Before You RSVP
Wedding season kicks off this month. But nuptials aren’t the only events that often land on the summer social calendar. Whether you’re going to a graduation party, staying over at a friend’s beach home, or flying somewhere for a family reunion, being a guest can be costly if you’re not careful.
Wedding guests will spend an average of nearly $600 per wedding in 2014, according to an American Express survey, up 10 percent from last year. And travel and accommodations can add up quickly for other events too (not to mention the gift-giving). Fortunately, there are ways to cut costs without curtailing your plans.
Gone are the days when you simply walked down to the local church to see your pals get hitched. In fact, as of 2009, a full 20 percent of couples choose to hold destination weddings and many others may decide to get married in their hometowns or college towns — places that are typically not within driving distance for many guests.
And far-flung family reunions and graduations can require flying as well. So it pays to be strategic. In addition to seeking out lower fares on sites like Kayak and Bing Travel, try to concentrate your travel on one or two airlines to rack up miles and status, suggests travel expert Eric Rosen, a contributor to ThePointsGuy.com. If you do most of your traveling on one or two airlines, co-branded credit cards may be worth the annual fee. Some cards, like Delta's American Express credit card, offer upwards of 30,000 miles (which can equal one domestic ticket) just for signing up and offer no service charge for the first year. Plus, you often get multiple miles per dollar when you spend on airfare, and priority status and free checked bags, says Rosen.
If you're willing to forgo the convenience of knowing exactly when and what airline you'll be flying on, use Priceline's Name Your Own Price feature for your air travel, suggests financial expert David Bakke of MoneyCrashers.com. Also be sure to set price alerts via Kayak.com and use Bing's airfare price tracker to find out the best time to snatch up your fare. (Just remember that some airlines, like Southwest, don't show up in search results — you may want to visit those websites separately to compare rates.)
If you can indeed drive to the event, see if other guests are coming from your area so you can arrange to carpool, suggests green wedding expert Kate Harrison. "This will cut your costs in half and is a great way to get to know new people."
If you’re going to a wedding, the bride and groom will often set up room blocks, giving you a discounted rate at a few local hotels. However, these rates may not be the best ones in town (or even the best rate for those establishments). Always check Hotels.com and other discount booking sites first to get the best deal.
If you're attending multiple events in major cities, you may want to consider getting a credit card that rewards you for hotel chain loyalty, Rosen says. Hyatt and Starwood properties in particular have cards that give you multiple points per dollar on hotel stays, as well as offer get free upgrades and build status.
Depending on the location of the event, you may be able to forgo a hotel stay altogether for a private apartment, condo or home. "Recruit friends and family to split [a place] and rent from the owner directly via sites like Homeaway or VRBO.com to find the best prices on accommodation," says financial expert Andrea Woroch.
But before booking elsewhere, it may be worth checking with the bride and groom — or the event organizer — as a courtesy. In some cases, they may need you to stay in their room block — some hotels require a certain quota to be met or else the organizer will have to cough up the balance for rooms not used.
Deciding What to Wear
Figuring out attire for semi-formal and formal events is often a bigger expense for women than for men. Fortunately, there are a number of options for saving money on those semi-formal, black tie and cocktail dresses. For less formal affairs, take a tip from money saving expert Zina Kumok and buy a dress that you can also wear to work. "Buying a shift dress, rather than something strapless, can be a great idea because it will transition well with a cardigan or a blazer." Knit fabrics are also typically more wearable than charmeuse and silk chiffon, as are solid colors.
Chicago-based personal shopper and wardrobe stylist Hanna Lee suggests carefully choosing your accessories to get the most bang for your buck. "Buy one pair of nude or neutral heels that can be worn to all your spring and summer events," she says. Then, jazz up your go-to guest dress with inexpensive costume jewelry to refresh your look. (She likes Banana Republic and Nordstrom Rack's options the best.)
If you're attending a black tie or formal wedding or other event, however, you're going to need a fancier dress. Woroch advises checking out RentTheRunway.com to find ball gowns and swanky cocktail dresses for a fraction of the cost. This Badgley Mischka Pastel Petunia Gown retails for $795 and can be rented for as little as $80, for example. The site also has jewelry and other accessories for cheap rental prices too.
How much you decide to spend on a wedding gift depends on many factors. But the best way to save money is to shop early says Charles Tran, founder of CreditDonkey.com, a credit card comparison and financial education website. "The sooner you check out the registry, the more selection you have," he says. "Otherwise, you'll be left with that $499 blender."
If a couple doesn't make their registry information readily available and you don't find out where to shop until later, you're not completely out of luck says Kathy Cheng, founder of Thankful Registry. "If there aren't a lot of things left, fulfill the leftover quantities for wine glasses or place settings," she says. "Then let the couple know in your card you thought they'd appreciate the full set to enjoy."
To stretch your dollar on gifts in general, Woroch advises buying discount gift cards. Sites like GiftCardGranny.com allow you to buy gift cards for less than their face value (up to 30 percent off!) for popular stores like Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Bed, Bath & Beyond. "For instance, you can save 13 percent off Macy’s gift cards to score a $100 gift card for $87 or save eight percent off Williams Sonoma gift cards," she says. (Kumok also suggests checking out Cardpool.com as another resource for discounted gift cards.)
If you're still unable to find a gift that fits in your budget, but worry about looking cheap if you purchase something small, wedding expert Kristen Ley has the perfect solution. "Pick out an item that is about two-thirds worth of the amount you have to spend, and then use the remaining one-third to buy smaller items that go with it," she says. "For example, buy that cute cake plate and then get an inexpensive cake decorating kit to go with it. Or, if the couple registers for grilling items, go for the utensils they need and then supplement with gourmet seasonings, sauces and dry rubs." (Woroch suggests checking out discount retailers like Homegoods for fun, inexpensive add-ons.)
Lastly, you'll want to save money on wrapping, gift bags and cards. Woroch says she loves the dollar store for 50-cent cards and cheap wrapping paper and bows.
If, in the end, the cost of attending a wedding or other big event is just not going to work with your budget, you always have the option of sending your regrets. Be sure to write a sweet note on the RSVP card (or send a separate hand-written note) expressing your desire to be there and decline with class. "Always treat [the host] and invitation with respect," says financial expert and therapist Pegi Burdick. "Let them know as soon as possible if you cannot attend." And remember, Burdick adds, you are still obligated to send a gift for weddings (and it’s a good idea for graduations and birthdays too).