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And The Bride Wore Debt
Nicholas Kulish writes in The New York Times about the ridiculous excess of so many weddings:

At a lovely wedding I attended recently with nearly 400 other guests, a friend asked aloud what exactly one would have to do in order to be left off the invitation list. A survey this year found that the average wedding costs $27,852, compared with $15,208 in 1990. That is just the average, to say nothing of the mind-bogglingly lavish affairs of the well-to-do. These are now professionally stage-managed events, carried off with the precision of state dinners.

The more taxing, elaborate and expensive the event becomes for the bride and groom, the easier it is for them to lose perspective and begin asking more of their guests. The share of so-called destination weddings, where guests are dragged to Hawaii or Tuscany, has increased 400 percent over the last 10 years.

When my parents were married, my mother and grandmother catered the event themselves, with two friends helping out. There were a mere 80 guests in attendance, less than half the current average. My mother even made her own gown for this Potemkin wedding. Yet our family’s shame is effectively obscured by the photographs of seemingly happy people in dresses and tuxedos, either excellent actors or blissfully ignorant of the fact that they had participated in such a low-rent affair.

...Wedding fatigue, while at times a difficult malady, is hardly the tragedy of our age. It is very unlikely that help is on the way, though perhaps something similar to the Health Savings Account could alleviate some of the strain. It is the curse of wedding fatigue that it strikes those least able to afford it: young adults no longer receiving parental subsidies but still well below their earning potential. Victims tend not to have accrued very many vacation days and are — before the invitations begin clogging the mailbox — hoping to establish a first foothold in the real estate market.

As I wrote in my column a while back:

What really needs planning is the marriage, not the wedding. Your conflict over throwing the nuptial equivalent of the Super Bowl half-time show is probably just the tip of the ice sculpture. What are his expectations about sex, pets, early retirement, personal hygiene, having children, household chores? (Just a guess on that last one, but he expects the house to be really, really clean, and you get to be Cinderella?) Is one of you a tree-hugger and the other more of a "back to pavement" type? Will he inform you during your final stretch of labor that he wants to raise the kid in the Hare Krishna tradition, and he hopes that's cool with you?

Oops, you've been so busy trying to book the Taj Mahal that you forgot to notice whether you're actually compatible. If figuring that out on your own seems daunting, you might take the RELATE (relate-institute. org) or PREPARE (prepare-enrich.com) compatibility surveys. For help turning your current dictatorship into more of a partnership, invest in one of John Gottman's weekend workshops for couples, (gottman.com). Sure, they'll cost you -- about what you'll pay for two and a half hours with a good divorce lawyer after pawning gold-plated garlic presses to pay for groceries starts getting old.

You probably can't make your fiance stop pining for a three-story wedding cake with a sunken koi pond, but maybe you can eventually come to the agreement that "something borrowed" for your wedding shouldn't be $100,000. One of the happiest couples I know borrowed only a house for their wedding -- for a potluck dinner after they got married on the beach, surrounded by 40 of their closest friends. Their un-extravaganza took three weeks of planning and cost several hundred dollars -- if you add the cost of their clothes, several cases of Prosecco they picked up at a wine warehouse, and "a really nice chocolate cake."

Maybe there's something to be said for the simple wedding you want -- one that's more a reflection of love than liens for years to come. It will free you up to focus on what really matters...which, maybe, just maybe, isn't whether the doves fly around on cue or just hop on the bride and groom statuette and do the number they usually do on your windshield.

And that's my ex-assistant Lydia's wedding I mentioned above (the one that cost a few hundred bucks, not a few hundred thousand). I think she's probably been married about five years now, and she and her husband still have that air of being newlyweds about them -- maybe because they know what's important.

Posted by aalkon at August 20, 2006 11:34 AM

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Comments

I like simple wedding ceremonies too, especially if they're outdoors.

Posted by: Lena at August 20, 2006 2:22 PM

You write as though lavish weddings guarantee miserable married lives. As a father to 4 daughters I certainly have my views on wedding spending but I don't share your pessimism. Got any facts to back that assertion up? One Lydia's beach wedding doth not a general case make.

Posted by: Stu "El Inglés" Harris at August 20, 2006 2:37 PM

No, I can't say that spending big necessarily means the marriage will tank -- didn't mean to imply that. I just often get letters from people who are very focused on the wedding who have yet to iron out the details for the marriage.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 20, 2006 3:21 PM

Actually, with so much money floating around NYC these days, the really obscene thing is some people can afford to drop six figures on a wedding without blinking. Like Fitzgerald said, the rich are really different from you and me.

Posted by: kevin_m at August 20, 2006 4:00 PM

I hear about these brides or bridezillas and realize how pervasive this crap about big, fancy Star Jones-esque weddings is....but, seriously, where is this segment of society hiding? I know plenty women--from a range of socio-economic backgrounds--who have gotten married over the past few years and every one of them opted for small, intimate non-Bridezilla weddings & receptions.

