Your Crazy-Expensive Wedding is Destroying Society

How the “wedding-industrial” arms race exacerbates the problems of income inequality.


Let me confess: I’m a lucky guy. When I started courting my soon-to-be-wife back in 2005, she quickly let me know she wasn’t a diamond kind of gal. So when I proposed, it was with a (very inexpensive) garnet ring, made by a local jeweler, of her choosing. When we got married, we sealed the deal with simple gold bands. And we did so at a wedding that we did our damndest to make as cheap, fun and low-maintenance as possible. All of which proved, as far as I was concerned, that we were a good fit.

So it’s possible that I have a bias when I ask the following, very-serious question:

Are American weddings destroying our economy and our society?

Like I say, this is a very serious question, because it gets at the heart of an issue that politicians increasingly can’t ignore: Income inequality. Over the last 40 years or so, America’s rich have gotten richer — much, much richer — while incomes for the poor and middle class have stagnated. There are a lot of possible causes for all of this: Tax policy, de-unionization, globalization, immigration and so forth.

When conservatives acknowledge that there’s a problem, though, they tend to offer one solution: Marriage.

Poor people used to marry each other, conservatives say. Now they don’t. If they’d simply get together, most couples could combine their incomes to the point that they’d lift themselves out of poverty and into the middle class.

“The decline in marriage rates among poorer men and women robs parents of supplemental income, of work-life balance, and of time to prepare a child for school,” Derek Thompson wrote last year in The Atlantic. “Single-parenthood and inter-generational poverty feed each other. The marriage gap and the income gap amplify one another.”

Conservatives like this version of the story for a few reasons. It reduces income inequality to the result of bad choices made by the poor, and those bad choices produced by forces conservatives don’t like: The sexual revolution, feminism, even reliance on government safety net programs.

One problem: This diagnosis might get everything backwards. Income inequality might not be the result of our society’s abandonment of marriage — it might be the cause.

That’s a pretty clear implication of Kay Steiger’s piece Tuesday at The Frisky:

The deck is stacked against buyers of engagement rings. Diamond rings, which are in plentiful supply around the world, are actually getting more, not less expensive. That’s in large part because the entire cost of getting married seems to be going up and up. Even the estimated median cost of an American wedding, $18,086 — which clocks in at significantly less than than the astonishingly high average cost of $28,427 — clocks in at more than a full-time minimum wage worker earns in a year. The more we make weddings about the stuff we’re supposed to feel obligated to buy, the more we’re making marriage into an exclusive club with a velvet rope set up along class lines.

And, well, of course: We all know about the arms race to produce the biggest, best, most elaborate wedding possible. What we’ve not considered is how that arms race might affect those who can’t afford it.

Now, as Steiger notes, there’s no requirement that weddings involve diamond rings and the commitment of a year’s salary to pay for the bash. Then again she, like my wife and I, is a well-educated person who can easily identify, evaluate and choose to flout cultural norms and make a bourgeois virtue out of doing so. That’s less easy for poorer folks to do. (It’s also a case where conservatives want to have it both ways: They want cultural norms to have enough force that people are embarrassed, even shamed to be together and making children without being married, but not so powerful that people feel shame at not providing the kind of wedding everybody expects.)

The result? “The message that marriage is only for the upper crust is one that’s well-received by those with a less than high school diploma,” Steiger writes.

Which means that poor man and poor woman never get married. They never combine forces to lift themselves out of poverty. And in many cases, they never get the joy — or non-economic discipline — that comes from partnering with somebody to share a life and raise a family. That’s a loss that reverberates beyond mere economics.

But it is a loss based in economics. Income inequality isn’t bad just because the rich get richer and the rest of us are jealous. It affects the way we see and relate to each other, and ultimately damages all of us.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.

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  • Stein

    How many people die at age 15 because they can’t afford a Sweet Sixteen party? It’s a rampant problem in America, and nobody is talking about it. Because Income Inequality.

