No One Expects You to Have a Big Fat Wedding Anymore

Whether their wedding is big or small, more and more couples are bucking tradition in favour of affordability.

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

People generally know whether or not they want to get married. But when it comes to planning the wedding there are a lot more things to consider.

Couples these days have likely made one or two large financial decisions before ever walking down the aisle, such as applying for student loans, purchasing a home or car, or even having children, says Cynthia Ferguson, a branch manager with connectFirst Credit Union. Ferguson says she sees more couples in their 20s and early 30s thinking long-term, considering things such as establishing retirement accounts and emergency funds before budgeting for a wedding.

“I think the pandemic really taught us that the financial landscape can change very quickly, and we can enter a period of a lot of unknown and uncertainty,” Ferguson says. “Once you have that emergency fund set in place, you’re willing to invest more heavily in your ‘fun money,’ if you will.”


Guests Vs. Spectators

Sydney Elton and Chris Rutledge lived together for years —with a mortgage and two vehicles — before getting married in September 2023. They wanted a low-key wedding, “kind of like a dressed-up party,” says Elton. “Our budget and our desire to have a more simplistic wedding was, partially, monetarily driven.”

The couple wanted their families at the wedding, but they didn’t want a lot of “traditional” details like a bridal shower or a rehearsal dinner. They invited only immediate family and close friends. Ultimately, the cost was approximately $20,000.

Jane Paterson, a Calgary-based civil marriage commissioner, says that many couples have become more pragmatic about spending on a wedding. She has noticed a trend in reduced guest lists and simplified receptions, where food is served buffet-style instead of having a plated dinner.

Paterson says she’s also seeing a lot less reprisal from family and friends around inviting fewer guests, which she says is due, in part, to economics, but is also a holdover from the era of COVID-19 gathering restrictions, which made large weddings prohibitive for health reasons. Couples who might have at one time felt obligated to expand their guest list, even though their personal preferences align with a small, intimate wedding, are beneficiaries of these changing attitudes.

“A lot of [couples] are so wise,” says Paterson. “They’re not caving into societal pressure at all. They are doing what they want to do.”


Less is More

While it might seem that a tendency toward smaller weddings would spell trouble for the wedding industry, that’s not necessarily the case. “People are going for quality rather than quantity all the way around,” says Paterson.

With smaller guest lists, couples are going bigger on other elements, such as food and drinks, or decor (or, in some cases, drinks and decor — Melissa Brown-Hiller, owner and operator of the mobile bar cart business Suds & Sodas, describes her service as an all-in-one beverage station, decor item and interactive experience).

With e-vites and wedding websites replacing hard-copy invitations, Debbie Wong of Debbie Wong Designs says she has been commissioned by clients to create original watercolour paintings of their wedding venues and locations — particularly those hosted in iconic places like Lake Louise or the Fairmont Banff Springs — which the couples will then have printed on thank-you cards or guest favours for a bespoke take-home item.

“With a smaller wedding, say 50 to 75 people, it gives the couple more flexibility to make these selections,” says Wong.

Brides are responding to rising costs with an open mind about their dresses. Amber Stephen of Stephen Cleaners says her business is cleaning significantly more gowns as more brides purchase their dresses second-hand, off-the-rack or at sample sales. Stephen has also noticed more brides having their gowns cleaned immediately after the wedding in order to sell or consign them.


Funding the Future

Even in the best economic times, as Ferguson points out, money is a touchy subject. She recommends couples complete a “holistic financial overview,” before uniting in marriage and planning a wedding, and suggests couples consider talking to a financial expert to discuss things like what their immediate financial goals are after the wedding is done.

“The worst thing that could happen is for you to make a decision and feel financial remorse on one of the biggest celebrations of your journey as a couple,” Ferguson says.

While there seems to be a consensus that smaller weddings are having their moment, that’s not to say that big weddings have disappeared entirely — especially when factoring in cultural wedding norms, such as those in the South Asian community.

But even here, you’ll find a shift in thinking: The New York Times published “Lavish Indian Weddings Are Back and Bigger Than Ever” just months before a South Asian-American publication, The Juggernaut, declared that “The Big Fat South Asian Wedding is Shrinking.”

But, whether the wedding is big or small, across the board, it appears increasingly more acceptable for couples to justify bucking tradition in favour of affordability — and for families to be okay with that.

“[The current generation] really wants to obtain the same things that their parents and their grandparents did,” Ferguson says.

“Although the economy has really changed, their goals and dreams haven’t.”

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This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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