Couple doing a selfie at wedding
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Weddings are a day for celebration and love, but they can be a giant drain on the wallets of everyone involved. While it’s well-known that weddings are costly for the marrying couple, it’s often overlooked just how hard these celebrations hit the budgets of invited guests.

We examined how Americans say they deal with the expensive nature of being a wedding guest.  Bankrate’s latest study on navigating the costs of wedding season finds that nearly one-in-five respondents have declined a wedding invitation because they couldn’t afford to go.

The results also show that the total cost of attending a wedding is putting pressure on areas beyond guests’ wallets, too. Nearly one-third of those respondents who turned down a wedding invite due to affordability say it has damaged friendships along the way — admitting that declining the RSVP did slightly or greatly have a negative effect on their relationship with the couple.

True cost of weddings: It can strain budgets — and relationships

In 2018, the average wedding topped a mountainous cost of $33,931, according to wedding site The Knot. That figure includes everything from the venue to favors, and even the cost for an officiant to oversee the ceremony.

Attendants are often asked to spend a great deal of money on wedding-related expenses. According to a separate 2018 Bankrate study, wedding guests spent an average of $628 on the wedding and associated pre-parties for close friends and families. Considering most Americans don’t have even $1,000 in their savings, this can be a tough reality to handle.

Zaida Habe, a 23-year-old barista in Orlando, Florida, recently spent $1,300 to attend her closest friend’s wedding. That number included chipping in for a bridal shower and going on a bachelorette trip.

At one point during the engagement process, Habe wasn’t sure if she would be able to cover all of the costs. The bride threatened to remove her from the bridal party if Habe “couldn’t pull together some more money to keep up.” Habe admits it put a strain on their relationship, but eventually they were able to salvage their friendship.

“I’m still catching up on all the money I had to put toward wedding costs and not my bills,” Habe says. “We are still friends, but we had to come to an understanding that she’s asking for a lot even though it’s her big day.”

Factors that influence wedding gift spending

Around 30 percent of respondents in the study say travel expenses would influence them to spend less on a gift for the newlyweds.

“Weddings are expensive — from travel and accommodations to attire and gifts, it all adds up,” says Lauren Kay, executive editor of The Knot. “Guests who have to travel to celebrate spend on average $901.”

Bridal parties play a big factor in wedding guest costs, too. Those closest to the bride or groom often find themselves shelling out cash for engagement parties, bachelor or bachelorette activities, attire and more. A little more than one-fifth of study respondents say bridal party expenses influence them to spend less on a gift.

The majority of respondents say attending the wedding of a couple who is not family or a very close friend influences spending on a gift the most, with 57 percent of total respondents confessing they would consider spending less in this situation.

Another big factor for gift spending? If it isn’t the couple’s first trip to the altar, some guests are likely to spend less on a gift. More than one-third of survey respondents, or 37 percent, say they’ll spend less on a gift if both or either of the bride or groom have been married before.

If you end up not attending a wedding, would you still choose to send a gift? More than half of the respondents surveyed, or 57 percent, say yes they would send one to the newly married couple — and would give the same gift as if they attended.

How much is too much to be part of a bridal party?

Expectations for spending on a bridal party varied across the board. When asked how much was too much to spend to be a bridesmaid, 28 percent of respondents said $500 to less than $1,000 was excessive. Meanwhile, 27 percent said less than $250 was too much and 12 percent felt that $250 to less than $500 was over their preferred spending limit.

For higher amounts, the results also varied: 18 percent said $1,000 to less than $2,000; 5 percent said $2,000 to less than $5,000; 4 percent said $5,000-plus and 6 percent refused to answer.

Younger people, however, had contrasting viewpoints on what constituted excessive bridal party costs than their older counterparts. About one-third of both Gen X and Boomers who took part in the study say $500 to less than $1,000 is too much to spend to be part of a bridal party.

The most common response for millennials when asked how much is too much to spend to be in a bridal party was $500 to less than $1,000 (27 percent); 23 percent of the generation said less than $250 was too much.

Generation Z sided closely with the Silent Generation when it came to what’s reasonable to spend as a bridesmaid. The majority for both generations said spending less than $250 is too costly.

Jennifer Spector, a brand strategist at online wedding registry company Zola, says money spent in a bridal party typically depends on each individual situation.

