Wedding Bells

06.26.13

Always the Bridesmaid, Ever in Debt

It’s getting increasingly expensive to stand by your friend on her big day—even more so when you’re on every bride’s MVP list. How it adds up, and why it’s worth it.

It’s the moment she’s been waiting for: her boyfriend has finally taken to one knee and popped the question—and she said yes. And now she has a proposal for you: will you be my bridesmaid?

Weddings reign supreme in the category of major life celebrations; you prep, you photograph, and years later you bicker about who got left off the invite list. But they sure don’t come cheap—and young people are starting to ask themselves if the cost of a dress, accessories, gifts, and travel is worth it.

Footing the bill can prove especially difficult when you have more than one wedding on the docket. Serial bridesmaid Jessica learned this the hard way one summer when she was in three bridal parties and attended several other weddings, most of which required travel. That season, she says, is what racked up her “bridesmaid debt”—though she’s also been a maid in four other weddings, sang in three, read in a few more, and traveled for “a bunch.”

Mint.com estimated in 2011 that the average total cost of being a bridesmaid is a whopping $1,695—encompassing the dress ($150); travel to the wedding, shower, and bachelorette parties ($300 each); various gifts ($200); and all the odds and ends that accumulate along the way. If you have half a dozen pals who count you as one of their closest, those costs can be paralyzing—especially if they’re clumped into one or two seasons.

Though its price tag is dwarfed by travel and lodging, the bridesmaid dress has taken on iconic symbolism as the great, annoying, unappealing expense—it’s even spawned its own reality TV show, Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids. By legend, it is costly, ugly, and never to be worn again, designed as an unflattering foil to the bride’s white gown. That’s begun to change, says Ilana Stern, the CEO of Weddington Way, a website that allows brides to pick possible dresses and have attendants vote on which they like best (and can afford). “Today’s brides are giving their girls more of a say,” she wrote in an emailed statement, “helping bridesmaids feel better about the investment.” What’s more, they try to select options that have life-after-wedding potential. For example, “a long chiffon sweetheart dress can easily be belted and paired with a jean jacket to transition into a chic maxi.” Ten percent of the time, the company says, a bride will even cover the cost of her maids’ gowns.

Despite the price, and even when it isn’t to their taste, “the majority of bridesmaids are happy to buy a dress,” says Soraya Jollon, a New York–based wedding planner. It is, after all, the bride’s big day, and a good friend will do what it takes to make her feel special. But that’s not to say there are never hard feelings: “If a bride has historically been the type to figure out exactly what each person owes when the bill arrives at a group dinner, she may ruffle some feathers if she insists that her friends buy a $500 dress and matching shoes.”

After the dress is chosen, parties and plane tickets are the real money pits. When Joanne Barken was in law school, she found herself attending numerous bachelorette parties, an expensive and challenging event for bridesmaids, who typically pay their own way—and sometimes even cover for the bride. Convinced that there must be a way to streamline the process, she founded The Bach, a comprehensive planning website set to launch this autumn. Now that we can stay in touch with distant friends through social media, she says, more brides invite attendants from across the country to destination parties. While that’s costly, she says, “it’s a great way for guests to meet the other important people in the bride’s life—and it makes the wedding a lot more fun, because there’s all these people you bonded with for a weekend.”

Jessica admits that these are special occasions that are fun to take part in, but they constitute the largest chunk of cash to be dropped—and can feel like the most skippable element. When a schedule conflict meant she couldn’t make it to one Las Vegas bachelorette party, she felt like she’d “lucked out.”

Part of the trouble is that many bridesmaids are young and therefore less able to afford such extravaganzas. A Pew study in 2011 showed that the average age at first marriage is 27 for women. Assuming their bridesmaids are equals in age, that means the bridal party is shelling out a lot of cash at an underripe point in their careers—and many are likely still paying off student loans.

A slew of Jessica’s friends married straight out of college or shortly thereafter, which meant not only smaller savings accounts, but also more total bridesmaids. At that age, she says, you have a large posse, unlike “a little later in life, when you have a smaller group of really close friends.” The largest party she was in had eight bridesmaids.

As she gets older, the scene has evolved. Her peers are increasingly paying for their own weddings instead of relying on parents, which means smaller affairs with fewer (or no) attendants, but better food, wine, and atmosphere. As a guest, she can also contribute nicer gifts. “I didn’t give [after college] like I do now in my mid-30s,” she says. “I had to do it a little different then.”

Though one survey shows up to one in 10 young Americans having declined invitations to be bridesmaids or groomsmen, taking part in friends’ and family members’ weddings is usually treated as a financial duty—and even with “open-minded people,” Jessica says, “the culture of it is to be expensive.”

At any point in your life, “you don’t want money to be the reason that you’re not doing something with your friends,” she says. “That’s the bummer: when it gets out of hand and really expensive and you’re thinking about that, so you’re not even able to enjoy what you’re doing.”

Nevertheless, despite the thousands of dollars down the drain, she has only one regret about her nuptial decisions: that she missed her cousin’s wedding one summer when she just couldn’t swing the cost of a flight.

“These are wonderful obligations, I have to say. These were my friends, so it’s not like I regret being part of anybody’s wedding—I’m glad to be considered a good friend. I’m glad to be considered a favorite family member.”