Being a Bridesmaid Is Driving Me to the Brink of Bankruptcy

At $1,700 a pop, being a bridesmaid is a pricey commitment. So why do groomsmen get away with spending so little?

My phone rings at 8 AM on a Saturday morning. I groggily look at the caller ID and see that it's one of my good friends from high school. Still half asleep, I answer. I can tell just by the way she says my name how excited she is as she tells me the big news: She got engaged last night.

"Here we go again," has crossed my mind more than once when learning that another friend has gotten engaged. Because I have known that, after my friend is asked an important question and happily says yes, I will be asked another question — one that I will most likely want to respond to with, "Thank you for asking, but no."

I am 30 years old and have been asked to be a bridesmaid numerous times in my life. Every time I have said yes. My experiences being a part of bridal parties have been largely positive. The brides have been considerate and respectful and usually selected dresses that actually can be worn again. Other brides have invited the bridal party to select their own dresses, saving us a few hundred dollars if we already own something the color and style she had in mind. I have never experienced anything even remotely resembling the stereotype of a narcissistic and hysterical "bridezilla" that unfortunately permeates our culture.

My reluctance to commit to being a bridesmaid stems from one simple reason: I can't afford it any more. I consider the financial expectations that are placed on women in bridal parties to be excessive, unreasonable and sexist — and all too ingrained as a part of our culture as being "the way it is." These expectations and commitments bear serious examination and consideration if they are going to change. And I think they need to change.

Much has been written about the average cost of a wedding as well the average cost of being a bridesmaid. A 2012 study by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com reported that the average wedding budget was $28,427 — the highest number it had reached since 2008. And Mint.com estimated in 2011 that the average total cost of being a bridesmaid totaled $1,695. Because about one year typically passes between being asked to be a member of the bridal party and the actual wedding, the bridesmaid might not be aware of this total as it adds up, unless she keeps an ongoing tally of the expenses. And they do add up. The Today Show reported that approximately 10 percent of people said they went into debt simply to attend or be in a wedding.

How does this enormous number come to be? There are the obvious factors: the dress, which can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $400; and then the alterations, which can add another $100 or more; and the shoes which can ring up as anything from $30 to $150. Then there are all of the events related to the wedding: the showers, of which there are usually more than one (along with the customary bridal shower, recipe and lingerie showers are now the norm). Then there's the bachelorette party, which, for many, has evolved from a night of bar hopping to a destination event that involves airfare or gas, a hotel and several expensive days and nights at spas, restaurants and bars. Factor in manicures, pedicures, hair and makeup for the wedding itself and the total cost could easily exceed that $1,695 average.

Along with the credit card charges, the time that being a bridesmaid requires of people can also be a burden, especially if members of the bridal party are not full-time salaried employees and are paid per hour (something that is far too common in today's economy), or they normally work on the weekends, which is when the showers, parties and weddings are usually held. Even full-time, salaried employees have felt the strain of committing time to a wedding, as the United States is notorious for allotting only a small amount of paid vacation time to workers.

"I've been in a number of weddings, and each time it has always cost more than I anticipated," one bridesmaid said. "I've considered saying 'no' at times when I was unemployed or not making much money, but have never declined because I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings." The emotional weight of being a bridesmaid resulted in everyone who was interviewed for this story asking to remain anonymous out of fear that the brides whose weddings they were in would read it.

"I've delayed bills, I've skipped going out with friends, not bought a plane ticket home to visit my family because I couldn't afford to go to the wedding and visit family out of state," another woman said of her numerous experiences as a bridesmaid. "At a time when I was unemployed, it was so difficult to pay for things I had to negotiate with my credit card company for a higher limit and to delay a payment so that I could fulfill my bridesmaid obligations."

While the rest of her budgets had to be significantly adjusted in order to be a bridesmaid, including clothing and her savings, another woman said she never regretted the commitment. "I've made a major investment in being a bridesmaid but I see it as an investment in our relationship," she said. "I didn't really tally up the costs of this last wedding. When I make my budget, I prioritize gifts, parties and celebrating the people in my life."

