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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

#50: The Price You Pay When Parents Pay: Tips for avoiding money mayhem

Many couples choose to pay for all wedding costs on their own without any help from good old Mom and Dad. There are many terrific reasons for this, like a sense of independence and accomplishment.

But another reason to pay your own way is that with accepting financial gifts or loans comes expectations and demands from your "sponsor" or "lender". Oh, how wonderful and simple life would be without such strings attached - the emotional interest rate, one might say. 

But my guess is that a very small percentage of parents who contribute money to a wedding are able to (consciously or unconsciously) give without charging an emotional interest rate. And to some extent, it's understandable - money is what we trade in order to have XYZ. If XYZ does not meet our standards of beauty, joy, entertainment, or quality, then it's not worth our hard-earned cash.

So when parents say, "I'd gladly pay __ dollars for my daughter to be happy on her wedding day," what they are often saying is "I'll gladly pay __ dollars for what would make my daughter happy if I were in her shoes." (And plus, they're probably stressed about "losing" their child and all. So it comes out in funny ways, you know?) Now, not every parent is like this*. But many are to some extent, especially if we're considering unconscious and subtle versions of the above.

If paying for the entire wedding on your own is not option, it is important to consider the following tips for negotiating a fair (or zero dollar) emotional interest rate with your lovely parental sponsor(s) or lender(s):

1. Designate a specific time and place to begin discussing the wedding budget with all of those involved. It would not be wise to start an impromptu discussion about financial gifts, loans, requests, and promises when people are caught off guard, stressed, tired, hungry, or still a bit tipsy from wine during dinner. One needs to be at his or her most peaceful state in order to negotiate fairly, with love, and with utmost honesty.

2. Decide whether the financial contributions will be a gift or a loan. This is very important, people! Miscommunication in this area could be the cause of some very embarrassing and uncomfortable situations in the future. Also, having the flexibility to discuss a gift sum vs. a loan sum will increase the likelihood that all involved will feel good about with the situation.  

In our case, my parents will be giving us our generous $5,000 wedding gift up front so that we can put it toward our celebration. This is a gift and will not be paid back. The remaining half of our wedding budget will be coming from a mix of our own cash and dough from Dad. We agreed that any cash from my father exceeding the $5k gift would be repaid as quickly as possible without interest.

3. Decide on a specific amount of money that your parents will *comfortably* contribute. I'm a big fan of Say Yes To The Dress - a reality TV show in which brides shop for designer wedding gowns with designer price tags. (I know, I know...the budget blogger watches that kind of stuff?? What can I say - gorgeous couture gowns make me giddy!)  Sometimes the young women on the show finally find the perfect gown after hours of shopping, only to learn that Mom had a price cap in mind - one that the bride finds disappointing. So the bride and her family go home either empty handed or feeling nervous, resentful, or ambivalent about the chunk of change they threw down.

Without a set dollar amount (one that is clearly communicated to all those involved), things can quickly become uncomfortable. After deciding on a number, talk about its level of flexibility. Is the number at the top of the budget or is it a ballpark figure? And discuss whether or not your parents expect you and your partner to spend hours researching DIY tips in order to stay well below the price cap.

4. Have an honest discussion about the emotional interest rate attached to the loan or gift. This is key. It will make or break everyone's sanity throughout the planning process. Here are some questions that the bride and groom can throw out on the table for all to ponder together:
  • If a gift or loan is accepted, what expectations will you have of us in terms of how we spend the money? 
  • How would you feel if we spent the money toward items or services that do not agree with your aesthetic/ logistical/ spiritual or religious preferences? 
  • How might our parent-child relationship change (or not) as a result of our spending money on things you do not approve of? 
  • If we disagree on the way in which the money is being spent, in what ways can we resolve the issue? 
Unfortunately, Brian and I did not go over these questions when we agreed to accept my father's cash gift and loan. (Doh!) So when Dad asked if he could invite 4 friends to the wedding (none of whom I had never met or heard of before), things got messy. Our guest list was tight - it didn't even include any family members under age 18. So to invite 4 strangers to the wedding seemed absurd, especially to Brian. But because we had borrowed so much money from my dad, and because he had supported us in all of our wedding plans (unlike many other overbearing family members), I felt a responsibility to grant him his wish.

Long story short, after lots of arguing, huffing and puffing, and frustration, the compromise was that he could invite 2 friends. And if those 2 friends RSVP'd no, they cannot be replaced by another 2 friends on the B-list.

Even now, I feel winded just thinking about this issue. If I had to do it again I would have put my foot down and said no to my dad, instead of saying "Let's see how many people RSVP 'no'. We'll decide then." (Ugh, BIG mistake.) So yeah. Be brave. Talk it through first!

