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You know what your wedding doesn’t need? Doughnut walls.

It’s a multibillion-dollar industry for a reason.

A picture of a car that says “just married” on the back with a dollar sign.
The biggest scam in the wedding industry is the one you pull on yourself.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Susan Norcross has a real bone to pick with doughnut walls. Not their particular existence, but rather what they represent for her as a wedding planner: a trend she finds some of her clients asking about because they saw it online, and one that they absolutely don’t care about or need to have.

“In 20 years, do you think you’re going to look at your husband and go, ‘We didn’t have the doughnut wall’? No,” Norcross, who owns The Styled Bride in Philadelphia, said. “For the most part, all these little tiny things, these — pardon my French — BS things that people get hung up on, I’m like, that’s really not the point.”

Weddings are meant to be a moment to celebrate love, one of the most important days of people’s lives as they bring their friends and families together. They can also be incredibly expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars on average (especially if you’re in certain parts of the country). Then there’s the so-called wedding tax, where services, products, and vendors for weddings wind up costing much more than they would for a birthday party, corporate gathering, or other event. Basically, it turns out there’s a $ in that $pecial day. Amid inflation and current economic conditions, wedding costs now are even higher.

“Even for the seasoned wedding planners like myself, it is hard to estimate budgeting, because suddenly overnight the cost of things that we have known what they cost for ages ... have skyrocketed,” said Mandy Connor, the owner of Hummingbird Events and Design, based in Boston.

I reached out to a bunch of wedding planners — many who focus on luxury and high-end events — to talk about how they think about the institution of weddings, what’s worth it and what’s not. Of course, no wedding planner is going to be like, “OMG, this is totally a scam.” But it was surprisingly insightful. We talked about the potential pitfalls couples should look out for, the ways they should navigate priorities, and how external pressures from friends, family, and the internet weigh on a day that should, ultimately, be about them. And, of course, we talked money.

“My job is ridiculous, and I’m the first to admit this, that I help people spend money on this one big day,” said Emily Monus, who specializes in LGBTQ+ and vegan weddings and is based in New York. “Weddings are — and I say this with a high regard — they are a luxury, they’re not an obligation. Weddings are optional. You don’t need a wedding to be married.”

And if you do decide to do it, really, you do you — and keep an eye out for the pressures you’re under, financial and otherwise, in the meantime. A wedding is a lovely opportunity to gather loved ones and have a really great day. (The only other such opportunity you get for this is your funeral, in which case, you’re dead, so you sort of miss it.) It is also one day, and one where it’s easy to get pulled into spending much more financially — not to mention emotionally — than you bargained for. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry for a reason.

As Tara Fay, the owner of Tara Fay Events in Ireland, says, “I know this is one of the most important days of your life, but do you want to spend the rest of your life paying for it?”

Budgeting is how to not get got (and how they get you)

Most of the wedding planners I spoke to for this column were pretty adamant on the right approach: Figure out your budget, line up your big-ticket items, and then work from there. You wouldn’t go house-shopping willy-nilly without looking at the price; the same goes for wedding shopping.

“You have to pay for and secure the important vendors that make an event happen, and once it’s done, the money that’s left I call the fun money. People get so excited with the fun, they book that right away because it’s fun,” said Jove Meyer, a wedding and events planner based in Brooklyn. “If people don’t have food, a location, and a safe way to get to and from the location, then what does it matter if it’s pretty?”

The aesthetic stuff can feel exciting — and come with sticker shock (I regret to inform you that whatever florals you’re purchasing for a wedding are not the same as the ones you see at the grocery store).

Sarah Haywood, a luxury wedding planner based in the UK, said some couples fall into a trap where they weigh superficial details over those that will actually affect the experience, so they make cuts to budgets where they shouldn’t. “Your guests are not going to remember the $5,000 floral arrangement if the meal wasn’t very good,” she said.

She recalled a couple that had saved up to book an upscale hotel for their wedding — only to discover that it was too expensive for any of their guests to stay there. Their families did, and one of the fathers spent the entire weekend complaining about how expensive the drinks were. “If you’re not J. Lo,” she said, “you don’t have to plan the wedding for J. Lo.”