  • anon

    Can’t you also argue that it boosts the economy? without all those uber-wealthy socialites spending a fortune on a big “party”, then there would be no need for thousands of wedding vendors, wedding planners etc.
    Everyone I know who spent a fortune on their wedding was divorced a year later. It’s POSSIBLE to have a lovely wedding and not spend a lot of money. It’s just the consumerist and fake culture that leads people to believe that a “real” wedding needs to be over the top!

  • ann

    The idea that those in a lower income bracket cannot get married because they can’t afford a party is ridiculous. A marriage ceremony cost very little, no one needs a wedding reception, so this argument falls flat.

  • Sharon

    When my husband and I got engaged, over 30 years ago, we were “poor” graduate students-good income potential, but short on cash. We deferred buying an engagement ring, and had a very simple wedding (that year my parents were assisting 3 of their kids with college or grad school expenses). I spent less on my entire wedding than many women currently spend on a gown. As I evolved into an adult, I decided I really don’t care about diamonds-several years ago we upgraded the simple bands we bought then for rings with a more pleasing design-no stones involved. We never really cared that we did not have the full-blown wedding, and I know plenty of people, who are far from poor, who have opted for simple, inexpensive weddings. I have known many people, with incomes far below ours, who feel compelled to go deeply into debt (or their parents do) to have what they consider an appropriate wedding. I really don’t think people are that impressed by a showy party. One can have a great time, and provide all the “essential elements” to a good party-food, music, a great atmosphere, without spending a ton of money. A couple of years ago, we spend maybe half the “average” on our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah party-we had amazing feedback from people who go to plenty of upscale events, including a family who spend about twice what we did on their daughter’s party. We watch those wedding gown shows on TLC and laugh.

  • Jane Yavis

    Joel,, ths s the best you can do to address income nequalty? Did you ask your parents if they had a big wedding? My guess is, like mine, they may say NO, but they still got and stayed married. Income inequality exists, and it’s destroying a middle class we need in order to thrive.

    There’ are so many legitimate reasons to address income inequality,,,,,,The Marriage Conclusion damages it for all those seeking income iequality and plays right into the hands of wing nuts as a reason to say income inequality (just like poverty) is all our own fault.

    Shouldn’t you know that by now?

  • Patriot Mom

    This is the most ridiculous article from Philly Mag yet! I cannot believe I just wasted my time reading this drivel! Years ago I could not afford a lavish wedding – hmm, just made me work VERY HARD to get where I am today. Does Philly Mag ever report on anything else besides income inequality, knockout non-existence, race and homosexuality? That seems to be all I ever read about here. Marriage isn’t the only solution conservatives offer – LOWER TAXES, LESS GOVERNMENT for a strong economy. BTW, a lavish wedding stimulates industry – catering, hotels, restaurants, photography, bands, dj’s, clothing manufacturers, etc. etc. Liberal, socialists like Mathis will stop at nothing to demonize success and perpetuate class warfare. Enough already. If you don’t have the money for a lavish wedding, work hard, save money and strive for success. No…you should take it from those who have it? Redistribute my money? How do you know what path I have taken to achieve success and how hard I have worked to get where I am today? I could go off on every single sentence in this so-called “article” but I need to get back to work!!!

    • Joel Mathis

      “Liberal, socialists like Mathis will stop at nothing to demonize success and perpetuate class warfare. ”

      I’m not a socialist. And I don’t demonize success. FWIW.

  • Michael

    As a professional wedding photographer, I have to chime in and say that the costs associated with weddings are not typically frivolous. My obvious bias toward my own livelihood considered, I try to help couples as much as possible with price and paying over time, but it is still my living you’re talking about here. Can everyone afford a professional photographer? No, and there are many ways around that. Can everyone afford a lavish wedding? No, and there are many ways around that. Ultimately, getting married CAN be inexpensive and ultimately what is important (you both saying ‘yes’) costs nothing. You can go to the county courthouse and get married for very little money. Wedding vendors are not trying to take advantage of people who are getting married. Many of us offer less expensive alternatives and discounts, but the expenses are there for a reason. After I pay for my costs of doing business, my self-employment taxes, my self-employment insurance, my equipment, and my advertising, I am barely making minimum wage based on the number of hours it takes to photograph and then process those photographs for my clients.