Posted by: circumlocutor at August 20, 2006 4:17 PM

Now now Amy, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that my wedding (haha, that's actually one of the signs of the Apocalypse) will be swank beyond belief. I plan on having invitations that say "free beer and donuts" and directions, and that's what we shall have. I'll be using money that would otherwise be wasted on a floofy meringue dress and penguin suits to finance said beer and donuts. Besides...who doesn't like free beer and donuts??

Posted by: amh18057 at August 20, 2006 6:18 PM

I can say "AMEN, to that." I wish sometimes I had thought of all these things. I am definitely a "back to pavement" person. I grew up in L.A. and that place is about 90% concrete. I find where I am now intoxicatingly over-treed.

Posted by: claudia at August 20, 2006 6:53 PM

"Like Fitzgerald said, the rich are really different from you and me."

Well, I don't know who you think I am, but I don't object to people dropping six figures on a wedding, nor do I care if I'm different from them. I'm quite happy to be different from Fitzgerald, however, with his miserable alcoholism.

Posted by: Lena at August 20, 2006 8:11 PM

Honestly, it wasn't directed at you. (Unless your definition of simple weddings that take place outdoors includes renting out the whole of Central Park. Than, alas, it does.)

Posted by: kevin_m at August 21, 2006 7:36 AM

While Lydia's wedding sounds really super.., beach weddings can be just as cringe-making as the bridezilla version ("Let the sand be our humble sacrament, people..."). And beach wedding food can be just awful.

Plus, I've never quite dared to test how far the simple ethos extends in terms of presents. You'd hope a simple bunch of herbs, say, tied with love and a cheap ribbon might be acceptable to the happy couple?

You'd almost certainly be dead wrong.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 21, 2006 8:25 AM

For their wedding in France, where Sam, who's American, grew up, they served cake and champagne and invited the whole village. The most moving wedding I've been to is my friend David Wallis'. He and his wife got married at their house in the Berkshires and served ribs and corn and the cob under a tent. It's not the party that counts. And if you have any sort of life established (ie, you're not dirt poor), I suggest asking guests to make a contribution to the charity of your choice or theirs. ("Love is all we need," in other words.) If that's entirely out of the question, and you're not dirt poor, I wonder if there's too much wedding and not enough marriage.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 21, 2006 8:40 AM

Much to my mother's dismay, our wedding was probably the most quaint around - my father, being a licensed pastor, did the vows (and I can't tell you how teary everyone got because of that), my friend played her guitar as I walked down the rock paved isle beneath trees in a small park, my niece was the flower girl, and the audience was only our immediate family members (who more or less insisted on coming). I didn't even send invitations, just called his mother and gave her my mom's phone number for directions. I think the cake, which was ordered from a caterer was the most expensive part. I picked out my dress in 15 minutes as it was on sale and looked fantastic enough to only wear once. My sister on the other hand took 3 days to pick out a dress that cost more than my car, rented a banquet hall, a band, and had two huge cakes (bridal cake had Barbie on the center) and the grooms cake was an entire set of drums (he's a drummer) - while all very personal and very pretty, i have to admit, I can't tell if when my dad married them if he was crying from how much this ceremony cost him or if he was just so happy to be making her someone else's financial problem.

Posted by: A at August 21, 2006 9:21 AM

All me and Lurlene had was a preacher, a shotgun, and a maternity weddin' smock (XXL Molly Hatchet shirt).

Posted by: Jim Treacher at August 21, 2006 9:40 AM

Two words - Disney Movies

Posted by: Rob at August 21, 2006 10:05 AM

One thing that I think has led to the increase in "destination" weddings these days is the fact that friends and family are probably now more spread out than ever before. My wife and I live in California, as do many of our friends, but our families are spread across the East coast. There was no way we could get married anywhere without lots of people having to travel, so we opted for a beachside resort on the East coast that our parents, grandparents and most of our siblings could get to easily without flying. Most of the rest of our guests flew there and stayed for the weekend; everybody seemed to have a great time. It basically ended up being a weekend-long party with our family and closest friends, many of whom hadn't had the chance to see each other in years. Extravagant? Perhaps, but there don't seem to be many other occasions these days when extended families and friends all gather together in a celebratory manner... the next time we'll probably see a comparable cast of people will be at a funeral.

Posted by: justin case at August 21, 2006 11:06 AM

D-oh! Sorry for multiple postings... kept getting a server error and resubmitted. I'm smrt. My apologies to all.

Posted by: justin case at August 21, 2006 11:09 AM

For an interesting and yet horrifying experience, check out etiquettehell.com. There are tons of stories about weddings and bridezillas that will make your jaw drop.

I never thought much about getting married when I was a young woman. I wasn't too interested in giving up my independence and I never seemed to meet men who I felt compatible with for the long haul. When I did think about marrying I used to fantasize about a smallish yet very upscale wedding in a very elegant old mansion in Michigan (the same one that Eminem & Kim married in last winter). When I finally met the man who was "The One", it was almost funny how fast that fantasy fell away. I didn't need it any more because I had the real deal. Our simple, small wedding took place in an elegant old university inn and cost less than the amount that my in-laws ended up giving us as a wedding gift. (Oh, and we didn't exchange rings at our wedding because we couldn't really afford them at that point.) We only registered for gifts because friends and family kept requesting it. I don't think we registered for anything that cost more than about $50. I wish we had thought about asking folks to donate money to a charity instead, though.

