How much can you expect to pay for a person to come to your location and officiate your wedding? What is a fair price ― a price that doesn’t seem like gross profiteering to you, and is a respectable wage to them?
In the past few months, I’ve had a variety of exchanges with people ― both email and phone ― about the economics of lifecycle officiation. Most of these were about weddings in particular, but they have also happened around vow-renewal ceremonies, tombstone unveilings (a Jewish funeral tradition) and baby namings as well.
In one way or another, these people made it clear that they were taken aback to discover the “going rate” for wedding officiation. One person put it more bluntly, in a comment she posted on the wedding site The Knot. Her vent to fellow brides was along the lines of: “How can a person charge $500 for a 20-minute service!? It’s outrageous!”
Hmmm. Actually, it isn’t. And I’ll explain why.
In this post, here is what I hope to share:
• How much does it cost to hire a wedding officiant in metro Philly (or the East Cost in general)?
• How much should it cost?
• How can you save costs on a wedding in order to be able to hire the talents of a good wedding officiant ― as opposed to someone just “dialing it in?”
• Lastly, for the truly budget-bound, I’ll offer some even more frugal ideas.
As you continue reading, I’d like to challenge you to think of these questions: What kind of a price quote do you expect to hear when asking for a price quote? Is your expectation reasonable? Do you believe a person engaged in a “religious” occupation should be taking a vow of poverty? If you extrapolate out your price expectation, would the person be living in poverty?
How you answer those questions might influence how you have, up until now, thought about the economics of the different people you are hiring to conduct your wedding.
So How Much DOES It Cost, Anyway? (Your cheapest option)
In the state of Pennsylvania, you can get married for $90. Literally. Go to City Hall downtown, get a “self-marrying license” for $90, wait three days (that’s a legal requirement), and then sign the license in the company of two legal adults. They will sign it too, and provide their addresses. Mail it back to the court. You are married.
People often express disbelief when I tell them this, but it is the honest to God’s truth. This is how I legally married. You can thank the Quakers for this; the state has very easy marriage laws because it was founded by a religious community that believed ardently against hierarchies.
If I take one issue with the “wedding chapel” type businesses propped up around the state, it’s the fact that not one them ever admit this fact. As someone who worked in journalism for two decades, I’m a big believer in “full disclosure.” You can get married in Pennsylvania for under $100, and you don’t need anyone else to do it.
So, if you really can’t afford a wedding, don’t have one. Do this, and go on a honeymoon instead!
Your Next Budget Option
Your next-lowest price alternative is to go to a place like the Wedding Chapel, open for business 365 days a year. Their cheapest “drop-in rate” – which still requires a reservation – is $95. This is still in addition to the marriage license fee (which you must get at a court house.) Then for their $95 fee, they will let you pose for traditional pictures in their chapel and on their grounds, and they conduct a “ceremony” for you using a stripped down and pre-scripted script. This cheapest price does not allow you to bring guests: It’s just for you and the groom.
In other words, your total price for this option is: $95 + $90 = $185.
The Wedding Chapel does have other packages, going up in price, to which you can bring a couple of guests. Another place I’ve found online, called HumbleManWeddings, charges $150 (plus the price of the license) to go to his house, and be married by him in his backyard garden. (So, $150 + $90 = $210 total.) The pictures on his website look lovely, and he seems like a nice enough guy. I haven’t met him personally.
So, if you want at least the bones of a ritual, but otherwise can’t afford a wedding, something along these lines would work best for you.
Having an Officiant Come to You
After these options, you have entered the realm of standard wedding officiation – where you are hiring someone to come to your event, wherever that might be, and deliver a heartfelt, meaningful ceremony before you and your guests. You plan in advance (in person or by phone), and you secure the officiant’s commitment at the time and place you have chosen.
The low-end range for this kind of ceremony is around $350. For that price, an officiant will not hold any pre-meetings in person, will not spend a lot of time getting to know you and writing a personalized “speech” or blessing for your ceremony, and is probably not traveling too great a distance to the venue site.
However, one would hope they are still taking the time to customize a ceremony with readings, sentiments and God-language (or lack of God language) that matches who you are as people.
A more typical price range for what I will call a truly customized service is $500 to $1000. Factors affecting the price are: who is offering the service, where the event is being held (travel time), and perhaps even what season it is. This is the price range you can expect for a full-on, traditional half-day wedding. You’ll meet in person with the officiant beforehand, and communicate a good half-dozen times shoring up details of your ceremony. The officiant will spend several hours on-site on the day of your wedding, plus however many hours traveling.
If the distance is more than a few hours, it would be nice if you offered one night’s stay at your hotel. I’m always grateful and appreciative when people hiring me extend this option.
Here are three factors that influence price:
• The education or training of the officiant. As in all professions, people who have invested tens of thousands of dollars into their learning tend to charge more than someone who, for example, was ordained on the Internet. (And all the shades in between).
You may find that rabbis tend to charge more than pastors; that’s because the length of our education is often five or six years of full-time coursework. Most Protestant programs take about two years.
• The season. Why is this? Well, there are a LOT of weddings in the spring. If you are struggling with a budget, you can negotiate better prices among all your vendors if you schedule in the off-season.
