New pitfall for same-sex couples: Big wedding bills

Rea Carey (L) kisses her wife Margaret Conway after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry at the Supreme Court in Washington June 26, 2015.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Rea Carey (L) kisses her wife Margaret Conway after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry at the Supreme Court in Washington June 26, 2015.

With the Supreme Court's ruling, it's no longer gay marriage—just marriage. And that could come with bigger wedding bills for same-sex couples.

"Economically speaking, couples are excited about having the opportunity to marry," said M.V. Lee Badgett, a senior scholar at UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy. Per the institute's research, about 150,000 same-sex couples live in the 13 states where gay marriage wasn't legal before Friday's ruling.

"Based on what we know about other states [where it was previously legalized], about half of those couples will get married in the next two to three years," she said.

The estimated short-term spending boost: $2.6 billion, including $500 million from residents of states with overturned bans. That's if those couples spend even a quarter of the average wedding budget, Badgett said. TheKnot.com put the typical wedding cost at $31,213 in 2014, an all-time high.

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But data show LGBT couples are exceeding such spending projections, although there's some disagreement on just how much. Male couples spend an average $15,992, while female couples shell out $13,055, according to a new survey from TheKnot.com of 1,200 same-sex couples. A little more than a fifth of those couples reported spending more than $20,000, the site said. WeddingWire.com puts the typical spend even higher at $25,693, according to new data from a survey of 420 couples.

Preliminarily, same-sex couples are outspending straight couples this year when it comes to key categories such as photography, venue and attire, said Shane McMurray, founder of research firm The Wedding Report.

"They seem to be spending more in all of the categories," he said. If same-sex couples' wedding spending is on par with straight couples, the nationwide economic boost will be more like $2.5 billion annually over the long term, according to a 2014 NerdWallet.com study.

Part of the growth in spending comes from feeling more secure about support for marriage.

"When the first few states got marriage equality, there was always a little uncertainty, so people went out very quickly," Badgett said. Less time to plan often meant less expensive celebrations.

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State legalizations and the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling against part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act allowed more couples to feel like they had time to plan a dream wedding, said Kathryn Hamm, publisher of GayWeddings.com. (WeddingWire.com announced earlier this month it would acquire GayWeddings.com.)

"More than ever, I was starting to see weddings that looked like the typical opposite-sex weddings," she said, with bigger guest lists, reception hall venues and—thanks to growing ranks of LGBT-friendly experienced vendors—traditional bells and whistles like engagement photos and wedding planners. "Couples are engaging more of the suite of professionals," she said. "Wedding inspiration has really begun to take hold."

But couples should take care not to derail their broader financial plans with a big wedding. "Don't get too crazy with the momentum that's being created," said Sean Keating, a certified financial planner and owner of Patriot Financial Advisors in Eatontown, New.Jersey.

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Same-sex couples face a more direct financial hit if they overspend. That's because they usually pay for their wedding themselves: 86 percent do so, compared with 13 percent of opposite-sex couples, according to TheKnot.com.

While the Supreme Court ruling may lessen other expenses—there's no need to file separate sets of state tax returns in a state that doesn't recognize the marriage, for example, or devise complicated estate planning strategies—savings might be better put toward other goals like buying a home, starting a family or planning for retirement. "Think about what your goals are, and plan accordingly," Keating said.

More LGBT-friendly vendors in the market can be a help here. Couples have more opportunity to shop around on price and quality than in previous years, said Hamm. Then, she said, "The first question was always, 'Are you going to take my call and work with me?'"