You can't bullet-proof a marriage, but I think that Amy's right in that there needs to more energy put into making sure that both partners are the right ones for each other, than into the wedding preparations. The problem may be as someone else put it - Disney movies. And I'd add that all of the press coverage of royal and celebrity weddings probably puts lots of ideas into the heads of young women that have no business being there.

Posted by: DJP at August 21, 2006 11:39 AM

My ex & I went to the courthouse on a Thursday night and said "Sign us up." And now we're exes. So going small doesn't necessarily demonstrate sincerity any more that going large does.

Amy's right about concentrating on the union and not the ceremony. Maybe having a bunch of people show up and buying a lot of stuff and spending a lot of money helps some people be certain they're with the right one. Maybe if you're her Dad and you're going to sign a huge check for her wedding, you'll want to be sure her guy's not a doofus. Maybe theatrical weddings are a backhanded way that people cry out for help in selecting a mate, as if they were daring their friends to tell the truth about the partner.

Posted by: Crid at August 21, 2006 1:40 PM

I think Amy, Crid and others are exactly right (at least in my limited experience of being married 1 year) - regardless of how you dress up the wedding celebration, the marriage will depend upon the quality of the underlying relationship. More than anything else, I think it's wise to take the time to really know one another well, go through some life struggles together, and see whether these things deepen or weaken the relationship. My wife and I were together for 5 years before we married, and knew each other as friends before we dated. When we tied the knot, we had a pretty good sense of who we were marrying, and why.

Posted by: justin case at August 21, 2006 2:03 PM

It goes without saying that the quality of the relationship is more important than the size of the wedding. I'm just kind of uncomfortable with the slightly moralizing tone throughout this discussion thread. Why should you care if some people prefer to spend a lot of money on their weddings? None of us have to attend the big obnoxious weddings if we don't want to. If you don't fuck with my preferences, I won't fuck with yours. Knock yourself out, Wedding Day Barbie.

Perhaps we could see the Big Wedding as an indicator of healthy economic activity for a number of industries, sort of like housing starts. There are many photographers, musicians, caterers, seamtresses, tailors, chefs, etc, who depend on these sorts of lavish events for a living. I like to see people make a living. Don't you?

Posted by: Lena at August 21, 2006 8:07 PM

Bigger weddings, bigger homes, bigger vehicles, bigger yachts, etc. etc...it's all about keeping up appearances.

Posted by: Doobie at August 21, 2006 9:34 PM

> It goes without saying that the quality
> of the relationship is more important
> than the size of the wedding.

Not to be smartass, but apparently it need very badly to be said. I think people (meaning, for instance, me) aren't forming these unions in consultation with the broad perspectives of people who love them, and will love them whether they marry or not. This isn't an argument for betrothal, I'm just saying a lot of bad marriages could be nourished to success (or squelched beforehand) if people were better about getting thoughtful opinions from others.

Your final point is correct, I just hope someday to hear someone say: "I'm not going to Theresa's wedding because David's an asshole." It's too easy to drop a giftwrapped toaster on the table and head for the open bar.

Posted by: Crid at August 21, 2006 10:29 PM

"I'm just saying a lot of bad marriages could be nourished to success (or squelched beforehand) if people were better about getting thoughtful opinions from others."

I don't see how a large wedding is going to necessarily get in the way of someone getting thoughtful opinions from others, or how a small proletarian-style wedding will necessarily guarantee it. LET PEOPLE SPEND THEIR MONEY.

Posted by: Lena at August 22, 2006 6:12 AM

My first wedding was a backyard affair. My husband-to-be (look up what 'husband' means) was clearly the one with veto power, and he used it liberally. My family cooked, decorated, served and cleaned up. His family enjoyed themselves. He graciously allowed me to invite three of my friends. Feelings were trampled. Long story short - metaphor for the marriage. It didn't last.

My second wedding was a lovely blend of tradition and individuality at a friend's restaurant. My (second and final) partner and I openly discussed what each of us wanted and didn't want and arrived and peaceful and flexible resolutions. He demonstrated nothing less than ultimate concern for my feelings without compromising himself. We had a fantastic evening with family and friends. Again, metaphor for the marriage - 5 years and going strong.

The moral, at least for me, is that you should both be comfortable being who you are and expressing that through your wedding. If you can't agree and blend your styles and enjoy the public declaration and celebration of your union with those of your choosing, then you're making a big mistake REGARDLESS of the size/scale/$$$$$.

Amy has it 100% right when she says plan the partnership, not the party. Parties come and go. You have to clean up after them when they end. You don't want to have to clean up after your partnership ends, you know?

Posted by: Jen at August 22, 2006 11:38 AM

Lena, it ain't the wasted money that's worrisome. It's the shitty marriages.

Posted by: Crid at August 22, 2006 1:03 PM

Glad to hear you make that distinction, Crid.

If people have a great time at the wedding, is it wasted? Receptions can be a total fucking blast.

Posted by: Lena at August 22, 2006 3:08 PM

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