    Do you seriously believe that the wedding industry is ruining the economy? I’m sorry, but what you are proposing here, that expensive weddings (which are a choice, not a requirement) are ruining society, is no more valid than saying that an expensive restaurant is ruining society. You can always dine less expensively, you won’t starve because there are expensive restaurants out there.

  • JZ Philly

    Unreal. This is probably the worst article I have read in months, and I have read some bad ones! Mathis, is this satire that just missed its mark? Really poor effort at thinking and writing.

  • The Silent Majority

    This is what you get when a journalist writes about economics and only bothers to read one article on the subject. You get more and more lazy and less and less intelligent with every article you write, Mathis.

    p.s. I had a wonderful, huge, greek wedding. Our friends and family loved it and it pumped a ton of cash into the local economy from people that I definitely would not define as rich. Me? I’m not rich, but I worked my a$$ off and saved for four years before proposing. I bought a lovely ring for my wife that she looks at daily and smiles because of what I did to get it out of love for her. Oh and that ring pumped a good chunk of $ into the local economy again. HOW ARE YOU ALLOWED TO WRITE THIS GARBAGE? Don’t you have an editor?

  • Brian Sand

    Are you related to Dennis Rodman?

  • critical mass

    Interesting point. The more we turn every event and person into something that must resemble Hollywood cinema, the more we affect social relations in all sorts of unacknowledged ways. I actually know of a young couple who have had a child, and are not yet married, because they are “saving up” to have a big wedding. Absurd, but utterly true, and these are educated but poor individuals.

  • Rebecca_BarrettFox

    I teach sociology, including sociology of marriage and family, at the college level, and hear FREQUENTLY from students that they are delaying marriage until they can afford even an average-priced wedding–even while they are living together without the benefits of marriage. On the one hand, the ability to spend a large sum of money (What do the jewelry stores say? 4 months salary?) for an engagement ring is a symbol of a man’s ability to provide financially for a woman, to, in essence, delay his own gratification so much that he can, in effect, throw 1/3 of his yearly income away–not in itself a bad thing. (I recommend that my students instead choose a heart-shaped piece of real estate. Or pay off their student loans as evidence that they are good financial providers.) On the other hand, weddings in the tens of thousands of dollars are ridiculous acts of conspicuous consumption. Last year, I witnessed two weddings that cost over $100,000 each. that only tells us about the parents, and it’s hard to imagine how anything after that wedding will live up to expectations. Many times, students wake up from the dating and wedding and only then realize how much debt they’ve accrued. To have an affordable wedding isn’t impossible, but it’s certainly not modeled anywhere in the mainstream culture.

  • Michael

    This entire article is nothing but the worship of envy. Those with the means for celebrating lavishly should deny themselves the luxury. WHY? The author’s answer is that poor people are too envious and stupid to deal with it.

    Disgusting. Really.

  • You want me to take an argument seriously that compares the AVERAGE cost of a wedding with a MINIMUM WAGE worker? How about writing an article comparing the average wage of a CEO with the average cost of a wedding and make the argument that weddings are extremely cheap!!

  • ErShava

    Expensive restaurants are ruining society.

  • GreenEyedLilo

    I wouldn’t say that; however, I hate the idea of one class being barked at to “Just go to City Hall!” by the people who have lavish weddings. (Especially when these same people want to defund government services and deunionize government employees.) A marriage is something to celebrate, and wedding celebrations are part of the vast majority of cultures. Couples will want to celebrate even without the media and the Wedding Industrial Complex raising expectations.

    Remember too that the wedding is not the only cost. There’s the small matter of the marriage afterwards. A couple will want–no, need–their own place, and many Millenials have to live with their parents. They may risk losing benefits. They’ll have to file taxes jointly. One person’s credit issues become two peoples’ credit issues.

    I do think we agree that rather than yelling at young people to get out of their parents’ basement and get married, we allow them more ways to do so with dignity, pride and, yes, a nice, modest celebration with family, friends, and a pretty white dress.

  • Dorothy654

    What an idiot! His whole argument fails, because the cost of getting married is less than a day’s wages – even if the parties earn the minimum wage. In states that recognize common law marriages the cost is zero!