Wedding Cost Surprises: A couple kissing in the back of an old-fashioned car.

Wedding Cost Surprises from C&C’s CEO

Jess Levin Conroy on Spending Smarter on Your Big Day
Photo by Jose Villa
Wedding Cost Surprises: Carats and Cake CEO and founder Jess Levin Conroy.

You’ll spend months, if not years, planning your wedding. From visiting venues, to consulting with planners, to researching vendors, and signing contracts…  There’s a lot to do, and even if you and your partner (or your families) have had the foresight to include the much-less-fun financial part of wedding planning on your To Do list, there are still a number of hidden wedding costs that tend to catch couples by surprise.

To help brides and grooms prepare for their wedding financially, we turned to our very own in-house expert, Carats & Cake CEO Jess Levin Conroy. Not only is she a wedding industry pro, prior to founding C&C, Jess worked at a venture capital firm where she helped manage investments and brand development. She wanted to offer new solutions in the wedding industry, and, 10 years after launching C&C, the company is now providing ways to help couples pay for their weddings (which also help your favorite venues serve you better!).

Here, Jess answers all of our burning questions about the oft-forgotten add-ons to the total wedding cost, including nuggets of wisdom (she’s always full of those!) on how to budget appropriately and how to get the most out of your celebration.

1. Set a Realistic Budget

Carats & Cake: What should couples consider when it comes to establishing a budget at the beginning of the planning process?

Jess Levin Conroy: Have an honest conversation with your significant other (and your families, if they are contributing) to determine how much you can realistically afford. It’s also important to create a wishlist of your top priorities. For some, it’s finding the venue of their dreams, while for others, it might be decor or having a large guest list. Don’t forget to get specific, all the way down to each napkin! Consider which elements are “top” priority, and who are the actual decision-makers when it comes to paying for the big day.

Wedding Cost Surprises: Reception cards showing guests' names and table information.
Wedding Cost Surprises: A flower-topped wall of greenery with champagne glasses and guests' table numbers.

2. Carefully Craft Your Guest List 

C&C: Do you have any advice or a rule-of-thumb when it comes to deciding on your ideal guest count?

JLC: When it comes to the number of guests on your list, you not only want to think about the experience you want to deliver—intimate vs. grand—but also the investment. Your guest count will be the major driver of your overall spend, so consider every guest as an uptick in your overall budget.

Wedding Cost Surprises: A bride and groom cutting their cake, which is topped with sparklers.

3. Consider Extra Fees

C&C: Are there other extra costs people may not have considered?

JLC: Be mindful of potential cake-cutting and corkage fees. If you decide to bring in something outside of a venue’s food and beverage offering, you’ll likely see a fee that can range from $500 to $5,000. To ensure the cost doesn’t come as a surprise, check in with your wedding venue to determine their external vendor fees.

Wedding Cost Surprises: A band performs under a tent in Wyoming.

4. Factor in Gratuity

C&C: How much should you allocate for wedding vendor gratuity?  Is there a percentage you recommend?

JLC: Definitely don’t forget about gratuity when you set your budget. You have all these costs, but everyone works so hard on your day—whether it’s the servers, the band, or the DJ—and you want to make sure that you have the resources to be able to thank them for their hard work.  We recommend really ensuring that you budget around 20% per vendor before the day of your event.

Wedding Cost Surprises: A couple dancing under a hanging floral installation.
Wedding Cost Surprises: Two brides hold hands after their wedding ceremony, which overlooked the mountains.

5. Prepare for the Venue Deposit

C&C: What percentage of your budget should be dedicated to the venue?

JLC: Venues take up the bulk of the wedding budget (often as much as 50-70%) and will impact the entire planning process and overall wedding cost. You might think you have a year to save up for your wedding, but most venues actually charge a large upfront deposit to lock in a date. That’s why we developed Carats & Cake to  provide greater flexibility. So, if your wedding deposit is, say $20,000, and your venue offers Carats & Cake as a payment option, you can break that into four equal, interest-free payments of $5,000, which can make it much more manageable. Definitely ask your venue!

6. Prioritize the Key Elements

C&C: Are there any new costs you’ve seen pop up during the COVID-era of wedding planning?

JLC: Due to pandemic setbacks, roughly 2.5 million weddings—the most since 1984—are expected to take place this year. That means there is a high demand for venues and vendors, and that, compounded with inflation and the supply chain crisis, means costs are at an all-time high.

It’s important to set a clear budget, be transparent with your vendors, and go through each contract with a fine-tooth comb to know exactly how much you’ll be paying, when, and for what. If something is less of a priority to you—say, a live band vs. having a DJ—make sure that’s known to everyone involved in planning from the beginning to avoid overspending on something you’re less passionate about.

Wedding Cost Surprises: A groom kissing a bride in a portrait on the beach.
Wedding Cost Surprises: A couple embracing on a flower-lined pathway.

7. Be Flexible with Your Date

C&C: What should couples dedicate most of their budget to, and how can they make their budget go as far as possible?

JLC: That’s personal to each couple, but it’s important to recognize that the largest wedding cost will be their venue and catering, and that team will take on a lot of the work for you for that cost. If you’re open to it, choosing a wedding date in a location's “off-season” can make each dollar go a lot further. Similarly, Saturday is the most expensive date for wedding venues, so choosing any other day of the week for your big day could save on costs. Choosing a midweek wedding, when vendors aren’t as busy, will often allow them to be more flexible on price. So, a photographer might have more opportunity to work within your budget if you are getting married on a Wednesday versus a prime weekend.

8. Go the Unconventional Route

C&C: Do you have any financial advice for couples who are planning on a tighter budget?

JLC: Beyond your wedding dress, your wedding wardrobe can really add up when you take into consideration you and your partner’s attire for all the events: the welcome party, rehearsal dinner, ceremony, reception, and post-wedding brunch. But the good news is there are options to trim these costs, like renting or finding great deals at sample sales.

The average cost of a wedding dress is $1,800 (though many luxury and couture designers start as high as $4,000), which will likely make up for a big chunk of a bride’s budget. On top of that, you’ll likely need alterations, which drive up the price of your dress even more. So, while you might splurge on the gown, there are options to spend smarter on the rest of your wedding attire: Consider renting your other outfits, or even your fiancé’s tux. Rent the Runway and Poshare both have a wide variety of chic options for cocktail looks to wear to the rehearsal dinner, brunch—you name it. I like The Black Tux’s selection of menswear styles.

Wedding Cost Surprises: A couple sharing a kiss during their wedding reception.
Wedding Cost Surprises: Two grooms hold hands while walking up a staircase.
Wedding Cost Surprises: A bride and groom smile in their wedding portraits.

9. Know That Deposits Vary

C&C: What advice do you have for couples who have anxiety about the sticker-shock of upfront costs, who maybe haven't been saving up for the past 5 years and are paying for their weddings themselves?

JLC: While many couples assume that they have a year to pay for the wedding, some vendors require deposit fees as low as 10% or as high as 50% that are due when you sign a contract and in order to lock in your date. That’s why Carats & Cake built a platform that enables venues to offer their customers the option to pay over time in a more convenient, spaced out way, as opposed to a large lump sum payment (with zero interest and no hidden fees)!

Wedding Cost Surprises: A bride pours champagne over a tower of glasses.
Wedding Cost Surprises: A couple exchanging vows in an outdoor venue overlooking the mountains.

To hear this budget-savvy wisdom directly from our fearless leader, check out Jess’s on-air interviews with Fox 5 DC and KTLA 5 News.