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The Ultimate Guide To Weddings: Who Should Pay? And What About Plus-Ones?

I am turning 26, which means I’m entering the peak period of spending every nonworking hour at somebody else’s wedding. The issue at hand: There is wildly conflicting advice about wedding etiquette out there. Between inherited wisdom, tradition that borders on hearsay and a bazillion judgy blogs, it can be difficult to know how to attend a wedding with grace and how to plan one without alienating half of your family. And indeed, a quick survey of the FiveThirtyEight office found many myths and inherited ideas about wedding etiquette. I needed definitive answers — or at least a sense for where the consensus was.

To get it, I commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll. SurveyMonkey Audience ran a poll for us Aug. 23-24 that garnered 1,050 completed responses. We learned how much people should be expected to spend on the event, whether you can ban children from the affair without consequences, and the solution to the plus-one conundrum.

Who do you invite to a wedding? Sure, immediate family is a given. But with a finite amount of space and a seemingly endless list of acquaintances, it gets very dicey very quickly. Friends of parents, dear childhood friends, endearing drunks you know from college who can totally score you Disney passes — who gets in?

1 Parents/stepparents 1.3
2 Siblings 2.8
3 Grandparents 4.1
4 Children 4.5
5 Uncles/aunts 5.7
6 Close friends 6.2
7 Nieces/nephews 6.7
8 First cousins 7.6
9 Childhood friends 9.4
10 College friends 9.5
11 Second cousins 9.9
12 Co-workers 10.7
13 Parents’ friends 11.1
Who are the most important people to invite to a wedding?

Survey conducted Aug. 23-24 with 1,050 respondents

Source: Surveymonkey Audience

We asked people to rank several groups by general order of priority when it comes to who gets an invite. In the end, close friends and aunts beat cousins and childhood friends, who beat college friends, who beat second cousins and co-workers, who all beat parents’ friends.

If you are someone litigating a guest list against a future mother-in-law now or at any time in the future, feel free to use this polling on your side.

We also have some results on whether it’s acceptable to bar the kiddos from attending: 65 percent of respondents said it was somewhat or very acceptable for a host to say that children are not allowed at a wedding. Still, keep in mind that this may come with a tradeoff: Although the vast majority of parents in our set said they would be OK with a ban on children, 25 percent said that such a rule meant that they would be not as likely or not at all likely to attend a wedding that didn’t welcome their kids.

10th percentile $30
30th percentile 100
50th percentile 200
70th percentile 300
90th percentile 500
Average 263
How much should you have to shell out just to be there?

Survey conducted Aug. 23-24 with 1,050 respondents

Source: Surveymonkey Audience

If you’re bringing in folks from out of town, keep in mind how much people are willing to spend. The maximum amount (excluding gifts) that an out-of-town guest should reasonably be expected to spend to attend a wedding was, on average,1 $263 total.

Going in the other direction, we are a nation divided about whether it’s OK to ask for a plus-one. Although 31 percent of respondents said it was very or somewhat appropriate to ask for a plus-one that the hosts didn’t offer, 25 percent were neutral on the matter and 44 percent considered it inappropriate. There was a large division between people who have had a wedding and those who haven’t: 47 percent of married people say it’s inappropriate to ask, and 40 percent of those who haven’t been hitched agree.

Have not had wedding 34% 27% 40%
Have had wedding 30 23 47
All respondents 31 25 44
Is it appropriate to ask for a plus-one?

Survey conducted Aug. 23-24 with 1,050 respondents

Source: Surveymonkey audience

Most people are neutral on inviting the bride or groom’s boss — 53 percent don’t really care, and most of the rest think it’s a good idea to do so — and people are fine with weddings scheduled over long holiday weekends. Although I’ve heard some folks complain about this happening — apparently Labor Day was invented by the government to celebrate the worker, not to watch someone wear the last white dress they’ll hopefully put on this year — they are in the substantial minority: only 18 percent consider it unacceptable to pick long weekends for weddings rather than relaxing.

Perhaps no issue is as contentious as who should pay for the shindig, and we’re going to zero in on heterosexual marriages because there are a whole lot of inherited gender roles and history involved. Although U.S. society may be past dowries, there’s still a broad belief that the bride’s family should be on the hook for the event, and it’s oddly prevalent among 18- to 29-year-olds.

WHO PAYS? TOTAL 18-29 30-44 45-59 60+
The couple 26% 22% 22% 31% 29%
Three-way split (groom & bride’s families, couple) 26 19 31 30 24
The bride’s family 25 35 18 22 24
The groom’s family and the bride’s family 12 12 15 10 11
The bride’s family and the couple 7 10 6 5 9
The groom’s family 2 1 6 2 1
The groom’s family and the couple 0 0 2 0 0
Who should pick up the check for the wedding?

Survey conducted Aug. 23-24 with 1,050 respondents

Source: Surveymonkey audience

We asked who should, all things equal, primarily pay for a wedding. Three responses rose to the top: 25 percent of respondents said the bride’s family, 26 percent said the couple, and 26 percent said that the groom’s family, the bride’s family, and the couple should split evenly. The remainder were split over various permutations of those three groups, with most saying either both families splitting it or the bride’s family and the couple splitting it. For what it’s worth, among the 18-to-29 cohort you know, the ones often getting married — about half thought it should be some permutation of the parents’ problem to pay, with 35 percent saying the bride’s family should cover it.

Overall, stripping out the permutations, 70 percent said the bride’s family should be at least somewhat on the hook for paying for the wedding, 60 percent said the couple should chip in, and 41 percent said the groom’s family should.

And what does all that money buy a bride’s family? Not much, so it would seem; when asked whether a groom should make a bride’s brother his groomsman, only about 40 percent of people felt more than somewhat strongly that they should. But if that brother does sneak into the wedding party, one thing is clear: Keep the speech short. About 60 percent of respondents said the ideal bridesmaid/groomsman toast should be 2 to 3 minutes long.

And what should you bring as a gift? Well, that’s a whole other story entirely. More tomorrow.

Have questions about how to be an adult? We want to look into them for you! Let us know what they are!


  1. I used a trimmed mean. This means that I took the average response in the data set, but cut out the top 2.5 percent and bottom 2.5 percent of responses. Since I asked a fill-in-the-blank response, this means that the 25 people who dropped in particularly absurd responses, like $100,000, were removed.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.