Couples spend a lot of time planning a wedding — and paying for it.
Wedding demand is leveling out after a boom in 2022 following Covid delays, but inflation is still pushing up vendor costs. Half of wedding vendors say higher costs of goods, from food to flowers to gas, are driving them to increase their service prices.
A growing share of couples are adding cash funds to their wedding registries — some even earmarked specifically to help pay for the wedding itself.
Another way couples are paying for their weddings, if they're lucky enough, is through sweepstakes and giveaways.
Melanie Moore, 35, of Memphis, is busy planning her July 23 wedding to her fiance, Brandon Wallace, 30. But instead of stressing over budget sheets, her entire wedding will be paid for, thanks to an essay contest put on at a free bridal show hosted by a local wedding association earlier this year.
"My big reason why was my mother had never felt I was going to get married — I told her in middle school I never wanted to share a closet with anyone — so she took that to heart and never put aside money for a wedding," Moore says.
"Now, I get along with someone I can share a closet with," she adds.
It seems too good to be true: Moore and Wallace have their pick of free services from a photographer, caterer, DJ, wedding planner, florist, hair and makeup team and invitation provider, all of whom have agreed to gift their services (read: tax-free) as part of the giveaway.
"I still can't get over it," Moore says while running through the expenses covered. "And I don't have to pay for any of it?"
Moore and Wallace began pricing out a wedding after getting engaged in early 2022 and were shocked to find venues starting at $20,000 "just to go in and breathe the air for a day," she says. "That's insane, but people are paying it."
The couple finally settled on a scaled-down affair at a church in a neighboring town that would run them just $5,000. But with their surprise wedding winnings, Moore estimates their wedding day will be valued at more than $16,500.
Wedding prizes like Moore and Wallace's are increasingly attractive to couples and businesses alike. Newlyweds can start their marriage without mountains of wedding debt, and businesses could find themselves in a marketing gold mine.
A majority, 71%, of couples turn to social media to find their wedding style, and one-third turn to TikTok specifically for inspiration, according to Zola. Usually, couples who win the free services are asked to promote the businesses on social media, or to appear in their marketing materials online and elsewhere.
When it comes to promoting a business online, maybe the only thing better than having a strong social media presence is being name-dropped in a video by a happy customer — all the better if it goes viral.
People are planning their weddings on social media and taking tips from couples who just went through the process, says Emily Forrest, head of communications at Zola. The hashtag #WeddingTok, a section of the video-sharing platform, has 7.7 billion views and counting.
Social media is also where couples go for price transparency as they plan one of the most expensive days of their lives.
"The generation getting married today is more accustomed to financial transparency online, so they're not only willing to share the contests they're entering, but they're trying to use social media to understand how they could get support in covering costs," Forrest says.
"I definitely think it will become more popular over time if the people running these wedding venues are smart," says Jen Brallier, 24, who won a wedding valued at $50,000 in 2021. "It's amazing publicity. So many brides looking at your venue who weren't before."
For Brallier, getting a $50,000 prize was as easy as submitting her contact information through a link from her sister. It took all of five minutes. As she was already in the throes of wedding planning, she says, "I don't know if I would have entered if I had to do anything else" to enter.
Prior to winning the wedding contest, Brallier planned to keep her wedding budget under $10,000, but the scrimping meant forgoing a lot of her original vision.
Then came the surprise phone call, which Brallier says she nearly thought was a scam. The contest was put on by Harwelden Mansion, an event venue in Tulsa, and covered everything from a wedding planner, venue, vendors and ring bands to an all-inclusive honeymoon at a resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Now a couple of years after her wedding, Brallier continues to shout out the vendors who gifted her and her husband, Jacob, 26, a dream wedding.
Free weddings and giveaways come with all kinds of stipulations, so it's crucial to read through the fine print of what you're getting, what you're not and what you might have to give up in return.
As previously mentioned, couples generally have to agree to have photos, videos and other promotional materials captured during the wedding planning and ceremony itself. The Bralliers, for example, had their wedding ceremony livestreamed on behalf of Harwelden Mansion.
Most contests also give couples firm dates to choose from to ensure all vendors are available. Moore and Wallace had to move their original date — Friday, Oct. 13, 2023 — up to July.
Speaking of vendors, most contests have a select list of businesses participating in the package. You're welcome to bring in vendors you've already booked on your own, as Brallier did, or you may have to eat the cost of any deposits you made prior.
Another big concession is a limited guest list. The Bralliers had to scale 200 guests down to 50 and held a separate reception after their honeymoon for those who didn't make the ceremony.
Finally, it's important to know where you'll incur extra costs.
While the Bralliers were gifted their honeymoon in Mexico, they had to cover their own airfare. But $1,000 total round-trip seemed like a fair trade for a free four-day, three-night all-inclusive stay at a resort.
The process has been worth it for Moore and Wallace. Instead of dropping thousands on a single day, the couple will use their wedding budget to cover gratuities for all the day-of vendors, then put the rest toward a down payment on a house.
"If you can find ways to cut the costs of your wedding, it's going to set you up to have a better life together," Moore says.
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