5. Regularly check in with your parents to assess their thoughts and feelings about how the financial contributions are being spent. This is not to say that you are obligated to appease their every wish. (No way! You are an ADULT.) However, if at any point someone is uncomfortable with how money is being spent, it needs to be aired out so that resentment does not solidify.

Much to my surprise, my mom generously offered to buy my gown on top of the $5k gift that she and my dad were giving us. (I know, I know...I'm crazy blessed.) Luckily, the gown I'd had my eye on was in the $700 range, which was very affordable for my mom. She wasn't quite cool with the fact that it was a short 1950's style dress, but she was happy to pay. 

But then, after trying a long lace number over at David's Bridal, I had a change of heart. And suddenly, my dream dress was $1295 - almost double the amount we had originally intended on spending. Although I offered to pay the difference, my mom insisted that she pay for it in full - evidence of her excitement about the gown being floor-length.

Her decision to pay the extra few hundred dollars sat well with her for several weeks. But well after my dress had been custom built and paid for she shared, "Maybe the dress was a little too extravagant. Do you think we should have gone with something cheaper?" My heart sank. I felt so guilty about it that I could not fully enjoy my dress when it arrived at my house.

Fortunately, we agreed that after the wedding we would sell my gown (perhaps on Once Wed), and make back the $700 difference that was spent. 

What you should take away from all of this is that people's feelings change, and therefore, they should be regularly checked and communicated. Also note that even when a situation goes sour it's possible to mend it through honesty and brainstorming.

The price you pay when parents pay can be minimal IF you all remain committed to honesty, respect, and love for each other. In fact, such a situation could be an opportunity for tremendous growth among your relationships; healthy boundaries will be formed, and your adulthood will be even more clearly defined in the eyes of your parents. Anything is possible when you're brave enough to do the emotional work required.

Good luck!

*If your parent offered money without any emotional strings attached (and none that pop up later down the road), I believe you. But know that you're one of the lucky few, my friend. Be grateful. :)

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  1. This is really great advice. Gifts with strings will often continue (especially for younger couples) during the marriage, too, and it is important to establish the boundaries of such gifts together -- both as a couple and as the children. If you don't, you may find yourself resenting the in-laws.

  2. Hey, Sarah! Very true - even if you've done pretty well with establishing boundaries during the planning, the expectations don't end. A lifelong challenge, I suppose.

    I need a lot of practice with differentiating between selfless giving and gifts with strings attached. Is it even possible to give without some sort of super subtle emotional gain? Maybe just for Mother Theresa?? ;)

  3. What a great post! What's been interesting (by "interesting" I mean "stressful and hard") in my situation has been that the fiance and I come from very different financial backgrounds with our families. (Don't worry, our premarital counselor made sure to spend a ton of time on this difference.) J.'s parents are extremely well-off and view gift-giving as a primary way to show love. They gave me a very generous cash gift upfront, then told J. to forward all wedding-related expenses to them. And, get this, they haven't asked us a thing about the wedding besides future mother-in-law insisting on buying our favors. That's just the type of people they are. (We are, however, sneakily not forwarding them most of the expenses because that seemed to me like a) a quick way to go into fantasy-land and blow our budget, and b) a really quick way for me to lose all my pride.) On the other hand, my parents are pretty comfortably in the middle-class range, financially, but I knew that the amount of money they gave us as a wedding gift was a bit of a sacrifice for them and there's definitely been a bit of push-and-pull with my mom about what she wants in the wedding that I don't feel comfortable saying "no" to because they've contributed money, even if it's not as much as J's parents have put in (maybe *because* of that?).

    All of which is to say that while I'm extremely grateful to both sets of parents for contributing toward the wedding and making sure that J. and I don't start our newlywed lives by blowing through our own savings, the emotional aspect of the money-talk has been complicated and exhausting. (Sorry for writing a novel-length response in your comments!)

  4. This is why we're not letting our parents pay for a thing. It's going to make my bank account take a nice hit but I wanted a small wedding in a place that I picked. Granted I still have a good 15 people coming to my wedding who I've never met but Gabe and I split the guest list down the middle. If he wants to invite strangers with his half that's up to him. That's why I'll have 3 friend tables and he'll only have 2.

  5. FH's mom is giving us some "help." It's not specifically for the wedding, but that's what it is going toward. HOWEVER. Her big thing was, she wanted a wedding. As in, she wanted a party. I would have preferred a super small (i.e., immediate family only) "elopement" style mini-destination (think, rent out a B&B for the weekend in a pretty setting). It would have cost about a third of what our budget is now.

