consumerism events generosity religion wealth

Marriage and the £18,500 wedding

The average cost of a wedding has risen to £18,500, according to research by ING Direct, meaning thousands of couples are delaying their weddings, with 15% not expecting to ever actually get married at all.

Part of the problem is the expectations of the couple. 23% of engaged couples say they are aiming for the perfect day regardless of the cost. The horse-drawn carriages, fireworks and deluxe venues that are now often seen as necessities push 41% of couples to overspend their budgets, with an average overspend of £3,700. Much of this is driven by media coverage of celebrity weddings. A quarter of couples say the media is an influence on their overspending.

This willingness to spend lavishly on weddings means that the costs have risen at five times the rate of inflation.

Researcher Tom Richards commented in the Observer recently: “The spectacle involved in modern marriage is in inverse proportion to its meaning. The more devoid of content the institution becomes, the more a grotesquely postmodern, style-over-substance principle applies. The entire event becomes a swaggering parody of some bygone society wedding.”

The article Richards is quoted in is a cynical and paranoid one, but Hannah Betts does make some good points. “Couples have come to regard marriage as the pinnacle not the premise of their relationship” she writes, and marriage has come to be associated with the wedding, a special day rather than a lifetime promise. However, I reject Bett’s conclusion that “marriage will retain its power only among its abstainers”. On the contrary. I believe marriage can be reclaimed, but it may have to be reclaimed from those who want a wedding, if you see what I mean. The institution is being overshadowed by the event.

As an engaged man, I obviously agree with the idea of marriage. As a Christian, I believe it is the premise of a relationship, and not the pinnacle. Where consumer aspirations have hyped weddings up into empty charades, Christians have an opportunity to subvert the wedding dream with the principle of marriage. We can do that by keeping the focus right – it’s about people, and promises, about community, family, and lifelong commitment. It is most definitely not about fairytales.

In the light of all this, I think there’s a strong case for simpler weddings. The ‘traditional wedding’ as sold to us today is not traditional. At least, not for us. We have come to believe we should all be enjoying the luxuries of a royal wedding. A real wedding is a set of promises, and a celebration of those promises with friends and family. If you have the money for something fancy then that’s great, but it could just as easily be in a church hall or a pub, a community centre or a school, in a park or a barn. It’s what earlier generations understood a wedding to be. Somewhere in the last 20 years we have been sold a myth that has simultaneously hyped and debased the whole idea of getting engaged.

We need to keep our priorities right. Keep it about the people and the promise, not the dress and the car. We can also lower our expectations – no day can be planned to perfection, and to assume that it can is to set oneself up for disappointment. We should resist the urge to compare weddings, or compete. The promises being made are far too important to let them be over shadowed by conspicuous consumption. And we need to be generous, not self-indulgent.

Personally, I think it’s a tragedy that people aren’t getting married because they can’t afford it. That is surely to have missed the whole point of marriage in the first place.

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