The $18,000 Wedding Myth

In the book Little Women, there’s a scene where Meg, the oldest of four sisters, is about to get married. Her (very proper) Aunt March comes in the house to find Meg helping her intended, John, refasten a garland that had fallen down.

“Upon my word, here’s a state of things!” cried the old lady, taking the seat of honor prepared for her, “You oughtn’t to be seen till the last minute, child!”

“I’m not on show, Aunty, and no one is coming to stare at me, to criticize my dress, or count the cost of my luncheon. I’m too happy to care what anyone says or thinks, and I’m going to have my little wedding just as I like it. John dear, here’s your hammer.”

Mr. Brooke didn’t even say, “Thank you,” but as he stooped for the unromantic tool, he kissed his little bride behind the folding door, with a look that made Aunt March whisk out her pocket handkerchief, with a sudden dew in her sharp old eyes.

Later, Meg’s very wealthy friend observes to her husband:

“That is the prettiest wedding I’ve been to for an age, Ned, and I don’t see why, for there wasn’t a bit of style about it.”

I thought of that scene while reading Laura Rowley’s article, “The Myth of the $18,000 Wedding.”

We’ve talked about how to tame out-of-control wedding costs before on Boundless, but I thought Rowley brought an interesting perspective to the discussion. Her idea: the “average” wedding cost that we hear thrown around all the time isn’t really “average” at all. Not only that, but believing in the “average” causes us to increase our consumption.

Rowley writes:

[T]he basis of the calculation is based only on a subset of all the weddings each year. The almost $18,000 “average” comes from, a bridal Web site. According to spokesperson Melissa Bauer, the survey company Decipher polled 21,000 U.S. couples who married in 2009. All of them had registered, or “opted in,” to one of a network of wedding-related sites operated by TheKnot. In other words, the sample is biased toward people who plan big weddings.

After all, in 2007, 40,000 people were married by the New York City clerk’s office — where a ceremony costs just $35.

Not only are the averages wrong, but they can affect our expectations:

Author Rebecca Mead exposed a similar data problem in her 2007 book “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding,” where she cites a $28,000 average figure from a survey conducted by Conde Nast Bridal Group magazines.

“If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month.” Mead writes.

She continues:

Now throw in the community aspect of Web sites, and the battle to steer clear of the $18,000 wedding is nearly lost. Commiserating online with other brides-to-be on floral arrangements, DJs and videographers hardly inspires independent thinking (and budgeting). We take our consumption cues from our peers and often embellish them, writes Ron Wilcox, author of “Whatever Happened to Thrift: Why Americans Don’t Save and What to Do About It.”

People “tend to concentrate on idealized consumption,” Wilcox explains. “We take as anchor points what people around us consume. We remember things we like and don’t like and then construct an idea of what is appropriate to consume. What the memory constructs is more extravagant.”

I thought the point about “idealized consumption” was a good one. No event is more surrounded by idealized daydreams than weddings. But, as Rowley continues, that idealized consumption model can not only leave us shaking our heads at the one-day expense of a wedding, but can also bleed over into our marital finances:

“You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ll just try it once and see how it is,'” [Dan] Ariely explains. “We have to realize that the first decision we make actually matters a lot. And the second thing is to look back into our habits and say, ‘How did we get into this situation that we have this many cars or this size house? Do we really value things in the way we pay for them, or was it a random starting point?'” (In other words, did it all start with an $18,000 wedding?)”

In Little Women, Meg knew what she wanted and what was important to her. Do we have that same confidence? Considering there is a mega-industry invested in our increased consumption (and even a television show where brides criticize each others’ weddings), it can be hard to stand our ground with frugality.

But, I tell you, the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever attended are the ones where the Holy Spirit is felt — whether they had expensive flowers, shrimp cocktails and bands or not.

As Brett Arends writes recently in a Wall Street Journal article on wedding costs, “People who spend more aren’t more married at the end of it.”

About the Author

Heather Koerner

Heather Koerner is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Owasso, Okla.

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