For the love of god, read the fine print

Planning a wedding involves a ton of decisions, big and small. It can feel overwhelming. It can also be where people get tripped up and miss red flags — or yellow flags — they’ll regret not having noticed later.

Vendor contracts can be a lot to wade through, but missing something can wind up costing you. Being in breach of contract is where some additional charges can show up — for example, people forget to notice that, say, the photographer requires a meal, so if they’re not provided one, they leave the event. Or they don’t see that there’s a clause about fluctuations in market prices around items such as food and flowers.

“You want to make sure, for all your proposals, it has everything included so there are no surprises,” Meyer said. Vendors will often lead with the cheapest option — X amount of dollars for Y number of hours — and couples don’t realize that they need more than Y number of hours. Rental companies might say everything gets picked up at midnight, and if people want to wait until the next day, the price difference can be substantial. Or couples will book a photographer for six hours and later on in planning realize they actually want 10, which, again, will cost more. “You feel robbed, I get it, but it’s all been laid out in front of you and you just weren’t realizing,” Meyer said.

Bethany Pickard, the owner of Modern Kicks, a wedding planning company based in the Hudson Valley in New York, warned to look out for hidden fees for extra services and question whether they’re necessary. When a florist says they’ll also help with linens, that might entail them going to a rental company, renting the linens, and then charging you a coordination fee for serving as the go-between. “A couple going to a full designer like that may not know that items are being upcharged,” she said. (The hack here: Rent the linens directly from the linen company.)

Sometimes, people don’t do enough research and wind up with someone who isn’t so reliable. Connor noted that a “rash” of new businesses in the vintage rental space have recently begun to spring up. “We’ve seen a lot of those businesses pop up and disappear just as quickly, leaving some clients high and dry,” she said.

Other flags planners said to watch out for included payment methods — for international weddings especially, transfer fees, bank fees, and even credit card fees can add up — and full-service venues that say they offer the whole package. If couples don’t like the whole package — say, the chairs and tables they offer aren’t your style — they are going to wind up renting other ones, and those costs will add up. They also may not realize all the couples in the pictures the venue showed them before booking had done the same.

The biggest wedding scam of all is the one you pull on yourself

There’s an interesting conversation to have around weddings, and one we maybe don’t have enough. Everybody knows weddings can be exorbitant, and everybody is also a little nervous to talk about why that is, and why anyone feels like they have to put them on in the first place.

Within peer groups, a lot of people tend to get married around the same time, and they often “don’t want to share the full detail of the expense” with others, Fay said. Couples can feel pressured to at least match what their friends have done without realizing how much it cost, or that maybe they were getting help paying from elsewhere. Pressure also comes from parents, who may have a certain vision for their children’s weddings, and, of course, from social media.

People see something on Instagram or Pinterest and don’t think about all it entails, whether it makes sense. Sometimes people get obsessed with certain vendors and ideas; they think they have to have a certain photographer or florist, and they just have to learn to let go. It’s also worth noting that wedding photography can be a little bit of trickery — who among us has ever taken a photo that doesn’t reflect the full picture of reality? “People are showing the best parts of their weddings,” Haywood said.

“Many, many couples fall into the category of listening to a parent or outsourcing opinions to friends or the internet,” Meyer said. “It turns into a copycat of something they think they should be doing.” They hire a vendor because they heard they’re better or famous or in a certain echelon, “and maybe that’s not the person they should have hired on their budget.”

Norcross recalled recently planning a wedding for someone who seemed to be trying to keep up with what her sister had done, finally asking the bride, “Why are you planning this big wedding that you don’t want?”

Many of the planners I spoke to were aware that there’s a certain level of conventional wisdom that weddings are overpriced, and they disputed that the industry takes advantage of people. “There is a perception that it’s not fine to ‘make money.’ Why not?” Haywood said.

Ultimately, the business of weddings is just that — a business. It’s a capitalistic project just like any other. People get so caught up in the romanticism and beauty of the endeavor that they forget that.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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Have ideas for a future column or thoughts on this one? Email emily.stewart@vox.com.