddenly shoots up. You’ve probably seen the undercover research, as this Huffpost article dives into.
A reporter gets a quote for an anniversary party or family gathering. They call back and make the same inquiry except for a wedding and the price goes up, even doubling or tripling.
Many reporters and brides anecdotally see this markup as an unfair tax by greedy vendors who are simply playing on the ‘once in a lifetime’ dream. While that may happen with the odd unscrupulous vendor, I can assure you as a professional within the wedding industry, there is no price-fixing or inflation beyond market value.
My contention is that weddings can and should come at a higher price tag than other types of events, be they family gatherings, parties or corporate events. There’s complex economics at play here, that we’ll dive into.
When a vendor charges more for a wedding it reflects an incomparably higher level of service. Throw into the mix complex logistics, sky-high expectations, unlimited contact spanning months or years, and the limited number of wedding dates in a year, and you’ve got just a few of the reasons why weddings are so expensive.
In this article, I aim to shed a little more light on the economics and reasons behind the so-called ‘wedding tax’. Wedding products and services do cost more. And after you read this article, I hope you’ll agree that that’s exactly how it should be. Let’s dive in.
Much higher level of service and time involved
The main reason why weddings cost more is the huge amount of time each client takes up.
As a wedding photographer, I am one of the first vendors to be booked, typically right after the venue. My relationship with the client begins when they are newly engaged and might last for 2.5 years.
Like many other photographers, I create the client’s wedding timeline. Also I collaborate with each client on every aspect of their wedding. I field questions about what would work best logistically and for photos.
I’ll do site visits with some couples, have multiple meetings, calls and exchange dozens or hundreds of emails. I’ll check in at strategic points before the big day. This is an addition to ad hoc duties that clients throw my way – many prior to even making a booking.
I’ve had clients emailing with bartending emergencies, asking me what color suit they should buy, and requesting my arguments for and against LED balloons.
But I’m able to help every one of these clients because I know that this is part of the service I’m offering. These consultations are built into the price for most vendors.
“Unlike other parties, weddings are supposed to feel unique, personal, and completely seamlessly executed. It’s a lot of effort and pressure for all those doing the legwork.”
Premium quality of product and premium equipment required
Nothing can stop the vendor’s service being rendered or our product making it safely to your wedding. We need to make sure that everything is top-notch and won’t fail on the day.
Everything is going to be scrutinized by hundreds of people, both at the event and then forever memorialized afterward.
A DJ needs to have top of the line equipment that won’t fail because a drunk uncle spilled his drink all over the decks.
A florist needs to make sure that her supplier for those special, out-of-season blooms a client has her heart set on, won’t flunk on her.
A photographer carries 2 camera bodies with 2 different lenses. They’ll also have with them another 2 camera bodies as backups in case of breakage or failure.
For a non-wedding event, it might be OK to cut a few corners by using more basic equipment. After all, no-one’s going to be thinking back to that conference for the rest of their lives.
Much higher stakes mean no redos, more pressure and extreme emotion
Come hell or high water, we have to be sure that we’ll do everything we can do make things perfect. A lot of this you will never even see as it happens behind the scenes. This high assurance comes with a price tag.
Technically speaking, there is no redo of any event. If a vendor messes up a conference or a birthday party, the damage is done.
But we’re not just talking about ‘getting the job done to the client’s satisfaction’. We’re dealing with a lifetime of expectation. Some of our clients have been dreaming about the best day of their life since they were old enough to understand what a wedding was.
Whether you’re getting married for the first time or the third time, it makes little difference. A wedding is still and always will be an extremely important life event. It doesn’t happen every day or every year. It symbolizes the union of two people promising the rest of their lives to each other, and we must do it justice.
Hopefully, you’ll get a sense of the enormous pressure that every wedding vendor goes through. It’s in a league of its own and certainly not the same as shooting a family session or birthday party.
Weddings are stressful events. A vendor who has little experience with weddings can make it that much worse. This Racked article explains,
Weddings aren’t “just” parties, they are, we’re told, ultimate dream fantasies, and they are priced that way whether or not you want an ultimate fantasy yourself.
The number of people involved means complex logistics and greater costs
The planner may need an assistant or two, the photo and video team may need two or three shooters.
Serving staff will be numerous and highly trained if you want all your guests to be eating at the same time. A band isn’t going to split the amount you would pay a solo performer.
Sometimes though, you will not see the logistics behind the scenes. You may not see the hordes of people that make your wedding dream a reality. Kitchen helpers, production lines, teams working away to bring your day to life.
When it takes more people to pull off what the client has in mind, it costs more.
Even simple photography businesses have to outsource as the editing is so time-consuming. Photographers deliver hundreds or even thousands of images per wedding. Each image must be edited to a high standard of excellence.
Vendors are simply charging their worth, with a limited number of available dates
Early on in my career, I couldn’t pay people to have me shoot their wedding. Any inquiry that came my way was so exciting and unbelievable, I could have burst.
Once a wedding vendor has proven themselves, their services become in demand. The rate for their services becomes established. If they continue to do good work, their rate increases with each wedding season.
