The Wedding Tax Is Totally Real Except When It Isn’t

by - 12:48 AM

On the morning of her wedding, Andrea, now 32, went to a salon to get her hair done, as brides are wont to do. Only she didn’t say she was her wedding, or even a wedding; the appointment, she told them, was for “an anniversary party.” The price: $75 for a normal updo. “If it had been a wedding thing, they would have rolled out the champagne and the mimosas and done a whole elaborate thing that we didn’t want or need,” she says. The price for the full wedding treatment? “Closer to $350 dollars.” (Today, the salon website lists an ominous bridal price of $85+.) In a fairytale ending, the regular updo was suitably bridal, Andrea got married and saved approximately $275, and everything was and remains fine.
So here is the question: Was it the same?
In an oft-cited stat, the average American wedding costs $35,329, which is more than half of the median American household income ($55,775). This is a number that seems absurd and unsettling, evidence that something must be profoundly amiss — that someone, somewhere, is screwing us all. “I definitely will say that I believed that fully,” says Jasmine Lilly, now a wedding cake baker in Bozeman, Montana, who also hosts The Avowed Podcast, which explores how people get married, and why. “I was like, why are weddings so expensive? It’s preposterous, it doesn’t make any sense, they must just mark up the price when they know it’s for a wedding.” Vendors, she thought, had to be cashing in on the same out-of-control culture that makes spending $35,329 on a wedding seem like a totally reasonable thing to do.
There is a small body of literature devoted to proving the existence of the so-called “wedding tax,” the idea that services cost more if they’re for a “wedding” than they would for a “party,” even if the “party” were identical to the “wedding” in all ways except name. In 2016, Consumer Reports sent secret shoppers to five metro areas, and found that more than a quarter of vendors — 28 percent — charged more for a wedding than for an identical 50th anniversary soiree. An Atlanta photographer charged nearly double for an “almost identical package of services,” while a hotel in St. Louis tacked on more than $8,000 of additional wedding-only fees. A New York restaurant starts its prices at $55 per head for unspecified banquets, compared to $125 for a wedding off-season. A Vox video shows two people calling the same caterer: The “wedding” cost $17,000; the ambiguous “event” cost $15,000. NBC’s Jeff Rossen went “undercover” for a Rossen Reports investigating the industry markup, and found — well, not that much, actually, but he did discover the wedding DJ cost $850 more than a non-wedding DJ.
“You should expect to spend 30 or 40 percent more on a wedding,” says one high-end planner who works in New York state. “When I contract for my own rate for planning, I’m trying to remember wedding culture, and trying to account for this being a heightened day — more important than the birth of a child, for a lot of people,” he tells me. “This is the biggest day they’ve had in their whole life, or they’re considering it that way. That’s high intensity, and often high stakes.” Also, high stress: for a party, there is most likely one person involved — the host. For a wedding, there is the couple, plus parents, plus other assorted familial associates.
“If I ask a corporate client what kind of chair they want, I show them one or two options, and they say yes. If I talk to a bride and groom about what kind of chair they want, it’s a 25-email exchange,” he says. “Your mom has a chair she liked sitting in at the last wedding she went to; your dad has an issue with pillows and seats; your groom wants long, rectangular tables; and you want round tables,” he explains. So, sure, a wedding is more expensive than a normal party, but also, isn’t a normal party; it a party where your aunt texts pictures of flowers or goldfish in bowls or whatever kind of centerpieces from an unknown number in the middle of the night. “I price,” he tells me, “so I can stay sane.”

