Well Being

5-Year Engagements And $30K Weddings: Better Media Fodder Than Reality

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USA Today yesterday ran a fluff piece as an excuse to promote the release of a new Jason Segal movie, The 5-Year Engagement, which while astonishing in its transparency was sadly typical in terms of the wedding narrative it pushed. The gist of the piece was that couples are having longer engagement periods in order to save up for ‘dream weddings,’ which now cost an average $26,500. But who are these people allegedly spending so much?

I know a lot of people who’ve married recently or are marrying soon. While I’ve not discussed precise wedding financing with most of them, the general consensus among these newlyweds and soon-to-be-weds is that weddings don’t have to be staggeringly expensive. There are “traditions” and “necessities” that you can skip. Or there are ample ways to get deals or scrimp on these things.

Of course, I understand how averages work—just because many couples spend less on their weddings, many spend more; and despite the fact that my personal wedding sample spans states and social milieus, everyone has been (independently or historically) somewhere on the spectrum of middle class.

Still, I can’t help but suspect that $30,000 planned-for-2-years wedding is more of a media creation than a reflection of most realities. Or the weddings at the top cost so much that they skew the average misleadingly upward. Or that there are many, many people who get married in very simple and inexpensive ways who fly under the radar, whose experiences aren’t included in these officials surveys of wedding costs (which, by the way, always seem to be conducted by The Knot or Brides magazine or other parties with a vested interest in the notion that having a wedding requires lots of money or lots of planning and DIY centerpiece guides).

On Facebook yesterday, here are a few of my friends’ comments about the USA Today article:

I legitimately do not understand why any wedding needs to cost $26,000. There’s just so much crap that no one actually needs (or even ultimately notices, at all) that convention says you “must” have at a wedding. It’s absurd.

I’m the events chair for an association in my town, and I’m responsible for party planning. I’ve noticed in my research and work with caterers and venues that anything related to weddings costs about 25% more or higher. The location we’re using is costing us $500. A wedding rental would be $2500. People are willing to pay this because they have to have the “ultimate wedding” or top their friends. You also have people planning events that are clueless and don’t know how to negotiate, so they pay top dollar.

People get in trouble when they put the needs of the “Perfect” wedding before the needs of the marriage. If you don’t have the means for the full-on Cinderella treatment; if you need to delay your marriage five years to afford some image of perfection in your wedding – your priorities are seriously screwed. Have the wedding you can, not the wedding that Brides Magazine says you should.

You can have a nice event with some creativity and realistic expectations. Chances are that your wedding won’t be featured in the New York Times. Why get into debt?

Another common sentiment (and one that holds true, in my experience) is that the cost and size of a wedding often reflect people’s parents finances or wishes more than their own.

This gets lets true the older you get—the older and farther away from their time at home members of a couple are, the more likely they are to be financing their own wedding. This often means limited funding, though obviously its all relative, and while some 20-somethings may still be working barely-paid internships or finishing school, others may be well into decent and lucrative careers. [It’s a weird decade, financially and professionally.] But those that marry younger (or have significantly wealthy parents) seem more likely to have a parent or six holding the proverbial pursestrings, and many a couple that would have things more low-key face swelling guest lists and productions as parents put conditions (implicit or otherwise) on their money.

So what’s going on here: Am I completely off base, along with my friends? Do most people spend so much on their weddings, in your experience? Or is this another style-section-created urban legend?

P.S. “Weddings have become an expression of what’s unique about the couple. It brands them,” says professor of family social science William Doherty, in what may be worst sentence ever said about modern weddings.