“If the wedding is local, it’s okay to go a bit crazier when it comes to the other festivities,” Spector says. “But if you’re also asking your wedding party to travel to your wedding, I would keep budget more top of mind for other events.”

“Budgeting is a really personal decision, so it’s important to be upfront with your wedding party about what they will be expected to pay for as part of your wedding celebration,” Spector advises.

Paying for destination wedding travel costs

Wedding destinations are becoming increasingly more popular. According to The Knot’s Real Weddings study, the most recent data available, 23 percent of weddings in 2018 were destination weddings.

But when it comes down to who should be paying for the costs, most Americans say the couple should be footing the bill.

The study found 56 percent of respondents say it’s in poor taste for a couple to plan a ceremony where guests incurred all travel expenses to attend; 43 percent said it was acceptable and one percent didn’t respond.

Experts polled by Bankrate agree; 100 percent of the nine experts we asked say couples shouldn’t even expect their closest friends and family to attend a destination wedding where guests will incur travel expenses.

Anne Chertoff, chief operating officer of Beaumont Etiquette, says couples throwing destination weddings should be realistic in their expectations of guests. Not only does this include potentially assisting with cost, but it also includes accepting that not everyone can afford to attend.

“Couples should give guests enough notice that they can make travel plans and take off time for work, as well as find childcare if necessary, in order to ensure that their close family and friends can attend the wedding,” Chertoff says. “A couple should also realize that not everyone may be able to attend for logistical as well as budget reasons.”

[READ: 5 of the world’s most lavish destination wedding venues]

3 ways to save on costs while attending a wedding

Although most experts agree that declining a wedding invite is acceptable, some invitees may still feel pressured to attend.

If the cost of attending a wedding is giving consumers anxiety, there are ways they can make the hit on their wallets a bit lighter.

Try these tips to make your wedding guest experience more manageable:

1. Give cash or a check

According to the study, 88 percent of respondents say giving a cash or check as a wedding gift is acceptable. In doing so, you are in control of how much you are spending on a gift — and you can build the rest of your budget around the cost.

“Honeymoon and cash funds are now the norm!” Zola says. “If you aren’t comfortable giving a check or an envelope of cash consider contributing to the couple’s cash fund on their registry.”

2. Be smart with extraneous costs

There are plenty of ways to save on accommodation costs while traveling for a wedding. Kay says wedding guests should always double check if the couple has a hotel block with special rates, or to consider renting out an Airbnb with fellow friendly guests to save on costs.

When it comes down to what you choose to wear, it’s also important to be strategic with how much you choose to spend.

“Instead of splurging on a new outfit, consider renting your attire from sites like Rent The Runway or The Black Tux,” Kay says. “Or purchase some new accessories to give a second life to already owned attire.”

3. Split the cost of a gift with a group

Going with a gift should depend on your budget. However, if you find yourself racking up costs on other wedding purchases, like for a dress or accessories, and worry your gift will fall flat as a result, consider going in on a group gift with other guests.

“This allows guests to get something special and greatly desired by the to-be-weds that’s more substantial than if each of them purchased smaller gifts,” Kay says.

How to turn down a wedding invite gracefully when you can’t afford to go

Saying no to a wedding invite can be a tricky situation to navigate — but it doesn’t have to be. Experts agree that invitees have every right to decline an invite, especially if cost is a major factor in being unable to attend.

Giving a graceful invitation decline can go a long way in maintaining a positive relationship with the couple. For example, picking up the phone and calling to decline can be much more meaningful than sending regrets via mail — or not giving a response at all.

“Don’t make up an excuse, be honest about the reason, and tell them as soon as they know they can’t attend,” says Chertoff. “A guest may still want to send a gift, and offer to make plans to celebrate with the newlyweds at a later date.”

And remember: A wedding is a special day to celebrate a couple’s union. It needn’t be defined by lavish gifts or a big splurge — you can celebrate the moment without breaking your wallet, whether that be at the wedding or in a separate, intimate gathering with the newlyweds.

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Methodology

The study was conducted online in Ipsos’ Omnibus using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. The sample consists of 1,000 nationally representative interviews, conducted between February 22-24, 2019 among adults aged 18+. The margin of error for the full sample is +/-3 percentage points.