    We're not doing this, BECAUSE FMIL really really wants a party. And she knows that, while we're doing OK financially, the recession has hit us pretty hard, and this wedding is painful to the pocketbook. And we probably wouldn't have done the larger affair that we're doing if not for her. She didn't scream and cry and kick and thrash over the idea, but it was clear that she would be heartbroken if there was no party.

    So, when she offered a small gift (which is only a fraction of our budget, but it helps SO MUCH), I was cool with taking it for what it was.

    My mother, on the other hand, said when I got engaged that she couldn't give us any money if we got married in 2010, but if we waited (insert indefinite amount of time here) she would give us (insert indefinite amount of money here), which really translated to her not wanting me to get married on my schedule (Why wait? We're late 20s (me)/early 30s (him), we've been together 3 years, lived together for 1.5, have pets together, etc.), but rather on her schedule (I don't want my daughter to get married!!!!!!!!) I told her, firmly, thanks but no thanks.

  6. @ Sharon - Don't sweat it girl, I love novel-length responses. ;)

    That's quite a situation you've got there. Just to clarify: Are you saying that because you know that your middle-class mom had to sacrifice in order to help you financially, you're having a hard time saying "no" to some of her requests?

    Although I've written that we must steer clear of "emotional interest rates", it's okay to sometimes break your own rule a bit. Depends on the rule and the situation. I think you'll know in your heart which compromises are made out of GUILT and which are out of LOVE. This is what will make the difference between a compromise that brought you joy vs. one that you'll regret down the road.

    The great thing is that you seem pretty aware of how all of the elements of your situation are affecting you emotionally. This is SO important!

    I think you'll be great at making wise and brave decisions - sounds like you already have! Can't wait to see how it all turns out! :)

  7. @ Poet - Sounds like you created a system that keeps everything neat, tidy and mostly drama-free! Hey, whatever works, girl. ;)

  8. @ irisira - I was actually in a similar situation! We were going to have a tiny party at a charming historical little church right on the water. But then my dad, like your FMIL, put some cash at the end of a fishing rod and lured us into the BIG party idea, hehe.

    I really dig the way you've been making choices so far. You compromised with you FMIL, but in a way that services both you AND her. Happy ending - yay!

    But then you weren't willing to compromise on the timeline (a VERY big factor, as you know), and you stuck to your guns about it. Good for you! I'm NOT a big fan of waiting, saving, and waiting some more when it comes to weddings. ;)

    Let me know how everything goes!

  9. @Kim - I will!
    Actually, it's funny. We're doing the "big wedding" (it's not THAT big, actually) because FH wants to do it for FMIL, but the guest list creep - that's all me. Part of why I wanted to do super uber tiny is because I have multiple intersecting circles of friends that, if I do the "big wedding" thing, I want to include. I added about 30 people to the guest list that someone less charitable would have lopped off without blinking an eye. But, I thought, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to DO THIS.

    My mother is "coming around." She bought my dress, and she's footing the bill for the shower. (I wasn't going to have one; FMIL and her sisters insisted; Mom got wind of it and would not be outdone ... I had already told my BMs I didn't want a shower and it wasn't a responsibility for them, let alone 2 showers.)

    However, I have to tread carefully on how and what I discuss with her. Any time any mention of anything money related is uttered (and it can have NOTHING to do with the wedding), she feels the need to make a snarky remark about how we're getting married THIS YEAR. At least the "What's the rush?" and "You know, people are asking me if you're pregnant" comments have stopped.

    *The pregnant one is especially funny - we got engaged in January and are getting married in September. If it was pregnancy, I'd probably be nursing as I walked down the aisle!

  10. My parents paid for almost everything. I would say that actually, I got a lot of joy out of giving into my mom. I reserved two areas for some control: what I wore, and what I asked other people to wear. I was not going to let her, through me, be extra demanding of the people I love. But other than that, I gave her free rein of the menu, the flowers (I tried to talk her out of flowers full stop, but she wouldn't hear of it), etc.

    There were things about our wedding I would have done completely differently. I would have spent a tenth of what she did. I felt guilty that she spent so much money, sometimes, but I have come to terms with it. It was not my money to spend, and I couldn't talk her out of some of the expenses.

    But it was also just fine, in the end. We had a great wedding and it was totally elegant in a kind of timeless way. I just gave in over and over again, and I actually got a lot of joy out of that. I stood my ground in the few cases where I felt it mattered, but mostly I bent in the wind. And I was happier for that.


Babbling about weddings is so much more fun when people babble back. :)

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