When I was 23 and just out of school, I was living with my parents and deciding what to do with my life while waiting tables. And a tall, dark, and handsome musician I'd dated in high school suddenly came back into my life. He was wonderful and talented and so sweet—and, like me, broke. But, good heavens, did I fall for this guy.
He completely surprised me by getting down on one knee about eight months later with an engagement ring he’d borrowed from my mother. It was the same ring my father had surprised her with thirty years earlier. Of course I said yes! I’d never liked that ring, but the history of my parents’ thirty-year marriage that the ring carried with it, and the sincerity of my fiancé’s intention, somehow made it mean more to me than any giant rock I could have picked myself. It wasn’t how I’d envisioned it; it was actually better.
When we started planning the wedding, things seemed simple enough. I didn't want anything extravagant. Just flowers, a great photographer, and an enormous cake. I wanted a celebration that would allow me to share this staggering joy I had miraculously stumbled upon with my whole community of friends and family. I’d always pictured it that way.
But then reality set in. Discovering how much a low-end dress cost was just the beginning of many nauseating trips to one shop or another. I quickly learned that when buying flowers for your wedding, for instance, you should say event—not wedding—to your florist of choice to avoid a markup. In other words, you’ll get charged extra because the wedding industry knows that you'll pay extra. And you’ll pay extra because our culture has been conditioned to believe that this extravagance is not only justifiable but necessary. Planning a perfect wedding became equated with planning a perfect marriage. As the old De Beers advertisements implied, we think we can buy forever.
And boy, do we buy into it. According to a nationwide survey from The Knot, the average American wedding in 2014 cost $31,213 (excluding the honeymoon). That's a solid year's income for some of us. It’s a year of college. Or a nice down payment on a house. All told, the wedding industry will pull in a collective $50 billion this year.
So what is all this money actually buying us?
Turns out, it might not be that much. According to one recent study, there is an inverse relationship between wedding and engagement expenses and the duration of a marriage. Two economics professors at Emory University, Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon, found that “spending between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring is associated with a 1.3 times greater hazard of divorce as compared to spending between $500 and $2,000.” They also found that women who spent $20,000 or more on their weddings have a 60 percent greater risk for divorce than women who spend between $5,000 and $10,000.
Let me just say that we were already on the low end of those numbers, but even with intentionally cutting corners I felt my stress compounding. All I could see were dollar signs. I was miserable planning this event. I was miserable trying to justify the money spent on it. I was so anxious and stressed out about everything.
This was about the time my mother made me an offer that impacted my future much more than flowers or food or a perfect celebration ever could. She and my father suggested that my fiancé and I take the modest amount they’d reserved for the wedding and use it to start our new life together.
This suggestion changed everything. Why not go to the justice of the peace and move forward with the life I'd envisioned since I was a teenager and couldn't wait to begin living? No need to send a save the date, invitation, and dinner card. We could invite people by phone. Nothing more was needed.
I had to stop and think about it. My husband-to-be had made the same suggestion three days after proposing. "We already know we want to get married; why wait?" I, however, was convinced that I’d really, really regret it. If I didn’t fulfill my vision (however muddy it was becoming) of this wonderful celebration, I feared I would always remember my wedding day with a pang of sorrow. The day that was supposed to be so special but would end up being so . . . not. A lifetime is a long time to regret something, I said.
But then it occurred to me that the only person I really needed to hear me make the beautiful promise of a lifetime commitment was the man to whom I was committing. The family and close friends who would help us keep that commitment in good times and bad? They were a bonus.
I cannot describe the relief that flooded me as I realized if we did this I wouldn't have to find a good tailor, look at one more centerpiece idea, or mail invitations. I could just go get married and I could be super happy about it.
So we gratefully took that check from my parents and immediately signed a lease on the home where we would begin our new life together. I dug a white sundress out of my closet that I'd purchased for $10 the summer before. We got a marriage license and (after I bribed someone to take my Thursday evening shift) said "I do" at our local city park four days after my mother's suggestion. There were fewer than twenty guests. Our parents, our siblings, and a precious few lifelong friends—the people who had shaped our lives and who would continue walking this path with us—were our witnesses. We woke up the next morning and both went to work. But everything was different. Coming home to each other marked the beginning of our married life.
That was ten years ago. My husband and I are still married and still have a beautiful life together.
Now, I'm not saying this is the best or only way to do things. I share my story because I am to this day grateful for the perspective my parents and fiancé offered me when I was drowning in dresses and price quotes. I really got lost in creating an event that my husband and I, and all our family and friends, would remember with joy for a lifetime. By clearing away all of the frills—the flowers, the cake, the dress—I was able to see what my core meaning was: To create a home and a life with my husband that our family and friends could joyfully be part of for the rest of our lives.
The wedding industry is right about one thing: Planning for a wedding does take a lot of work and a lot of resources. But think again about where you choose to invest them. I don't have any regrets about the way I did things, even though it was nothing like what I'd envisioned as a little girl. I remember my wedding day with joy, not because of the time, energy, and resources I invested into that single day, but because we chose to pour our energy and meager resources into the wonderful new life we were beginning together. And that investment paid off. I remember my wedding day fondly because it was the inauspicious beginning of every wonderful thing that has happened since.