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It’s not you, it’s them: Engaged couples are cutting back on lavish weddings

CNN  —  Multi-tiered cakes, elaborate floral displays and choreographed first dances: The traditional white wedding has been long considered a hallmark of American life. The obsession with lavish weddings grew to a fever pitch in the years following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, inflation soared — and the average cost of a wedding broke $30,000 for the first time in 2023, according to The Wedding Report, a research company that tracks wedding data. A couple exchanges rings during a Valentine's Day wedding ceremony on the steps of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse on February 14, 2024, in Miami, Florida. Twenty couples tied the knot in an outdoor service conducted by the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Marriage License Bureau. Joe Raedle/Getty Images Related article Gen Z is getting married. Together with Millennials, they’re putting their own spin on weddings Now, after two years of elevated inflation eating into consumers’ wealth, for some engaged couples, splurging on a dessert table or extra sprays of flowers, which are the definition of “nice to haves,” has become a much less justifiable decision. That’s bad news for wedding vendors who provide services like videography, photo booths and catering. Meanwhile, those vendors are facing a more worrisome existential threat: a looming drop in the overall number of weddings. The number of US weddings soared to a 25-year high in 2022. Now, just two years after those highs, nearly 17% fewer weddings are expected, said Shane McMurray, CEO and founder of The Wedding Report. The halcyon days of insatiable wedding demand are unlikely to return anytime soon, he added. What’s behind the slowdown? Forced postponements and cancellations in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 were part of the reason for the recent surge in weddings. Demand was pent up: Instagram was stuffed with “wedding influencers,” and the TikTok hashtag #WeddingTok racked up billions of views. “I think it was the peak,” said McMurray. Gabrielle Stone, who has been a wedding planner in Boston for 18 years, enjoyed the recent boom. “2022 and 2023 were the most lucrative years of my business. I was turning people away,” Stone told CNN. But she said that so far in 2024, weddings are “cooling a bit.” A recent wedding where Gabrielle Stone served as the planner. Stone said lately it feels like there is "a little bit more competition" as some people chose to dive into career wedding planning during the pandemic. Ausrine Weddings Her theory: Single people who stayed inside in 2020 may not have gotten an opportunity to go on dates that year. In another life, some of those would-be couples who never met in 2020 could have gotten engaged this year. Signet Jewelers, which owns Kay Jewelers, Zales and Jared, had similar comments. “The jewelry category is experiencing its second Covid as engagements are down 25% due to the disruption of dating three and a half years ago,” Signet CEO Gina Drosos said on the company’s December earnings call. “I’m confident we’ll grow from this trough next year.” Generational trends may spell bad news for Signet and the rest of the wedding economy, however. djedzura/iStockphoto/Getty Images Related article Engagement ring sales are down sharply, according to America’s biggest jeweler The largest cohort of Millennials is aging, and the newer, smaller generations (Gen Z and Gen Alpha) place less importance on having a big wedding, said McMurray. “There’s no real growth in the wedding industry,” he said. “More people are cohabitating instead of getting married, so it’s a pretty flat market.” McMurray pointed to a recent joint study from the University of Virginia and Brigham Young University that found contemporary teens are less likely than previous generations to believe marriage leads to fuller, happier lives. “The trend has been going down for a long time,” McMurray said. Wedding costs keep rising Toni Burrowes, a 30-year-old teacher in Central Florida, decided to skip having a big wedding last month. Instead, she opted for a courthouse celebration with 18 close family members and friends. Burrowes said she had once dreamed of a destination wedding, but, after watching her older sister plan a large wedding, she didn’t think the stress ­— or cost — was worth the effort. Toni Burrowes said she "didn't really feel the need" for a big wedding reception. "I was looking within a budget," she said. Courtesy Toni Burrowes “We make money to get by right now and we have a daughter,” she said. “All of those were factors in my mind with the wedding: ‘Do I want to spend all this money on one day, rather than continuing to save up for buying our house?’” She joins many people with sticker shock, according to McMurray, who said he sees more couples cutting wedding services they deem nonessential. “I’ve seen demand go down for things like invitations and decorations and those ancillary things that people would typically buy,” he said. “The more that those prices get raised, the more people are going to question, ‘Eh, do we really need that?’” Scrambling to adapt Just as couples are adjusting to new economic realities, so too, are the small businesses that cater to weddings. Alyssa Young, owner of San Antonio-based bakery Cake Llama, started her business in 2019. She planned to focus on weddings, but she has been forced to diversify over the last year. Alyssa Young, the owner of Cake Llama in Texas, has had to diversify her business away from the wedding industry. "We've had to try other things," she said. Alyssa Young “Wedding season was fizzling out. Out here, it’s become an oversaturated market,” Young said. “I’m seeing places close overnight. It’s just shocking.” She saved her business, she said, by experimenting: wholesaling baked goods to coffee shops and providing catering for touring bands in the area. She also got creative: She began baking egg-free, vegan recipes after the price of eggs exploded last year. In January 2023, the price of eggs was up by 70% year over year. Portland, OR, USA - Feb 2, 2021: The Etsy mobile app sign-in page is seen on an iPhone. Etsy is an American e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items and craft supplies. Shutterstock Related article Brides and grooms have a new place to register for wedding gifts Overall, consumer prices have somewhat steadied since then. But egg prices still rose 5.8% in February alone, according to the latest Consumer Price Index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Our vegan products are insanely delicious and super popular,” Young said. She created a new product category, “all because egg prices were so high.” Young has no plans to return to fully focusing on weddings. She faces growing competition from businesses offering lower-cost alternatives, including her local grocery store and even some people who turned their baking hobbies into full-time gigs during the pandemic. Overall, even as some couples have cut costs, they haven’t yet abandoned wedding traditions or vendors altogether. For example, though Burrowes cut many wedding extras from her courthouse celebration, she still decided to hire a makeup artist and photographer. “I tried,” she said, “to make it as special as I could.”