This amount is hardly plucked out of the air, but is simply the dollar amount at which they’re able to book. They have one happy client after another who got enormous value for the vendor’s services.
When you commission a wedding vendor for your wedding, you are asking them to turn down every other potential booking that comes their way.
A photographer like myself charges for their time and unique and specialized skill. It is valuable but cannot be sold to another client at a moment’s notice.
To cap it off, consider that the vast majority of people want a Saturday wedding. The day should be in a season when it’s sunny but not too hot, not too cold or wet. That puts a serious cap on how many opportunities a vendor has to make the income they’ll need for the year.
Huge emphasis on every detail being just perfect
There are certain ideas about weddings that proliferate. They catch fire due to social media and trends in society. However, what’s missing from all those Pinterest boards and curated Instagram feeds is any idea of cost.
All those impeccably styled shoots took hours to photograph, feature professional models and use impossibly perfect lighting. The expectation may not line up with the reality of their wedding.
There aren’t any other types of event where every detail is agonized over so much. From the exact height of the centerpieces, to how the shade of the bridesmaids’ dresses works with the table linens.
When you go book a restaurant for a party, you pay zero attention to the color of the napkins. However, even the most low-maintenance bride is still concerned with details.
Weddings often seem disproportionately expensive because of unrealistic budgets
This is always a tough one, because I feel it’s almost a universal truth that weddings go over budget. The truth is, couples don’t know how much all the various parts of the wedding actually cost.
If the figure you have in mind for a decent meal is $20 per head (because that would buy a decent meal in a restaurant, right?) prepare to be shocked! Wedding catering costs are not comparable to eating out at a restaurant.
To borrow an analogy from this article by One Fab Day, imagine taking everyone you know out to a lavish meal with an open tab at the bar. Now you’re also paying to use the venue for the entire day and decorating every inch of it. You’re wearing the most expensive dress of your life and paying full-time professionals to plan, photograph and video the whole thing!
As this article on Every Last Detail points out, the more guests you have, the more you’ll spend. Simple, really.
Unrealistic budgets are another reason some wedding vendors don’t reveal their pricing. That’s right, not even an average or ‘starting at’ range.
Why do some vendors not reveal any pricing information? Well, the sticker shock can deter searchers before the vendor has a chance to explain their value. Part of the vendor’s job is to to educate the client about what’s a reasonable price for what they’re seeking.
This Bustle article lifts the lid on some of the sales techniques taught to vendors. It encourages ‘when a bride or groom asks for prices, STALL’. A little unscrupulous? Maybe. But some vendors use this technique to hook clients in by emotional means.
Decisions often made by committee
Not only are decisions made by committees of family members but they often change many times. Sometimes couples have warring parents who come directly to us, putting us in a tricky position.
Parents may be paying for our services, but have not been part of the decision-making process. They are baffled about pricing because, let’s face it, things have changed since they got married. Our prices and value are not clear to them. This can mean a rocky start to the process of working with them.
Sure, we could ask for one clear decision-maker or CEO, but in reality that is just not what would happen. In all honesty that would also sound pretty demanding of us!
Weddings are emotionally charged events in which everyone wants their opinion heard. You’ve got large sums of money on the table, complex family dynamics and firmly-held beliefs on all sides. An inexperienced vendor may be out their depth.
Economics of dealing with nightmare clients
In an ideal world, we would draw strict parameters around what our services include. There would be a baseline price, then every additional email, phone call and meeting would be charged for.
In the real world, this would be counterproductive to fostering relationships with our clients. We want our clients to lean on us and invite us into their private world of wedding planning. That is how we can help them and demonstrate our value. I take a lot of pride in this.
However, there are those few clients who are particularly demanding of our time. They take up a disproportionate amount of energy. (And yes, big surprise, they are also the ones who want a discount. This is one reason I rarely ever choose to work with couples who ask for them!)
Wedding vendor prices are in place to subsidize those few high maintenance clients.
No, it isn’t sexy to talk about bridezillas but the economics behind this one makes perfect sense.
Market-based pricing, not cost-based pricing
There is a need for the specialized economic good that a wedding DJ, caterer or planner provides. Going back to the idea of vendors ‘charging what they’re worth’, the simple fact is that the market has spoken.
Cost-based pricing would be like selling at a bake sale and trying to cover the costs of your ingredients.
A skilled, experienced wedding cake-maker would not simply expect to cover her costs plus a tiny mark-up.
She expects to be paid what her services are worth to the highest bidder. Not everyone will afford it, but she’s not trying to book everyone. After all, she can only service one client per weekend. Each client has got to be worth her while.
If the market values her services enough, then she will book enough clients to create a viable, sustainable business.
The value a skilled wedding vendor brings pays for itself
Specialized knowledge equals value. When you need a great quality service, you book someone who is great at doing that one thing. If someone you know has cancer, would you seek advice from an oncologist, a general practitioner or a med student?
Sure, there’s always a cost reason to go for the cheaper option. The generalist is pretty competent, and the student seems very promising.
Weddings might not be life and death in the same way, but they are complex, important, emotional events. They may have a lifetime’s worth of expectations riding on the back of them.
