If you had your choice, you would’ve gotten married and had no wedding debt. Of course, life doesn’t always work out so neatly. Between the venue, food, decorations, and — if guests are lucky — open bar, the costs of getting married certainly add up.
Aaron Killen and his wife, Aimey Tunthasuwatana, know all too well. They originally expected to spend $30,000 on their wedding and honeymoon in 2011, but ended up paying over $41,000. The couple, who were set on having their wedding in the heart of San Francisco, quickly realized they’d need to bump up their budget significantly.
The couple initially tried to do much of the heavy lifting on their own to keep prices down. But the stress of coordinating the venues, caterer, cake, furniture rental, linens, lighting, and more was too much to handle. Ultimately, they chose a major hotel as their venue, which came with a wedding coordinator and many in-house vendors — at a premium.
“It wasn’t an entirely reasonable budget unless we shaved way back on attendance or quality of the experience,” he says. The couple received some help from family but ended up putting about $20,000 on credit cards. The good news? They paid it off within two years.
Whether you’ve been married for one day or one year, wedding debt can put a damper on your new financial life as a couple. That’s why paying off wedding debt should be your top priority.
What is wedding debt?
As you probably know, weddings can be pretty expensive. In fact, the 2019 WeddingWire Newlywed Report found that as of 2018, the average wedding included 126 guests and cost $29,200, not including the rings and honeymoon. That’s more than $231 per guest!
“I can tell you that costs can be way over what you planned for,” says Leslie H. Tayne, an author and financial attorney specializing in debt-related services, who got married in April 2018. It’s understandable if couples want to go a bit overboard on wedding spending, but Tayne warns against it. “You’ll need to resist the urge of spending on extras just because you’re getting married,” she says.
Unfortunately, it’s common for couples to go over budget on their weddings. On average, couples expect to pay only $16,000, according to the 2019 WeddingWire Newlywed Report. Part of the problem is that most couples — nearly 80% — set their budgets before actually researching any vendors, found the report. Talk about a rude awakening when the real numbers start to add up.
How couples are tackling wedding day costs
According to the 2019 WeddingWire Newlywed Report, to cover these costs, a fair amount of couples will dip into their savings (42%). Almost a third (30%) take on extra work to earn more money. Another 20% rely on credit cards.
Of course, many couples get help covering all these expenses; the bride’s parents contribute 45% to the overall wedding budget, on average, while the groom’s parents contribute 13%, The Knot found.
Still, not all couples get help from family and friends. And many of them spend much more than they planned, resulting in leftover wedding debt. If that includes you, don’t worry — there are a few things you can do to help pay off wedding debt.
How to pay off your wedding debt
Whether you’re still planning your wedding or have been dealing with wedding debt for years, these strategies can help you work towards becoming debt-free.
1. Start saving early
If you’re in the early stages of the wedding-planning process, Tayne says it’s a good idea to start saving money right away.
“The first step would be to sit down with your partner and start researching costs before you begin your budget, so you know what to expect,” she says. That means you need to figure out who is contributing to your wedding expenses, if anyone, and whether you have other savings and financial resources.
“Saving early and often can help minimize the amount of debt you end up with once your nuptials are complete,” Tayne says. It’s also important to leave some wiggle room in your budget, since there will almost certainly be expenses you didn’t think about, as well as last-minute add-ons.
Fortunately, Killen says he and his wife were able to rely on existing savings to cover a good portion of their wedding expenses. If they hadn’t had the money saved, they would have needed to put more than $20,000 on credit.
“If you can manage to save the entire amount you’ve budgeted to spend, you can avoid debt altogether,” Tayne says. “But if you can’t, the money you’ve set aside in your monthly budget for savings pre-wedding can then translate to money set aside for debt payoff post-wedding.”
2. Get on the same financial page
If you’re already in the throes of paying off wedding debt, be sure you and your spouse get on the same page when it comes to your finances as a couple.
“When merging two financial situations, the key to success is sitting down and getting to know your new expenses and income,” Tayne says. You might not believe it, but doing this exercise together can actually be fun and a good opportunity to bond as a couple. The key is to plan these conversations ahead of time and avoid discussing money when you’re busy or stressed.
Where should you start?
“Openly share each other’s credit reports to identify your marriage’s current debts,” says Todd Christensen, an accredited financial counselor and education manager for the nonprofit debt relief agency Money Fit by DRS. Though you don’t actually inherit any debt your new spouse may have had before the wedding, you are now a team that will succeed most when working together on your financial goals, including debt elimination, he says.
Tayne adds that you should also evaluate your income and ability to contribute toward the debt.
“You will need to assess your financial statements and documents … in order to make a payoff strategy with a timeline,” she says. “Compare how much you’re comfortable paying each month to how quickly you’d like to pay off the debt.”
The goal should be to pay off the debt as soon as possible, since the longer you take, the more you’ll pay in interest.
