If hell had one more circle, I would fully expect it to be on the eighth floor of Macy’s, on 34th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. That’s where the bridal collection is located, and that’s the first place I fully grasped the twisted insanity that is the American wedding culture.
On a chilly day in February, six months out from the nuptials, I showed up unannounced at the hulking department store, making my way up in a packed elevator. A sales clerk informed me, with the hauteur of a butler from an ancient estate, that one does not simply show up to look at wedding dresses. One makes an appointment — and given the wedding date I had picked, I was already about three to six months tardy. Only after I had been reprimanded for my lack of bridal propriety was I permitted to view the gowns, which were beaded, pearled, sequined, pouffy, and of terrible sheen. All were priced at over a thousand dollars, and all must be ordered many months in advance. Their synthetic trains were sullied, trampled by brides who clearly worked hard at trying on gowns and who took their pre-wifely duties more seriously than I did.
After nearly a year of plighting my troth, I’ve had ample time to reflect. And while I am positively giddy about marrying the love of my life — and while I’m blown away by the love and generosity of friends and family who will cross the country to celebrate with me, regardless of whether I have perfectly matched table runners — I’m thoroughly annoyed with American wedding culture.
Or so I thought. I’ve since learned that planning a truly simple wedding has become practically impossible, unless couples elope or really buck all traditions. Recklessly extravagant weddings have become a cultural expectation. And brides who succumb to the intense pressure to Go Bigger can easily find themselves focused more on planning a wedding than preparing for a marriage.
Industry statistics reveal the extreme excess that ensues. WeddingChannel.com and The Knot publish the “Real Weddings Study,” probably the most authoritative survey on what most couples do before they take their vows.
The cost alone is mind-blowing: I could blow a year’s worth of New York City rent on a single evening, but by industry standards, my wedding would be “budget.” The survey found that last year, the average wedding cost $28,427 — and that’s not even counting the honeymoon. More modest estimates are also bleak; for example, Slate’s Will Oremus crunched the Real Wedding Study’s numbers and discovered the median wedding cost, perhaps a better indication of what people really spend, is $16,886. But even then, 44 percent of brides surveyed spent more than $20,000 on the big day alone, excluding honeymoons or engagement rings.
The average bride spends $12,905 on a “venue” and $1,711 on a “reception site.” (Who knew there was a difference?) She spends $1,997 on flowers and decorations, $560 on cake, more than $3,000 to hire a band. And on and on it goes.
There’s no reason it has to cost that much. A musician friend confessed that she triples or quadruples her fees when she learns she’ll be playing at weddings — “everyone does it because they can,” she tells me. My fiancé and I looked into hiring a quirky local pizza truck to do the catering. According to their daily menu, a large wood-smoked pizza cost between $12 and $15. But because it was a wedding, they quoted us a per-guest cost of about $20. (Call me crazy, but I don’t think my grandma will be consuming 1.3 15-inch gourmet pizzas before we even cut the cake.)
Another friend who worked briefly in wedding planning told me that if I instead claimed I was planning a party, quotes would drop precipitously. It’s true. But if you’ve got anything shiny on your ring finger, you’re fair game to vendors who will price-gouge and use the blessed occasion to guilt-trip brides whose weak spot is the desire to host graciously.
I don’t really blame these vendors; after all, they see the demand and adjust to it, and their entrepreneurship is admirable. But I absolutely blame us for letting them get away with it. Brides will strain their pocketbooks, I think, because they know they’re being watched. Weddings are the new high-school reunions, and, if anecdotal evidence is sufficient, the average guest comes to rate the spectacle as much as to celebrate the sacrament.
For some perspective, other numbers deserve attention. The Pew Research Center found in 2011 that the median marriage age is 26.5 for brides and 28.7 for grooms. Among women between 25 and 34 with a bachelor’s degree, the median income is still only $40,000; for men, it’s $49,800, and that’s pre-tax. And keep in mind the closer you are to age 25, the more likely you are to be unemployed; around one in five young people have been since the recession.
But even assuming the best-case scenario, if you conform to the average wedding budget, you’ve just spent more than a third of your joint yearly pre-tax earnings on a single day. That’s the optimistic calculation, assuming you both have college educations and good jobs. Furthermore, so great is the pressure to supersize that 68 percent of couples polled said even if they lost their jobs before the wedding, they wouldn’t scale back at all.
Then, note that finances are notorious for causing marital discord. Jeffrey Dew, a fellow at the National Marriage Project, has written that “conflicts over money matters predict divorce better than any other types of disagreement. . . . [and] for husbands, financial disagreements were the only type of common disagreement that predicted whether they would divorce.” Couples that fought about money once a week were more than 30 percent more likely to split, he found.
So why on earth would anyone start married life by amplifying the one risk factor highly likely to end it?
And that’s just looking at the financial side of weddings. The time commitment is a whole different issue. The last three months of the engagement alone, brides spend 11 hours a week hammering out the details, the 2011 Real Weddings Study found. Those hundreds of hours could, of course, be invested in building a strong relationship with your future spouse. Furthermore, brides reportedly spend an average of 2.6 hours a week at work planning their wedding, demonstrating how other responsibilities often suffer as the date approaches.
And if you really want to be creeped out, remember that more than one in ten brides started planning the wedding before they got engaged. My anecdotal evidence backs this up: I know women who subscribe to every bridal magazine out there, though they aren’t even dating exclusively yet. Many practically need a dedicated server for their wedding Pinterests. Looking for fun is one thing, but when it becomes a covetous obsession, how can any wedding possibly live up to those glossy, photoshopped expectations?
American culture has put the emphasis on the details, down to the last bridal sparkle and frill. The celebration has become more important than what’s being celebrated. But C. S. Lewis often argued that good things on earth are good because they are a shadow of the Greater Good. For that reason, when good things are corrupted, they can be more destructive than intrinsically bad things; it’s harder to realize that values have been convoluted.
America’s blinged-out weddings come at a time when marriage is, statistically speaking, on the decline. Already, for every two weddings in a year, there’s one divorce (which, it must be noted, is different from that oft-repeated myth that half of all marriages end in a split). The Census Bureau has found that the American marriage rate is at a historic low; only 51 percent of adults have tied the knot.
Perhaps Americans hold excessive weddings as a counter-reaction to marriage’s decline: As American marriages come undone, the wedding becomes overdone.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She will get married on July 13, and she’s thankful for her future husband, her family, and her friends, who are the rare and excellent exceptions to all these complaints.