When I moved into my first studio apartment in Brooklyn in the fall of 2009, my dad tried to prepare me for my new adventure.
After helping me set up furniture, he handed me some yellow envelopes with string ties he’d bought at Staples. He told me that when he first learned to budget, he used the envelope system.
Even after four years working as a publishing assistant and living with roommates in New York City, I wasn’t the best saver, so my dad was trying to give me a fresh start—into each envelope went what should be budgeted for that expense each month. The trick was not to steal or borrow from each envelope to help another.
Together, we took a Sharpie and labeled them. Rent. Utilities. Leisure. Incidentals. He’d witnessed the flurry of weddings I’d been invited to over the past few years—along with the mild meltdowns that accompanied them as I scrambled to come up with the cash for yet another bachelorette—so for our final envelope, we wrote in all caps: WEDDINGS.
Unfortunately, when I’d run out of money for food or leisure within a few weeks, I’d end up dipping into that envelope earmarked for friends’ weddings (summer wedding season seemed so far away in winter!), which is why the system ultimately didn’t work for me. I’ve since tried documenting my expenses with a spreadsheet to get better at budgeting … and I’m still working on that.
Three years later, I’m trying to accept my fate: While I love participating in and attending my best friends’ weddings, I just can’t afford it.
I’ve attended nine weddings in the past three years, which may or may not sound like a lot, but all told, I’ve spent a total of about $5,000 on gifts, bridesmaid dresses, travel, hotel stays and other incidentals since I’ve been in my 20′s.
How I Pay for It All
I just turned 29, work in publishing and live alone, so I don’t have a lot of extra money to begin with. When wedding season nears, I try to pack lunch, limit dinners out, babysit most Friday nights and swear off cabs. As a wedding guest, I re-wear dresses all the time and alter past bridesmaid gowns to wear to other people’s weddings. (Though when pictures are plastered all over Facebook, this can be tricky!).
A snapshot of my current financial situation: My rent eats up about 50% of my paycheck. I’m not managing to save right now. (I do, however, have about $25,000 saved for retirement.) I’m hoping to pay off a little over $4,000 of credit card debt by the end of this year. I don’t even use the card: It’s tied to my overdraft, so if I run out of money at the end of the month, it dips into that, which is where those problems are coming from.
When I’ve been really strapped, my parents have loaned me money to cover my portion of a bachelorette party or assisted with travel expenses (and let’s not forget Mom loaning me her dresses!).
For instance, they recently paid about $80 for an Amtrak ticket to Boston for a wedding. I’m lucky in that my parents offer when they see how strapped I am, and are supportive. They wish I had a better plan to afford these things, but realize how much it all adds up and are happy to help when they can.
Spending $5,000 on weddings isn’t that terrible over the course of a decade, but I could have used that money to pay off the credit card debt I’ve accumulated in the same time frame.
I Skipped My Friend’s Wedding Because of Money
A close friend and I joke that we are calling this the summer of going into debt for our friends’ weddings. Another friend has decided to only attend the shower or the bachelorette party leading up to a friend’s nuptials, but not both.
If I’m close with the bride or groom, I will usually spend $50 on an engagement gift, about the same for the shower gift, and anywhere from $125-$150 for the wedding gift. Hotels usually cost around $150 a night.
This summer, I finally reached a tipping point. A plane ticket to Indiana for my friend’s wedding cost $400 and I really couldn’t afford it. This happened once before when a good friend got married in Minnesota on Memorial Day Weekend, and I had to say no—the trip would have cost upwards of $600.
I agonized over this latest one for weeks, wondering if I could take a few more babysitting jobs to make it happen. But finally I realized it would be too much. I let her know I wouldn’t be attending. Lucky for me, she completely understood, as did my friend several years ago.
The Brides Have Been Respectful, But …
I’m lucky that, like the Indiana bride, most of my friends try to be sensitive to their guests’ budgets when planning their weddings.
For instance, a Boston friend had her shower and bachelorette party all in the same weekend, making it much easier for out-of-towners to attend. Another friend chose fashionable bridesmaid dresses from discount site The Outnet, and they were on sale for $98.
Because my friends have been so considerate, it’s not like one super-expensive wedding has busted my budget or made me resentful. Rather, it’s the onslaught of invites all at the same time.
What I’ve Gotten Out of All These Weddings
In a strange way, I never really felt like I had a choice in terms of spending. I tried to cut corners where I could in terms of doing my own hair or borrowing a dress, but it seems like such an important part of someone’s life that I rarely thought about not participating.
On a beautiful summer night in Cape Cod I got to crack into a delicious lobster after spending the day with college friends.
At a wedding last year, my brother-in-law and I wowed the dance floor with our rendition of the “lift” from Dirty Dancing (I fell, but it was a great memory).
At the wedding of a friend since nursery school, another old classmate’s parent gave me a ride–and if I closed my eyes, it was like she was taking us to the Bronx Zoo at age six again.
I’m grateful for having been included in these monumental occasions in my friends’ and family members’ lives. If or when I get married, I likely won’t have a big party for myself—I clearly have some work to do in terms of my own financial planning, and would rather put the money toward my future.
Editor’s Note: What Should You Do If Weddings Are Strapping Your Finances?
If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s what LearnVest recommends:
•LearnVest CFP Sophia Bera says, “Never go into debt to pay for a friend’s wedding. This may mean you can only go to one of your friends’ weddings this year, or you may have to say no to being a bridesmaid, or sacrifice going to the shower and bachelorette party to make it for the big day.” She suggests trying to save by using frequent flyer miles, hotel or credit card rewards and sharing hotel rooms with friends. But, Sophia notes, “The real problem with the author’s situation is that she’s not getting out of credit card debt because she keeps saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’ To get out of her current situation, she’s going to have to trim her budget, say no to going to weddings for a while and generate more income. Babysit more? Sell your stuff on Craigslist? Can she tutor? People always forget that trimming your budget might not be enough, that you may need to make more money to pay for these extra expenses.”
•Estimate how much you’ll need for this year’s wedding season, all told, and divide that sum by 12. That’s how much you should be socking away each month. You can keep track of your progress in LearnVest’s My Money Center, and even create a special folder for it. LearnVest also suggests you spend no more than 30% of your take-home pay on rent; in Jane’s case, reducing the 50% she’s spending on rent would probably create some much-needed breathing room in her budget. We recommend you balance your budget with the 50/20/30 rule, which means you should spend no more than 50% on all your essential expenses, like housing, groceries and transportation; at least 20% on financial priorities like paying off debt, saving for retirement and building up an emergency fund; and no more than 30% on “lifestyle choices” you can control, like going to restaurants or, ahem, weddings. Here’s more on making the best budget for you.
More from LearnVest:
Move and Shake Your Way Through Wedding Season on a Budget
Get Fit Without Busting Your Budget
Bride on a Budget? Check out Tips for Scoring a Cheap Wedding Dress!
See More: Budgeting , Getting Out of Debt , Money