3. Choose your debt repayment strategy
Once you understand how much money you can put toward debt repayment each month, it’s time to focus on a specific plan.
Christensen says there are four basic debt repayment methods you could choose from:
- Debt Avalanche: Pay as much toward your debt with the highest interest rate first, while paying the minimums on everything else. Once that first debt is paid off, roll the payment into the next-highest interest debt, and so on. “This system saves you the most money in interest and pays off your debt fastest,” Christensen says.
- Debt Snowball: Use extra funds to pay off the smallest debt first and work your way up. As you pay off debts, the funds you have available snowball into bigger and bigger amounts. “This system provides early, quick wins to keep you motivated to pay off your debts,” Christensen says.
- Debt Landslide: If you’re concerned that how you managed debt in the past has harmed your credit score, you might want to give the debt landslide a try. “This system rebuilds your credit fastest by focusing any extra payments on the newest debt first,” Christensen says.
- Debt Cascade: Couples who can only afford to make the minimum payments can try this method. As you pay down your debt, creditors might reduce your minimum payment. Paying gradually lower minimums can extend your debt to 20-25 years, says Christensen. Instead, keep your monthly payment the same amount and pay off the debt in four years.
Killen says they charged their wedding expenses to a few different cards, some with lower interest rates and some with higher rates.
“We were paying credit cards down slowly, which is a bit of a killer with high APRs,” Killen says. Ultimately, the couple chose to follow the debt avalanche method, focusing on the highest-rate debt first, which helped them pay their debt off quickly.
4. Find ways to cut expenses
As you work together to pay off your debt, identify areas of your budget where you can cut back. You don’t have to live with fewer meals out and shopping trips forever. Just focus on cutting back until you’ve repaid your debt.
One of the best ways to cut down expenses is by reducing the amount of interest you’re paying on existing debt. That means you should stop relying on credit cards for everyday expenses.
“In cases of significant debt loads, you may even consider using cash only for your day-to-day purchases,” Christensen says. “Using plastic (whether credit, debit, or prepaid) means you will spend, on average, nearly 15% more than using cash.”
You can also look for ways to lower the interest rates on your debt. For example, many credit card companies entice new customers by offering an introductory 0% APR on new accounts.
By rolling an existing balance over to a 0% intro APR card, you can avoid accumulating interest for 12-18 months, allowing you to get ahead on your debt. Usually, these offers require a fee of about 3% of the balance transferred, but that’s much less than the interest you’d pay if you stuck with your current card.
Read More: Here’s How Balance Transfers Work
5. Look for opportunities to increase income
Cutting back on expenses can be a great way to tackle debt – but sometimes, you just need more money.
“If you’ve adjusted your budget and made a concrete plan but are still struggling to pay off your wedding debt, you may need to find a way to bring in more cash,” Tayne says. Side hustles, for instance, can be a great way to increase your income and generate extra cash for debt payoff.
“Additionally, if you received cash gifts for your wedding, you may want to consider putting at least some of it towards your wedding debt,” Tayne says.
Other windfalls, such as bonuses and tax refunds, can also help knock out a big chunk of debt at once. That was the strategy Killen used.
“One of the advantages I have in my field is bonuses [are a significant] component to annual pay,” he says. So rather than putting that money toward lifestyle expenses or other spending, “bonuses were applied pretty much exclusively towards killing debt,” he says.
6. Build positive money habits as a couple
Once you create your plan to eliminate wedding debt and start paying it off, your work isn’t done yet. Check in regularly as a couple and discuss whether your plan is working or needs adjustments. Don’t just focus solely on debt repayment; you should also talk about your larger financial life together.
“Meet for 10-15 minutes each week — the same day and same time — to discuss your financial goals, including long-term [goals such as] vacations and homeownership, as well as debt elimination,” Christensen says.
Tayne adds that you should also talk about expectations around things like who is responsible for paying the bills and where the money will come from for spending and expenses.
“Deciding what your needs and wants are is also a good habit to get into since every need and want can be subjective,” Tayne says.
The more aligned you are as a couple when it comes to household finances, the easier it will be to stick to your plan. Just remember that like a marriage in general, it takes work.
7. Ask for help if you need it
Remember, the two of you don’t have to go it alone if you’re in over your head.
“If you’re struggling to pay off your debt, consider speaking with a financial professional to help map out a strategy on how you’ll manage your debt,” Tayne says. “Having an expert on your side will ensure you understand all of your options.”
That doesn’t mean you have to hire an expensive financial advisor. There are many low-cost and even free sources to help you get rid of debt. Start by contacting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which can put you in touch with a local certified financial counselor.
The bottom line on paying off wedding debt
The best way to pay for a wedding is by avoiding debt if you can. But that’s not realistic for every couple. Wedding debt happens. The important thing is that you work together as a couple to form a plan and accomplish your goals. After all, that’s why you got married in the first place.