The Virtues of a Cheap Wedding

Several readers over the past week have shared a very interesting research article from Andrew Francis-Tan of NUS and Hugo Mialon of Emory University entitled ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration, which seems to have received some media coverage recently. The abstract of the paper gives the core idea:

In this paper, we evaluate the association between wedding spending and marriage duration using data from a survey of over 3,000 ever-married persons in the United States. Controlling for a number of demographic and relationship characteristics, we find evidence that marriage duration is inversely associated with spending on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony.

In other words, the paper concluded that the less a couple spent on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony, the less likely they were to divorce and the more likely they were to have a lasting marriage.

On a surface level, this makes a lot of sense. If a couple doesn’t spend extensively on a wedding, they’re going to have more money to establish a firm financial foundation for themselves. That’s going to take away some financial stress in the relationship. Dealing with a five-figure debt from the get go, on top of things like student loans and car loans and so on, can put a great deal of financial pressure on a newly married couple, and given that money is the most common reason for married and cohabitating couples to fight, a big debt right from the start of a marriage seems like a prime ingredient to incite arguments and division.

This was the reason given by a family member of mine, who I’ll call Bill, who recently had a very inexpensive and casual wedding. Their reason was that their wedding was about the people invited, not about flowers and a fancy dress and a country club reception.

However, I think the story runs deeper than that, both for Bill and for weddings in general.

The fact is that there is quite a lot of social pressure to put on a big wedding. By default, people who are unsure about what their wedding will look like will be nudged by popular culture and their social circle to have a big social event for their wedding with dresses and flowers and beautiful decorations and a catered meal and an amazing location for the wedding and the reception… it goes on and on. Those expenses add up.

Now, everyone is a little different. Some people really want that big wedding. Others might feel rather indifferent. Some might actually want a very small and simple wedding. If you put two people together who have different views on what a wedding should look like, there’s bound to be conflict.

But who will win that conflict? The reality is, with social pressure and cultural pressure nudging people toward a big wedding, many couples will end up feeling almost herded that way. In other words, if two people are disagreeing on the size of a wedding, social pressure and popular culture will nudge that couple toward having a big wedding anyway. A big wedding is often the end result of two people who aren’t on the same page about a wedding.

On the other hand, a small wedding usually requires both partners to be on board with a simple ceremony. If they’re not, then cultural and social winds are very likely to blow them to a progressively bigger wedding.

So, my take on this paper is that a small wedding isn’t just indicative of a small bill, but indicative of a couple who has similar values and communicates with each other. A couple that chooses to have a small, inexpensive, simple wedding is bucking the cultural trend toward five-figure weddings and perhaps bucking some social expectation as well, and that’s generally not something that’s going to happen unless the wedding couple has values that are in alignment with each other.

If you combine both of those factors, it’s not surprising to me that a much simpler and much less expensive wedding has a higher likelihood of resulting in lasting marital success than a lavish expensive wedding.

The thing to remember is this: Both partners simply agreeing on an inexpensive wedding because they think it will bring success in their marriage isn’t the right path to follow. Doing that is a misunderstanding of the cause and effect relationship here, though it is a good sign of some sort of agreement in values.

What’s much more powerful is if both partners agree on a simple wedding because it reflects what they each want out of a wedding. It means that they have similar values in at least some ways, that they’ve communicated those values to each other, and that they stand together to have the kind of simple wedding that they want regardless of those pressures around them.

In other words, they have a simple wedding because it reflects their shared values and those shared values are what are likely to help ensure a lasting marriage, not the simple wedding itself.

So, what’s the take home lesson here? For me, the real lesson is that if you’re considering getting married, you and your partner are more likely to find success in marriage if your values point you to at least some common ground in terms of the ceremony and your communication is strong enough that you can work through any differences fairly and equally. A simple wedding is often the result of a process like that, as evidenced by how a simple wedding goes against many prevailing cultural and social ideas about weddings and thus the desire for a simple wedding must be coming from a process of shared values and communication between the couple. It’s those shared values and communication that makes the difference, not the wedding itself. (Plus, there’s the bonus of not having any financial challenges from the wedding to fight over.)

What’s the moral of the story? A cheap wedding won’t ensure marital bliss, but being on the same page in terms of values and being open with communicating with each other will go a long way toward achieving that bliss. The root of a good marriage is communication and values, and a low-cost wedding that reflects those shared values is a great sign.

If you’re thinking about getting married to a person, make sure that your values are in alignment and that there’s a real relationship there that’s more than just physical attraction. If you agree that a cheap wedding is the right move, that’s great and I’m all in favor of that. If you’re both in favor of a big expensive wedding, well, I won’t give it the financial seal of approval, but if you’re communicating clearly about it and you’re both on board with that plan, then that’s a good thing, too.

The thing to be wary about is when you’re not communicating or when you’re not in agreement on values and the other person won’t compromise (note that “completely giving in” is not “compromise” and isn’t healthy either). That’s a sure sign that you should take it slowly and be sure whether or not you actually want to go through with a wedding, inexpensive or otherwise.

So, how was Bill’s wedding? It was an extremely casual and low key affair. The reception was about as unpretentious as possible and it was mostly oriented around family and close friends. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of dancing, a very casual meal, and a lot of fun.

I think Bill and his wife will be just fine.

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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