I spot Beth, 30, and her husband Jim, 27, sitting in the back corner of Wendy’s, sipping soda. Jim greets us, and I can tell immediately that he has an eccentric flare—he is both a video game fanatic and a Southern gentleman. His longish dark brown hair, parted down the middle, flows outwards from the center part in a wave that matches his dark mustache, reminding me of Cogsworth in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Beth, dressed in black dress pants, and a white and black sequined tunic, looks like she came straight from her job as a receptionist at a doctor’s office.
At the age of 18, Jim got a job pushing carts at a grocery store. Nine years later, he is still there but has worked his way up as a senior member of their systems team, where he takes care of all computer-related problems for the store. Though neither he nor Beth has a four-year college degree, they make enough to pay the bills and recently purchased a two-bedroom ranch in a small town in southwestern Ohio.
Jim says that in their first few years of marriage, though, they felt buried by debt, including wedding debt. “It’s like we started off—we had a fair amount of digging to do, but…we managed to dig our way out, at least as far as we’ve gotten.”
To accommodate a large extended family for their wedding, they rented a conference center big enough for their 210 guests. Beth’s parents, a technician for a cell phone company and a school cafeteria worker, helped out a lot but couldn’t cover everything, so Jim took out a loan somewhere between $2-4K to pay for the DJ and flowers and “just for breathing room until we started getting regular paychecks going again.” Beth opened a credit card to pay for her dress, and she put other wedding odds and ends on her other credit card.
“We probably should’ve looked at the numbers for the wedding—that whole mess—more than we did,” Jim says. “That was a mess—mercifully, all that’s behind us.”
As USA Today recently reported, in the last 10 years, the average cost of weddings has increased significantly, from $16,000 for an 110-guest wedding in 2006 to $28,000 in 2016, according to a comparison from online wedding planning site WeddingWire, which collected data from 15,000 couples. Average engagement length also jumped from eight months to 13 months, perhaps to give time for the more demanding planning required by increasingly personalized weddings. "Today, couples want to differentiate their weddings from others with themes and more customized events," USA Today notes. "While only 17% of couples had a theme for their wedding 10 years ago, today nearly 50% have a theme, while 1 in 4 has a personalized cocktail."
My younger sister got engaged a few weekends ago, with her thoughtful boyfriend planning a surprise proposal on the top of Cincinnati’s Carew Tower, followed by a gathering of friends and family who traveled from six different states to celebrate with the couple. But after the fun of the engagement weekend, the pressure of wedding planning hit with a shattering thud. My sister has never been one to dream of wedding details and wishes that she could instead have more time to focus on just learning to be a couple and preparing for marriage, as well as a related move to a new city and a transition to a new job. We expect young couples to have skills and expertise in large-scale event planning, when practicing more basic skills like household budgeting and relationship conflict resolution would be time better spent.
It’s a shame that cultural norms surrounding weddings have shifted so much in a generation. My parents, who married in the early 1980s recall that virtually everyone they knew got married in their church, followed by a small reception in the church basement with sandwiches and cake following the ceremony. Church ladies helped with the food and costs were minimal. There was even less ado about weddings in my grandparent’s generation, with some couples marrying in the church at the end of the usual Sunday morning service.
For working-class couples like Beth and Jim, the norm of extravagant weddings can be a stumbling block to marriage. For some couples that my husband David and I interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, it was a factor in the decision to postpone marriage, something which I’ll explore in detail in my next post.
Others proceeded with a wedding but got into debt in the process. Not everyone fared as well afterwards as Beth and Jim, who thankfully had other supports to both prepare them for marriage and help them get out of debt.Beth’s dad had insisted, much to the couple’s chagrin, that they do premarital counseling and recommended Les and Leslie Parrot’s Saving Your Marriage Before it Starts. Although they did it only to satisfy her father, Jim says he learned some helpful concepts through the process—including the idea that “People have to choose to be happy where you’re at.” The couple also enrolled in a Dave Ramsey course and credits that with helping them to keep a budget and pay down their debt.
About a month after they were married, Jim worried that he was “falling out of love” with Beth, and for a week battled internally about that. However, he came to the conclusion that “love comes in a variety of flavors”—different seasons call for different feelings, in other words—and says it hasn’t been an issue for him since. He says that he and Beth “are a great team,” and that he trusts her, and that they’re sensitive to each other’s feelings. They also try to have the same goals: for instance, buying a home and getting out of debt. In the end, he took the advice that he got from the Parrots and chose to be happy where he was at.
While wedding planning brought stress and debt, it seems that Beth and Jim’s marriage preparation was part of securing their commitment to one another. That is why premarital counseling is so important. If wedding planning is beginning to crowd out time and resources that could be better used helping couples actually prepare for marriage, it’s time for a new version of engagement—one that is driven less by commercial concerns and is more about establishing the kinds of supports most helpful to the couple in their new life together.