No More Hand-Wringing About How Expensive Weddings Are, Please

Major life events are major life events. What are you saving for, if not for them?
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There have been a bunch of news stories recently about Bridal Brokerage, a new business that buys and sells canceled weddings. If a wedding falls through, the (unlucky) couple sells the location, vendor contracts, and so forth to Bridal Brokerage...which then tries to sell them (at bargain prices) to another (hopefully luckier) couple. It's an ingenious idea—but the thing that really stopped me in my tracks reading about it was an off-hand statistic I saw in the linked article. That statistic being: American weddings, cost, on average $27,000.

I think I've seen a similar figure elsewhere. But no matter how often I come across it, it still makes my jaw drop. The median US household income is only about $45,000, after all. You look at those numbers, and it's clear that there have to be some not inconsequential number of people who are spending more than six-to-nine months worth of income on their weddings—and undoubtedly starting their married life in hock for a $6,000 gown or a $10,000 reception or I don't even know what.

A big part of my sticker shock probably has to do with the fact that my wife and I didn't have a wedding. I certainly didn't want one myself—but my not-wanting was nowhere near her level of adamant apocalyptic not-wanting. Even the hint of a mention of guest lists made the anxiety come off her in waves. She actually moved the date up four months because she was sick of her boss talking to her about it at work, and figured doing the deed would shut her up. And if none of that sounds very romantic—well that's my wife. (She proposed to me in her parent's bathroom. We'd come in to find her some Advil, and she turned around and said, "I think I'm ready to get married now." I suggested that maybe we could talk about it later, and she said that that was fine as long as I said "yes." So I did. )

Anyway—as I said, she moved the wedding up to spite her boss, so instead of having it on Halloween, we had it in summer (neither of us can even ever remember the exact date...I think August 22 or 23). A friend of a friend we'd met at a cocktail party who happened to be a minister married us at our house. We asked him to put in the phrase "for fairer or fouler," and he did, and that was the extent of our effort to personalize the ceremony. We had two friends as witnesses, her parents, and our cats (who were polite enough not to yowl). My wife's dad took pictures and, in a final vain act of protest, cut my head off in just about every one of them. Our rings were family hand-me-downs; she wore a simple red Chinese dress she'd gotten at a thrift store. We had a party a day or so later for friends, and another one out on the East coast at my parents place for my relatives. The whole thing (including plane tickets) probably cost between $1,000 and $1,500. No debt, no trauma about seating or who and who not to invite. Nonetheless, at least as far as I can tell, we still seem to be as married as if we'd spent $10,000, or $27,000, or even $100,000.

It would be easy to argue that we did it the right way—and, again, it was definitely the right way for us. But even though the thought of a $27,000 wedding or, god forbid, a $100,000 wedding fills me with terror, I think it can be a little too easy to decry wedding expenditures. In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, for example, David Graeber notes that "for most people in the world...the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals." It's not like we're the first civilization on the planet that has ever gotten it into its heads that marriage is a big deal, nor the first people to commemorate it, in one way or another, with a large outlay. Major life events are major life events. What are you saving for, if not for them? Along those lines, Eugene Genovese points out in Roll, Jordan, Roll, that there is something more than a little indecent in the eagerness with which middle-class folks have, throughout history, chastised the poor for paying too much for funerals. Genovese argues that "respect for the dead signifies respect for the living—respect for the continuity of the human community and recognition of each man's place within it." Similarly, it seems like wedding expenses—whether totaling $1,000 or $27,000—aren't extravagant waste but a way of showing respect for the community, and of the place of love within it.

Not that more always equals better, or that you have to beggar yourself for love. All things in moderation, even respect for the community—and, like I said, our extremely low-key wedding worked for us. Which is maybe part of why I like the idea of Bridal Brokerage. Folks who have canceled their weddings at the last minute can sell their preparations and recoup some of the expenses. And folks who want a big blowout wedding can find one for a little cheaper.

Laura Beck at Jezebel points out that "there's a bit of a used car salesman feeling" to Bridal Brokerage's business. But even that seems kind of appropriate. After all, America is America; capitalism is what we live in. If our weddings are about our community, then they're going to reek of commerce, at least a little. There's probably no point in wringing one's hands about that. Better instead, perhaps, to focus on getting the best wedding for you—at a bargain price, if possible.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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