This spring, I got a call from someone pressing the price-panic button. I was very sympathetic until I learned their wedding was on a Saturday night in mid-May. I’m happy to give discounts to people in financial distress, but my Saturdays in May are going to be booked solid; can I really afford to take a huge cut in my usual fee when this means I will probably turn away another event that would have paid me full price? Especially when the wedding business (and hence my income stream,) is so erratic?
If you’re hoping to negotiate with your vendors, think about your timing. November weddings are much easier to negotiate than June weddings.
• Lastly, distance. If an officiant is travelling 4 hours to and from your wedding, versus 30 minutes, that’s a big difference. Not just in miles on a car and time in a day, but in my case at least, in the cost of child care! In my early years of officiating weddings, I actually lost money a couple of times because I failed to take travel time into consideration.
More About Those Pesky Wedding Licenses
Keep in mind, by hiring a traveling wedding officiant, you still must go to the court house and pay for the license itself. A “standard” license at City Hall (good for anywhere in the state) is $80. A self-marrying license is $90.
If you are getting married in a county other than Philadelphia, you also have the choice of getting a license in the courthouse of the county where you are marrying. Those licenses must be used in the county in which it was issued. Other counties charge slightly less money than Philadelphia ― $50 or $60 for example. But the difference is negligible. I suggest going to whichever location is easiest to deal with.
Hiring a Wedding (or Ritual) Officiant: What You Are Paying For
So if you aren’t hiring a ritual officiant for the legal aspects of getting married, why hire one at all? And how can you weigh a “good” one from a “bad” one?
What you are paying for when you hire an officiant, is the skill, knowledge and heart of the person who is creating the ritual for you. Even if what you want is “very simple,” no officiant worth their own dignity is going to show up with some canned, pre-scripted script with just your names inserted.
But alas, some people actually will. When I see people advertising a “customized” wedding ceremony for only $250, all I can think is: “Well, it must not be very customized, then.” When you compare ads and officiants for weddings, we all use words like “customized,” but we don’t necessarily mean the same thing.
Most people getting married think: “Oh, I don’t want anything fancy. It’s simple.” Well, it may be simple in how it looks on the outside, but in the details, there are a million different ways that I can stand up and marry two people.
• Do you want someone standing up in front of your guests, quoting passages from the Old Testament and talking about the role of wife as a “helpmate”? If you do … that’s fine! But you don’t want to hire me.
• How do you feel about the audience saying “amen”?
• How “spiritual” do you like to get? Is it okay if your officiant wears a big bright hat and flowing robes? Or do you prefer a more demure or formal presentation? (I’m not in the big hat camp, by the way. Just fyi …)
• Would you like your officiant to crack a few jokes, or do you think a wedding ritual should be more serious?
• Does 10 minutes sound about right? Or more like about 20? Or even 30?
• Would you like a guest or two to come up and do a reading?
• Do you know what readings you like? How many hours do you have to find some? (I have a PDF file 25 pages long of readings I’ve assembled over the years; some officiants really strive to give you all the options; others leave you to figure it out on your own. That’s why they are only charging you $250!)
• Do you want to write you own vows? Do you need guidance on writing them? Will the officiant offer it?
Even though we wedding officiants DO recycle parts of ceremonies and readings here and there, there is no such thing as a “canned script.” At least not one that is going to do you or your guests any justice.
Without spending at least some time talking to the officiant, explaining who you are as people and what your preferences are, we have no way of knowing what is the “right” thing to say.
It Just Takes Time
Beyond this ephemeral thing called “skill” you are paying for in an officiant, the other thing you are paying for is his or her time.
It takes time for an officiant to field calls and return calls (some of which won’t yield work). It takes time to:
* think about the couple and all the ways something can be said;
* get to know both partners, outline the many ritual choices, sometimes even meet with their parents;
* plan ahead for their date and not schedule vacations or personal events on the day of their wedding;
* give up time with our own family, usually on a weekend and often in an evening;
* possibly hiring a babysitter;
* travel each way to the venue site, which often takes more time than the wedding ritual itself.
In short, we are investing way more than the “20 minutes” presumed by that blogger on The Knot ― even for a “simpler” lower-budget wedding, we are spending hours upon hours. And how many people you have in attendance at your wedding or vow renewal has virtually no impact on how much time we spend. Caterers price based on head count, but for officiants, attendance numbers don’t have much impact.
The prices people quote you will be an indication of how much time, thought and energy they are planning to spend creating the ritual of your wedding.
Is it okay with you if your officiant shows up five minutes before the ceremony, reads a canned script that takes under 10 minutes to declare you married, and then dodges out the door the minute it is over? If you are okay with that, you can probably find someone willing to go as low as $250.
But, if the ritual part of your wedding is more important to you then that; if you want to be more involved, have a choice of readings, maybe even meet in person first; if you want your officiant to show up early and stick around a little bit afterward – well, you’ll need to anticipate a higher price.
I hope this helps!
For more on weddings, please see some of my other posts:
* “How can I make my Jewish or interfaith wedding unique, funny or even funky?”
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