Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Lie of Wedding "Averages"

Quite often we'll hear quotes for the average wedding cost. The figures usually seem to fall somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars, and they get thrown into the public forum by all manner of newspaper and magazine journalists and television fluff-news reporters. Why is it that I've never seen any of these commentators challenge the truth of these figures?

Occasionally, as in this article on CNN Money, the source of the average will be given. However, this is rare.

Those crazy "averages" aren't averages at all. They're based on wedding-industry figures - which means the data used is based on traditional wedding purchases and vendor sales figures. In the article linked above, the figure was provided by the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank; Conde Nast publishes Bride, Modern Bride, and Elegant Bride, and owns

Industry wedding averages won't reflect brides and grooms who do a lot of the work themselves, use nontraditional items or use items in nontraditional ways, and use vendors who aren't members of industry associations.

They also average in the costs of a whole lot of junk with which most couples don't even bother. This ridiculous website averages in [edit 07/18/10: The website changed its content, so I altered this paragraph and added the paragraph following it to bring my content up to date and to address what I believe is a fallacy of logic on the part of Cost of Wedding] "facial hair service," "massage," and "travel for guests." Now, some people do opt for professional grooming services before their weddings, but enough to justify including the costs in a wedding average? And it's the rare couple who can afford to spring for their guests' transportation. [Edit 09/17/11: Wow. The site has changed its language once again. Now it no longer refers to "facial hair service," "massage," and "travel for guests." It does however (and I've no idea if this was factored in originally) average in pedicure costs and the costs of a DJ and a band. That's right, a DJ and a band, not a DJ or a band.]

Although Cost of Wedding does make a point of saying it uses the figures of "other brides and grooms" and "not wedding vendor prices," this implication of research integrity is misleading. So this company isn't creating imaginary couples, so what? Unless someone alleged that it was, this is a classic straw man argument. Unless it is averaging in nontraditional purchases and purchases made at non-industry-related outlets, it isn't using figures that can truly reflect average wedding spending.

The bottom of the "About Wedding Cost" page of the preceding website says, "Cost of wedding is owned and operated by The Wedding Report, Inc. a provider of wedding statistics and wedding market research for the wedding industry. For more information about The Wedding Report, Inc. visit" Big shocker there, huh?

[Edit 07/18/10: The following three paragraphs are also new material.] Read about the Cost of Wedding/Wedding Report methodology, and you'll find that Cost of Wedding, at least, does not use a mean (discussed in the below update of 05/11/10). However, it collects data on "over 100 products and services" and uses a "proprietary formula to calculate estimates and growth rates for each item, for each market." It then uses a "weighted demand average" in determining average cost. The concept of weighted demand is a good one, but we have no idea how this company assigns weight. The Wedding Report goes on to say that its methodology "takes into account all items that a market may purchase."

How is this an improvement on a standard mean? In fact, "all items a market may purchase" doesn't even conceptually resemble "all items a market is likely to purchase." Furthermore, as alluded to above, there is much room for debate concerning what products and services should be defined as wedding expenses. Should an indulgence like a massage, popular though it may be, be considered a wedding expense? If a stressed-out employee splurges on such a service, he or she is unlikely to be able to call it a business expense.

When a business makes its methodology public, the immediate impression we're left with is certainly that of the company's transparency. But it isn't possible to use an undisclosed "proprietary formula" and have true transparency. That's like giving someone a recipe with "secret sauce" listed as an ingredient. Without knowing what goes into the secret sauce, the cook doesn't really know what goes into the dish.

Update 05/11/10:
I have recently come across another criticism, pointed out by more than one writer before me, of the mythical wedding average. That is, that a wedding average is often a mean - the total after the costs of multiple weddings are added together and then divided by the number of weddings. The figure you're left with isn't representative of what most people spend on their weddings at all (that would be the median), because even one really expensive wedding will skew the total upward. And if you're thinking that an inexpensive wedding could skew the figure downward as well, thus nullifying the effect of an expensive wedding, remember how unlikely it is that the items used in a low-budget wedding conform to the neat industry categories reflected or are purchased at standard industry outlets. In other words, really low-budget weddings are unlikely to be reflected in such averages, while really high-budget weddings are. Therefore, the figure skewing will naturally trend upward.

Update 07/20/10: A more streamlined version of this entry was chosen as a Shine "Editor's Pick" for the Love & Sex page.

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