Many bridesmaids also mentioned that the brides were aware of the financial obligations and even helped with some of the costs. But despite the emotional fulfillment, required aspects of the celebration have caused bridesmaids frustration, such as the hair and make up styling sessions, which can add another few hundred dollars to their budgets.

"I always find it particularly annoying when I have to pay to get my makeup done," one woman said. "As a former pageant contestant, I'm great at doing my makeup and it seems crazy to have to pay between $50 - $100 done when I can do it myself, and do it very well."

Everyone who was interviewed for this story expressed appreciation and honor at having been asked to be a bridesmaid. It's a sign of friendship and love to be a part of someone's bridal party. But the commitment and expectations are not only stressful, they are sexist. When compared to that of being a groomsman, the practical aspects of making the commitment of being a bridesmaid are completely impractical and unfair.

Men still earn more money than women. That's a fact, and it isn't going to change any time soon, given that in April, Senate Republicans blocked legislation meant to close the pay gap between men and women. The New York Times reports that female doctors and surgeons earn 71 percent of men's wages; women who are financial specialists make 66 percent of what men in the same occupation earn; and women who are lawyers and judges make 82 percent.

Equal Pay Day, which was April 8, 2014, marks the date that symbolizes how far into the new year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did in the previous year. According to the White House, full-time working women earn 77% of what their male counterparts earn. This means that women have to work approximately 60 extra days, or about three months, to earn what men did by the end of the previous year.

So men still make more money than women, and yet, they pay less than women with regard to many aspects of life—especially when it comes to weddings.

A groomsman isn't expected to have a manicure or pedicure. A groomsman doesn't have to pay for hair and makeup artists. A groomsman doesn't have to purchase gifts for numerous showers—which are usually held at restaurants, resulting in even more charges. And a groomsman is typically earning more money than a bridesmaid.

"If you're in the wedding party, it'll be around $400-$750 depending on how involved you get," one groomsman commented, when tallying up suit or tuxedo rentals; while a bridesmaid said of her husband's commitments for being a groomsman, "It is always significantly cheaper — $100 for the tux, sometimes a bachelor party, sometimes not, and he never feels obligated to go to or throw a shower."

When asked about the same topic, another bridesmaid added, "My boyfriend was a groomsman in my brother's wedding. His financial commitment only consisted of renting the tux and shelling out some small amount for the bachelor weekend, which was all the guys hanging out in a cabin smoking cigars."

The dynamics were similar for another woman who observed the costs for her husband: "My husband has been a groomsman. He's had to pay for his tux, and his share in the bachelor party (fishing trip)."

Compare guys hanging out in a cabin smoking cigars or fishing to women flying across the country for a weekend of cocktails, spa treatments and hotel room service. While every wedding is different, and many bachelor parties can be equally or more lavish, the fact remains that there is a disparity. This disparity has become the accepted norm, and it causes financial distress—even debt—for many.

Explained by one married man — a self-described feminist — as "consumer feminism," the belief that women must come together for an organized event that requires spending money on food, drink and appearance modification, is accepted by many as part of the deal, just how it is and what comes with a wedding. This belief bears careful examination and evaluation and is already receiving that by many.

"I think the idea that you need to have a fancy expensive dinner for 150-200 of your closest friends makes for a very expensive evening, and I feel like people might have more fun if it were more relaxed (both in terms of attire and food)," one bridesmaid said. Another, who is married, added, "The wedding industry is a billion dollar business. I appreciate the perspectives of 'Offbeat Bride' and 'A Practical Wedding,' especially when I was planning my wedding. I think the greatest challenge with a wedding is the collision of etiquette from the generations of family and observed amongst friends… There is tremendous pressure to get the event to conform to widely differing standards, which results in a lot of tension and awards an unreasonable amount of authority to the corporations selling things."


Carey Purcell is a New York–based writer and editor. Her writing can be read at www.CareyPurcell.com. This post originally appeared on AlterNet. Republished with permission.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.