If a vendor can prove their value and help to execute a wedding vision flawlessly, that is truly a value-add.
A great planner, DJ, florist or photographer can help you in ways that you didn’t know were possible while making it seem effortless.
Would you book a wedding planner that has no connections in the wedding industry? Of course not, you’d want someone that’s spent their career creating connections and building up a bank of knowledge.
Weddings have always been a status symbol and a luxury
In times past, weddings were a signal of wealth that would symbolize a new couple’s formation. The opulence or otherwise of the celebrations would set the tone for their standing in society.
Nowadays weddings are shifting away from family pressure and are a reflection of the couple’s values.
However the fact remains that weddings are still a luxury. Maybe in a different way, but still they are a luxury not a necessity.
The vendors that a marrier commissions operate in the ‘luxury goods/ services’ category. Fixing your car, plumbing your toilet or getting rid of a mouse infestation are not luxuries in quite the same way. Though, to be sure, every service has different price points related to quality.
So, let’s get back to basics. What do you actually need in order to get married? You need a marriage license, an officiant and a witness. It’s entirely possible to do this for under $150.
The flowers, cake, uplighting, centerpieces, dance lessons, signature cocktails, monogrammed napkins and white dress are all luxury extras. In fact, almost all weddings are a luxury.
People have a tendency to spend more than they should. Before long, the wedding has taken on a life of its own and the budget has taken on several zeros.
If you have the budget for a luxury wedding, that’s awesome. If not, you’ll need to have an honest chat with your partner about what you really want out of your wedding.
Weddings are too bespoke to suit a ‘one size fits all’ pricing model
Everything ‘wedding’ is becoming more bespoke, more personal. An out-of-the-box solution no longer appeals to today’s couples. Couples demand more options, more customization and greater collaboration from the vendor.
Many couples ask ‘can you do X, Y and Z?’ rather than ‘what do you offer that might fit our needs and budget?’ The distinction is subtle, but it’s there.
Vendors are dealing with more outlandish and offbeat requests than ever before. Tradition is going out the window, but the number of weddings keeps rising.
A common pet peeve of marriers is that vendors do not display their pricing. We touched on this before. Beyond it being an elaborate plot to spam you with dozens of emails until you break, there is even more to it.
With complex requests comes complex pricing. A vendor must take time to evaluate what’s required for a wedding before dropping dollar amounts. No vendor wants to build up a client’s hopes, only to disappoint them further down the line.
For photography, there may be one price for a City Hall elopement on Tuesday morning next week. And another price for an elaborate Saturday wedding in peak wedding season, 200 miles away and booked 18 months out.
Some distinctions such as this may be blindingly obvious! But there are many shades of gray and subtle factors that the client would have no reason ever to consider.
How to get non-wedding pricing
Use a student or someone looking to break into weddings
There are many vendors out there who are experienced at their craft but don’t have do weddings. (As an aside, the wedding market is super competitive and hard to break into).
Likewise many students will work at less than market rates if they can benefit from experience, portfolio pieces and referrals.
As a professional wedding vendor myself, I don’t love the idea of suggesting non-professionals. However, I do understand that budgets are real and something might have to give.
I hope though it’s obvious that you’ll have to do even more due diligence when using someone who is an unknown quantity.
Appeal to the vendor’s creative side and talk up how chill you are
Put yourself in the vendor’s shoes and ask what they would value from a client.
Saying that you truly trust their vision and will let them do their thing without interference is good. But also, be realistic.
It’s normal you’ll need to correspond with each vendor and communicate openly. It’s a natural part of a collaborative relationship.
Make sure you don’t put out any red flags!
Negotiate by leveraging something you have that’s of value to the vendor
Do you have a YouTube channel with 500k subscribers? Are you an Instagram influencer? Are you the owner of a business that has a natural segway with weddings? Or do you have an enormous family, 20 bridesmaids who just got engaged and a huge social network?
If there’s something that you can offer in exchange for a reduced rate, that may be valuable to some vendors.
Be creative! Is your wedding truly one-of-a-kind? Do you think the vendor would honestly love to have it in their portfolio? Did you see the vendor posting online that they’re dying to work on exactly the kind of wedding you’re having? Then appeal to that! Examples include adventure weddings, destination weddings, LGBTQ+ weddings, or a particular venue.
To wrap it all up
As I’ve mentioned, the wedding marketplace is extremely competitive. There are many excellent wedding vendors vying for your business. Make sure you commission the right professional for the job. Someone that’s honest, friendly and fits your vibe and vision. I know you know this, but… there are no redos on your wedding day!
The right professional will know exactly what to do in every scenario. They’ll offer time- and money-saving options along with the way and will be a pleasure to work with from start to finish.
I hope this article helped you to navigate the complex subject of wedding vendor pricing. That unfair ‘wedding tax’ seems to be unfairly preying on unwitting brides and grooms. However, as you can see, there’s a lot more to the subject than meets the eye.
More about Zoe Larkin Photography
You can find out more about me and my services here: Bay Area Wedding photographer – Info, pricing, about & portfolio and give me a follow on Insta here!
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