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  • Our culture attaches steep financial barriers for entry into a traditional marker of adulthood: marriage. Tweet This
  • What if places of worship, businesses, and nonprofits partnered together to form wedding cooperatives? Tweet This

When I first met Dan and Heidi in the summer of 2010, they had been living together for several years and knew they wanted to get married. “I think we’ll just be more deeply committed to each other,” Heidi said. “I think that people who are married would tend to try to work things out better than people who aren’t.”

So Dan and Heidi made a list of 120 guests and booked a venue, but then discovered why that venue was so much cheaper than others: alcohol was not allowed and maximum capacity was 80.

As Dan explained, “It came down to where we couldn’t find a place to do it, so we just said ‘All right, we’ll wait.’” Heidi added, “When you rent those places out, it’s expensive. Sometimes a $500 deposit plus like $600 to rent it out for a couple of hours.” With rent, car payments, and other bills, Heidi said they “just didn’t have money for that right now” for a wedding.

Scanning headlines or The New York Times Best Sellers—Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult, for example—it is evident that we as a nation are worried about young adults making the transition to adulthood. And rightfully so. But as a culture we also attach steep financial barriers for entry into one of the traditional markers of adulthood: marriage.

“I mean it’s all about money issues, really, that’s all that it is,” Dan said about why he and Heidi weren’t married. Heidi made $9.10/hour as a cake decorator in a grocery store deli and though Dan made up to $50/hour as a stagehand, in the off-season, he resorted to low-wage work at Dairy Queen.

“Financial stability is nice, but not all of us…are fortunate to have that,” Heidi added, noting:

There’s a lot of rich yuppies who just don’t understand. And I’m not saying this in a mean way. I have nothing against people who have money, because I want to be like that someday. But, a lot of people who are handed money just assume that life is easy and that that’s what you do after high school. You just go to college, and you meet somebody there, you get married. And in a realistic world, where your feet are on the ground and you work 40-hour jobs every week, you know…that’s just not always how it works.

Still in their early twenties, both Dan and Heidi hoped to attend college, and they figured that if they were married, they would have a better chance at receiving financial aid when they filled out the FAFSA. So they decided to forgo their original wedding plans and have a backyard wedding with close family and friends instead. Heidi found a white summer dress on sale in the prom section and Dan planned to wear a white polo shirt with dress pants.

According to Dan, they planned to eventually “renew our vows with a big ceremony and everything,” after they were able to save up more money. We heard this a few times from the white, working-class young adults my husband David and I interviewed. Sometimes, people would get married without much fuss, with plans to save for a large reception down the road. Whether or not that celebration ever happened, it’s a way to save face in a culture that expects a nice wedding to feel like a big party.

But two days before their wedding, Dan’s dad found out that he was scheduled to work and could not get off. (Yet another example of why fair scheduling matters.) The couple planned to proceed—they had hired a tattoo artist who was licensed to officiate and Heidi’s grandmother was in town to help with preparations. But, understandably, Dan’s father “freaked out.”

So they called off the wedding a second time. Frustrated, Heidi said she would not plan another wedding and honeymoon until they could save up $5,000 to “make sure it’s right the third time.”

“I’m not that girl who’s going to go way into debt for my wedding,” Heidi added. “That’s dumb. But, I understand spending a decent amount…saving a decent amount first and then spending a decent amount on it, because it’s a big step in your life.”

This was, it seemed to her, what Dan’s family preferred anyway.

Heidi explained that originally she and Dan preferred a courthouse marriage. “My family didn’t care. They were like, do whatever you want, go for it," she said. "But his family made it a huge deal, because he’s the first person of their kids getting married, and it’s just a huge deal to them.”

Others we interviewed mentioned the stigma of “going to the courthouse.” As one engaged and unemployed woman told us, “I don’t wanna go to the courthouse…I just want it to be a little bit better than that.” Another woman who married at the courthouse and later divorced said, “We actually just went through the courthouse, and really, it did not mean much.”

This may be because having friends and family present does seem to matter, perhaps indicating the level of social support surrounding a couple. The more guests a couple has at their wedding, the lower their likelihood of divorce. (It’s worth noting that the inverse is true when it comes to the cost of the wedding. The more expensive the wedding, the higher the likelihood that the couple will divorce.)

In other words, perhaps there is a sweet spot to be found in a large but affordable wedding. That’s what Heidi was aiming for, but with low-wage jobs, even saving several thousand dollars for a modest wedding can take years. Getting married legally is, as one young man put it, as easy as “going to buy a video game” or getting a burger from McDonald’s. But couples—often out of respect for what a “big deal” marriage is—understandably want to mark their marriages with a ceremony and a celebration. It’s just too bad that the bar is set so high.

A wedding cooperative wouldn’t come close to solving the problems facing working-class young adults as they transition to adulthood, but it could do some good by at least removing one barrier to marriage for some young couples.

To be clear, most of our interviewees swore up and down that they didn’t care about having an expensive wedding. Most saw “grandiose” weddings as “boastful” and “ridiculous.” In fact, couples like Dan and Heidi, who cited the cost of a wedding as the main reason they weren’t getting married, were the minority in our sample. Other couples pointed to troubles within the relationship itself—like trust issues, abuse, addiction, mental illness—as reasons they were not ready for marriage. And there was sometimes the belief that marriage is not an urgent priority because they were already living together and marriage wouldn’t change much (or could make the relationship worse).

But even if Dan and Heidi’s experience is not typical, neither is it uncommon. Working-class couples who are striving to enter into middle-class stability are sensitive to the norms around them. As such, we ought to think about how we might help couples who desire to get married but cannot afford what they perceive as a respectable wedding in our culture.

One possible response is to try to change those cultural norms. Next time you are at a wedding resist the urge to compare it to other weddings or to speculate about the budget. Rather than raise eyebrows at low-budget affairs, might we instead start to see it as distasteful when a couple spends more in a single day than what low-wage workers earn in an entire year?

Another approach is to try to help couples afford modest weddings. What if places of worship, businesses, and nonprofits partnered together to form wedding cooperatives? I don’t have a worked-out model for what this would look like, but I could imagine, for example, a well-intentioned photographer donating some volunteer hours once a year, or places of worship offering their spaces on a rotating schedule. Volunteers from organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Knights of Columbus could prepare a light luncheon reception following the wedding. Couples could be identified with the help of local nonprofits and could participate in a formal wedding preparation process in order to qualify. Part of the process could include the newly married couple volunteering to serve food or clean up at someone else’s wedding, which would make it more like a true cooperative and less of a social service. It would be important to do this in a way that avoids the stigma that courthouse weddings can have.

A wedding cooperative wouldn’t come close to solving the problems facing working-class young adults as they transition to adulthood, but it could do some good by at least removing one barrier to marriage for some young couples.

For those of us who like happy endings, I should add that Dan and Heidi did save up and have that wedding! They’ve now been married four years, are homeowners, and are working on their college degrees. Together, they’ve overcome a lot of obstacles, but the high cost of a wedding seems to me like an unnecessary roadblock to marriage—a challenge worth using our collective creativity to change.

Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.