The $28,000 question: Why are we all hypocrites about weddings?
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On Saturday night, I was out with some friends, including one who’s planning her wedding for next August. I’ve had a bunch of family weddings in the last few months, so I suggested she check out a nearby stationery store for her invitations. “It’s really expensive, like $14 per invitation. But at least you can get some ideas for design.”
She looked at me and, without a hint of arrogance, said, “Oh, I’ll check it out. I actually talked to my family and we have an unlimited budget for the wedding.” With one sentence, I was rendered speechless. She didn’t brag. She just said it matter-of-factly: Her wedding could cost anything and it was ok.
She comes from a very wealthy family, so this isn’t such an unusual thing. What is unusual, however, is that so many people will scoff at the above story — and then proceed to spend ungodly amounts on large purchases like a new home or a wedding while steadfastly insisting how absurd “most” people are. Today, I want to write about how to plan for these large life events. But be prepared — you’re going to have to confront the hypocrisy that we all have when it comes to these purchases.
Of course your wedding will be simple
When my first sister called me to tell me that she’d gotten engaged earlier this year, I was out with my friends. I ordered champagne for everyone. When my other sister told me she was getting married a few months later, I told all my friends again. Then I found out they were having an East coast wedding and a West coast wedding — each — for a total of four weddings in a few months. I ordered a round of cyanide and made mine a double.
That’s what got me started thinking about weddings recently. The average American wedding costs almost $28,000, which, the Wall Street Journal notes, is “well over half the median annual income in U.S. households.” Hold on: just wait a second before you start rolling your eyes. It’s easy to say, “These people should just realize a wedding is about having a special day, not about putting yourselves in crippling debt.”
But guess what? When it’s your wedding, you’re going to want everything to be perfect. Yes, you. So will I. It’ll be your special day, so why not spend some extra money to get the extra-long roses or the filet mignon?
My point isn’t to judge people for having expensive weddings. Quite the opposite: The very same people who spend $28,000 on their weddings are the ones who, a few years earlier, said the same thing you’re saying right now: “I just want a simple wedding. It’s ridiculous to go into debt for just one day.” And yet, little by little, they spend more than they had planned — more than they can afford — on their special day. Why is that?
The spending for weddings increases year after year. Yet we insist that we will be different: Of course we won’t spend that much. Of course we’ll have a budget. Of course we’ll have a small simple wedding. Sure we will.
So what should we do?
So knowing the astonishingly high costs of weddings, what can we do?
I see three choices:
Cut costs and have a simpler wedding. Most people, frankly, are not discplined enough to do this. I don’t say this pejoratively, but statistically: Most people will have a wedding that costs tens of thousands of dollars. (If you want to debate the difference between the average or median amount, see here or below for a simulated wedding budget.)
Do nothing and figure it out later. Most people do this. I spoke to a recently married person I know who spent the last 8 months planning her wedding, which became a very expensive day. Now, months later, he and his wife don’t know how to deal with the debt resulting from the wedding. If you do this, you are a moron. But you are in good company since almost everybody else does it, too.
Budget and plan for the wedding. Ask 10 people which of these choices they’ll do, and every single one of them will pick this one. Then ask them how much money they’re saving every month for their wedding (whether they’re engaged or not). I guarantee the sputtering and silence will be worth it. (Leave a comment describing what happens!) This is a great idea in theory, but is almost never followed in practice.
We actually have all the information we need: The average age at marriage is about 27 for men and 26 for women. We know that the average amount of a wedding is about $28,000. So, if you agree with this choice — and you don’t want to go into debt for your wedding — here’s how much you should be saving (RSS readers, click here):
Most of us haven’t even thought about saving this amount for our weddings. Why not? What do we do instead?
We say things like,
- “Wow, that’s a lot. There’s no way I can save that. Maybe my parents will help…”
- “My wedding won’t be like that. It’ll be simple and elegant”
- “I’ll think about it when I get engaged”
- “Luckily, I won’t have to pay for it.” (Who will? Is your future spouse thinking like this?)
- “I have to marry a rich guy” (I’ve heard people say this and and they were only half-joking)
More commonly, though, we don’t think about this at all: one of the most major expenditures of our lifetimes, which will almost certainly arrive in the next few years, and we don’t even sit down for 10 minutes to think about it. Something’s broken here.
Here’s a sample expense sheet of a wedding. Try playing around with it (RSS readers, click here):
Note how changing the amount of guests doesn’t really change the cost very much: Reducing the headcount 50% only reduces the cost 15%. Creating a simple, affordable wedding, it turns out, is surprisingly hard.
It’s not just weddings
Weddings are just one example. We don’t plan out our largest expenses, like houses, cars, and even kids. This is what I call conscious spending but, honestly, it’s much easier to simply ignore these looming purchases and think about them later.
The problem is, if you don’t plan ahead, it becomes much, much more expensive. From the example above, a 25-year old who starts saving for his wedding will have to save 3.5 times the monthly amount a 20-year old will. The alternative is to simply finance it, which makes it even more expensive because of interest. This is especially true of long-term loans for houses.
1. Be realistic. Even though you’re reading personal-finance blogs like iwillteachyoutoberich and are probably better at your finances than 99% of other people, you’re still human. Your wedding (and mine) will be more expensive than we plan. The head-in-the-sand approach, however, is the worst thing we can do. Sit down and make a realistic budget of how much your big purchases will cost you in the next ten years. Do it on a napkin — it doesn’t have to be perfect! Just spend 20 minutes and see what you come up with.
2. Set up an automatic savings plan. Since the last recommendation to make a budget was completely unrealistic and almost nobody will do it, I suggest just taking a shortcut and setting up an automatic savings plan. Assume you’ll spend $25,000 on your wedding, $20,000 on a car, and (however much) on a down payment for a house. “But Ramit,” you might say in an annoying perfectionist voice, “that’s almost $3,000 per month. I can’t afford that!” Can you afford $300? If so, that’s $300 better than you were doing yesterday. Now that you’ve read this, your preparation — or debt — is a choice.
3. You can’t have the best of everything, so use the P word. Prioritization is such an important concept. Like I said, it’s human nature to want the best for our wedding day or first house, and we need to be realistic about acknowledging that. With that said, we simply can’t have the best of everything. Do you want the better food or an open bar at your wedding? If you have the costs on paper, you’ll know exactly which tradeoffs you can make to keep within your budget. If you haven’t written anything down, there will appear to be no tradeoffs necessary. And that’s how people get into staggering amounts of debt. For the things you de-prioritize, beg, borrow, and steal to save money: Use a public park instead of a ballroom, ask your baker friend to make the cake, and ask relatives to help with cleanup. This is where, if you plan ahead, time can take the place of money.
Ideally, you do #1 (simplify) and #3 (plan). But even if you can’t simplify, at least you can plan.
The result — and what to do today
Today, sit down and plan out the major purchases you’ll have in the next ten years — whether or not you’re engaged or have any plans to buy a house soon. This is really important: Planning before you need to separates rich people from everyone else. Plan out how much you’ll reasonably need. Plan out how much you can save. Then go into your savings account and set up an automatic deposit plan. (I use Capital One 360 (formerly ING Direct) — set up an account in about 15 minutes.) Starting tomorrow, your savings account should have virtual buckets of money for upcoming items (e.g., 30% for your down payment, 25% for your wedding…).
The result: A wedding where you know all the costs and prioritize for what’s important for you. A wedding where, the day after, you’re debt-free and can start your lives together. And the ability to control your spending, instead of having it control you. Sort of like the point of this entire site.
Have you started planning for your wedding yet? If not, what’s kept you from starting to?
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