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Dear Bintel: How do I ask the groom’s parents to help pay for our wedding?

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Dear Bintel,

I’m getting married next summer — yay! I know that tradition suggests the bride’s family pays for the wedding, but I find this to be a pretty archaic tradition (can you say dowry?!) that I really don’t want to play into. Despite my reservations, it’s looking like my family will be hosting the wedding on their property and the guest list will be predominantly from my family and friends of the family. 

My partner and I are planning to contribute to the festivities as well, but my in-laws have not offered to contribute anything. Financially, they are certainly able to do so. I think it’s important that my in-laws feel invested in the celebration. It’s their son getting married after all! I’m struggling with how to break this archaic norm while also acknowledging that the party will ultimately be weighted in the bride’s direction.

Signed,

Bride’s Dilemma

Dear Bride’s Dilemma,

First of all, mazel tov! What a blessing to find partnership in this complicated world. And after nearly three years of pandemic-postponed parties, to be able to hug and kvell in person as two people pledge their love — we’ll never take that for granted again.

Alas, before you can smile beneath that huppah, there’s all this dreck to figure out. Our advice: Until and unless someone offers you money upfront, just plan the wedding that you and your partner can afford. Should someone be generous enough to hand you a check after the glass is smashed, it’ll feel like you won the lottery.

But that advice comes from the only wedding I ever planned — my own, decades ago, paid for out of pocket by me and my husband — and you deserve an up-to-date expert. So I took your dilemma to Anita Diamant, author of The Jewish Wedding Now as well as the bestselling novel The Red Tent

In describing your situation, I made what I now realize was a ridiculous comment: “She should just ask them how much money they’re willing to give, right?” I said. “It’s pretty simple.”

“I don’t think it is simple,” Diamant said. “Money is complicated.” When it comes to planning a wedding, she added, “money is power.”

Diamant said you should “start by not talking about money. Start by talking about the wedding in a fun way. Say, ‘This is the wedding we’d like to have — this kind of energy and this kind of fanciness.’”

Let your partner’s parents know “what’s most important” to you, she said, “what you want it to look like, be like, feel like. This way, it’s not a list of demands you’re making.”

It sounds like you may already have had this conversation with your parents; if not, you should. Especially since they’re providing the venue, which will save you a ton of money, you want to be on the same page. 

Then have your partner initiate a conversation with his parents. Whether you join in the talk at that point or later depends on your relationship. If your usual back-and-forth with them is relaxed and open, you should be part of the huddle. If it’d be harder for them to say what’s on their minds or ask forthright questions with you in the room, hold off.

This conversation, or a series of them, should paint a picture. Do you want the wedding vibe to be simple or sumptuous? Artsy or traditional? Are you thinking daytime or evening? Filet mignon or Middle Eastern meze? Full bar or beer and wine? Band or DJ? 

Throughout, Diamant suggests you say: “That’s what we were thinking. What do you think?”

And don’t forget to discuss the ceremony, where they might have strong feelings about who walks down the aisle or stands under the huppah. Maybe each family could provide a kiddush cup. Be flexible; be creative. “There’s really a lot of leeway in what makes a Jewish wedding,” Diamant said.

You might also think about specific things they can underwrite: That same sexist tradition that calls for the bride’s family to foot the bill for the wedding generally has the groom’s side host the rehearsal dinner. I’ve also known families where an aunt bought the wedding gown or a sister paid for the photographer. 

You mentioned your distaste for the old-fashioned, dowry-like tradition of the bride’s family paying for everything, and I couldn’t agree more. But I’m troubled by your seeming acceptance of the idea of an imbalance in the invitation list. Is your family assuming they get to invite more people because it’s on their property? That might be making your future in-laws feel excluded or hurt — and that could explain their lack of financial commitment. Why should they pony up if their Aunt Bessie is getting squeezed out?

Your in-laws may also just be thinking the wedding costs are all taken care of, and plan to give you a generous gift after the fact. Certainly, many parents would rather help with a down payment on  a house than watch their kids blow cash on fancy tablecloths and a video crew. 

At some point, you need to tell everyone, respectfully and with kindness, what you need, what you want and why. There’s a difference between asking for a check because you otherwise cannot cover costs and seeking shared responsibility out of political principle. Getting clear with yourselves, and then with all involved, about your own motivations is the first step. 

Whatever you do, Diamant said, keep in mind that “people don’t marry. Families marry.” 

“You want to start it off on a decent footing,” she said. “Start out with an open mind and an open heart, and without any assumptions.” The sticky issue of who’s paying for what on this one day is just the first in a lifetime of complexity integrating two families’ traditions, needs and emotions.

Signed,

Bintel

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