Because, for better or probably for worse, wedding vendors aren’t just selling flowers or hair or cake; they’re selling a dream, and dreams aren’t cheap. A bridal updo at Strawberry Blonde Salon in Charleston costs $105 and up; a regular updo starts at $80, a minuscule difference in the greater scheme of weddings (perhaps relatedly, they are among the few to put their prices online). But Kelsey Luce, the salon’s wedding coordinator, stresses that it is more than a regular updo. “I wouldn’t necessarily take the same time [under ordinary circumstances] as I would with a bride,” she says carefully. Also, there is the veil to consider, how the hair will look before, how the hair will look after, how it will photograph, and the weight of potentially unrealistic expectations that arise when you are a woman in America on what is supposed to be the best day of your goddamn life.
Jerome Pollos, a photographer in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, half an hour from Spokane, says he talks clients through this difference all the time. His portrait sessions are $175 an hour, but his basic wedding package starts at $2,400 for seven hours, which, through one lens, looks about a thousand dollars overpriced. But the math is more complicated: If you incorporate the time total spent planning, shooting, editing, and retouching (nine to 14 hours, versus 49), and the number of extra prints ordered ($620-ish for an average photo shoot; $490 for a typical wedding), the seven hours of wedding pictures aren’t actually marked up at all. Based on dollars alone, it costs more, yes. But it isn’t the same thing.
Even venues — theoretically empty spaces — have reasons for the markup. At Shoreline Lake, a sportily idyllic waterfront spot in Mountain View, California, a wedding costs about 40 percent more than an equivalent party, says Shoreline president Christina Ferrari, but she estimates it requires three times the planning, plus extra labor. Unlike weddings, parties don't have to be arranged after a ceremony.
And still, explanation after mostly reasonable explanation, it is hard to shed the foreboding sense that we are all being played. For one thing, pricing information is startlingly difficult to compare. “They don’t give you any pricing information until you get on the phone,” sighs Larissa, a Vancouver-based marketer whose attempts at email correspondence were met largely with silence. (Mine were, too, which felt more reasonable, because I am not getting married.) The vast majority of vendor websites offer some version of a “contact us!” form (please specify occasion) or a phone number, and only once you’ve explained your needs and been congratulated on your impending nuptials are you quoted something like a number, which leads to the feeling that perhaps your quote is just a little too personal, too tailored to their perception of your uniquely bridal needs. There is no way of knowing; that’s the point.
For this, too, there is an explanation! Wedding-related services are just too bespoke for one-size-fits-all pricing. “Everything is always custom made,” says Caroline Bailly, owner of L’Atelier Rouge, a floral and event design company in New York City (her prices start around $5,000 for a small affair and go up to $80,000 and beyond for an over-the-top wedding blowout, though you couldn’t know that from the site). “Every client has a different budget, so the first thing to do is to sit down and take a look at the designs and inspirations that your bride might have and then go from there,” she says. “We don’t really have any cookie-cutter price points across the studio.”
But why not at least a starting price? It’s strategy. “They want to get people in the door to at least educate them” says Pollos; if a client is on the phone, a vendor can talk them through their sticker shock. (Pollos himself lists an intro price online.)
Nor does it help that prices, once you’ve got them, can be absurdly difficult to compare. Hidden fees and required add-on services — not to mention packaged deals — can obscure actual costs, so you’re not comparing apples to apples, but apples to oranges, or sweet potatoes, or flank steak, or a cow. If one caterer charges $43 a head for a party menu and $80 for a wedding menu — as Larissa discovered — but the wedding menu comes with a whole spread of canapés plus roving waiters to serve them, then sure, it costs more, by a lot, but also, you get a lot of canapés, rendering the comparison mostly moot. At the New York Times, Catherine Rampell compares it to “baggage fees on airlines in the age of Orbitz,” only at least in that case, you get to decide if you want the baggage.
But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, and just because there is almost always a reasonable explanation doesn’t mean you aren’t being upcharged. Are there vendors charging more just because they can? Sure. But the closest admission I could find of someone actually charging a true upcharge was from an anonymous DJ/photo booth operator on Reddit, who, in a thread dedicated to this topic, confessed that while his DJ services were definitely not marked up (“I do so much more work to prepare for a wedding that it's not fair to compare it to any other type of event”), he is “absolutely guilty” of charging a wedding tax on the photo booth. “If you call me for a Sweet 16, the price will be $200-$400 less than I would quote for the same date and times at the same venue for a wedding,” he writes. “It comes down to what someone is willing to pay and generally, people are less willing to pay a premium for most non-wedding events.”
That’s the root of the issue: almost every vendor I spoke with agreed weddings require more — more time, more skill, more perfection; photo albums and extra canapés — and so they must charge more, because people expect more, but the twist is that people expect more, in large part, because they have been told to expect more — by culture, by television, by the wedding industry itself. It is a chicken-and-egg problem, a snake eating its own tail. Weddings aren’t “just” parties, they are, we’re told, ultimate dream fantasies, and they are priced that way whether or not you want an ultimate fantasy yourself.
“Bridezillas,” as Rampell writes, may indeed “keep prices high for the rest of us,” but the thing about bridezillas is that they are not created in a vacuum. “We’ve created a wedding culture that... promises women especially delivery on a fantasy that they've been concocting for most of their lives, which is some crazy high stakes,” Lilly says. “I would say that of all the service-industry jobs that I've ever had, it is the most stress and anxiety, because you are trying to measure up to somebody's pretty unrealistic expectations of perfection.” A party is a party; a wedding is supposed to be a dream.

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