1 Getting Married, But Without the Wedding | The Billfold

Getting Married, But Without the Wedding

We got married in a judge’s private office on a Friday afternoon. Besides my husband, the only other people present were my sister and three close friends. I told my parents a week before we got married what our plans were, and they asked, “Why so quickly? What’s the hurry?” It wasn’t quick or sudden for us; we’d been talking about getting married for months. The major impediment we kept circling around was that we didn’t want a wedding.

There were practical reasons: Neither of us had any desire to plan a wedding, and we’d seen friends’ “simple,” “easy,” “low-key” weddings take up nearly as much energy and planning time as the overblown productions now considered the norm. I was also adamantly opposed to ever being engaged. I had no problems with being married (beyond my general ambivalence about the institution itself), but I didn’t want to spend any time in engagement limbo. I aspired to never have the word “fiancé” pass my lips, and to have exactly zero conversations with friends or strangers about rings, dresses, venues, guest lists, showers, or registries.

There were personal reasons: Our marriage formalized a commitment we’d been living for several years. That formality is far from inconsequential—there are concrete legal and social changes that happen when you go from “cohabiting” to “married.” But rather than marking that formality with a huge break from the everyday, I wanted to fold it into our daily lives, to integrate the act of getting married with the business of being married. For many people, a wedding serves to signify the start of something new, something different. For some people, a wedding declares, “We are adults now.” For others, it announces, “We’re getting serious about this relationship.” And for a lot of folks like us, it says, “Let’s stop what we’re doing for a moment and recognize the relationship we’ve been building.”

Those are all very good statements, but they weren’t what I wanted to say. I wanted the act of getting married to say, “This life we are living is good, and we want to keep living it the way we have been for a very long time. Getting married is special, but so is the daily life we’ve built together.” For me, that meant making getting married fit seamlessly into being married, not because getting married wasn’t important, but because the act, the formality, the commitment had value only in the context of the daily practice of marriage. So we woke up on Friday (just like any other day), went to work, ate lunch, and did all those other mundane things you do on a typical day (note: on Fridays I work from home, so on this particular Friday I slept in a bit and ducked out at lunchtime to get a manicure). And then we met up downtown, and, in the presence of four of the people most involved in our daily lives, repeated the shortest, most streamlined set of vows the judge had. We snapped a few pictures for posterity and then took everybody out for a long and indulgent meal.

When you don’t want a wedding, you risk appearing as if you think marriage is trivial. Weddings, it seems, have become inseparably fused to marriage. And that’s not entirely a bad thing: one of the functions of the over-the-top wedding, in all its ridiculousness, is to force a recognition of the importance of marriage. All these people come to town to see you say a few words and exchange some rings, at huge expense to themselves and to you. There are a lot of things that shout, “Hey, you! The one getting married! Take this seriously!”

Obviously, that doesn’t always work. But I guess if a wedding helps a couple take their marriage more seriously, then it’s a good thing. But—and try not to misunderstand me when I say this—the ceremony itself wasn’t all that important to me. More than that, I didn’t like the idea of ladening it with significance, of insisting that this one moment be perfect, or even immensely memorable. I don’t want to forget it, but I don’t want to reify it, either. If the day fades or changes or hazes in my memory, that’s okay. It was one day. A day when something important happened, sure, but still just one day out of the many that make up our lives together.

Getting married was as simple and unadorned as we could make it. It fit easily into our lives. The celebrating will be more disruptive. We’ll travel to where our families live and have parties and be the center of attention. And that’s fine. Celebrations are meant to disrupt, to distract, to break into our daily lives. Marriages aren’t. And I’m glad mine started the way I want it to continue: with ease, grace and careful attention to the practice of daily life.

But what about the numbers? I promised an accounting, not a long-winded defense of my views on the wedding-industrial complex. If all you want is a marriage certificate and state recognition, that’ll run you about $125 in Texas. Of course, you’ll probably want a few more frills than that. Our wedding-less (but not celebration-less) marriage costs were:

$75: Marriage license. Procured at least three days before the ceremony. In Texas, all you need is a driver’s license and social security number and you’re good to get hitched.

$50: Somebody to marry us. We chose a semi-retired judge with a lovely office. Since we got married during business hours, his fee was very modest.

$594: Rings. We tried to get them from a local jeweler, but nobody stocks plain yellow gold wedding bands. Since any jeweler in town was going to have to order them from a supplier anyway, we went ahead and bought them online, at significant savings.

$440: Dinner for seven on Friday night. We’d been planning on financing the meal, but my parents insisted on footing the bill in absentia.

$160: Drinks for seven before and after dinner, also paid for by my folks.

We’re also having a party at our house for local friends and have budgeted about $350 for beer, wine and pie for 30 or so people.

So there you have it: $1,670, give or take, and worth every penny.


Sydney Bufkin lives in Austin and tries not to let her dissertation take over her life. Sometimes she even finds time to write about other things.


32 Comments / Post A Comment

Although the specifics aren’t there yet (including the um, specific person) I hope to have a small, low-cost wedding. I recently found out from my grandmother that my parents’ wedding was 250 people and the shower was 100. aaaaaahhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHH I think most of that list was my grandmother’s Polish Connections though, so hopefully not applicable to me.

Of course, this is all very speculative and hypothetical anyway.

EM (#1,012)

Congratulations on your marriage!

kickmuri (#3,118)

You read my mind. This is exactly how I feel about weddings. It shouldn’t be a validation of your relationship or some lavish public event. But a private thing between two people who just want to be together. Congrats on your marriage!

sunflowernut (#1,638)

The thing that makes me very uninterested in a traditional wedding is that I really don’t want to the be center of attention. The thought of that makes me want to pass out. So this seems like a really nice alternative, and I’m glad it worked out so well for you. Congrats!

deepomega (#22)

Good on you. Although I’d note that you DID have a wedding – that 30 person party is totally a wedding reception, it’s just a really chill one. I think maybe instead of denying that it counts because you’re not in a white dress, we should be expanding our definition of “wedding” to include things like “married by a judge, then had a barbecue.”

@deepomega yup!

emilyo (#1,011)

We did the precisely same thing, minus friends, plus a photographer. We walked to the courthouse in pretty clothes, went to our favorite neapolitan pizza joint afterwards and splurged on a hotel room at a fancy hotel for the night-of. All in all, it came in right around $1k. Wouldn’t have done it any other way. (http://www.unitedwithlove.com/2012/12/18/simple-washington-dc-wedding-elopement-at-courthouse/)

I do take issue with the word “elopement” though — which somehow seems to imply that our families & friends didn’t know or approve. Like it says in the article above, we have other long-term goals that are just more important to us than having a big wedding.

ladybug (#2,583)

@emilyo we had our rehearsal at Tabard Inn – I love that place!

inspector_tiger (#2,651)

@emilyo mmmh, neapolitan pizza, that’s a great idea! and your wedding looks lovely!

inspector_tiger (#2,651)

@emilyo mmmh, neapolitan pizza, that’s a great idea! and your wedding looks lovely!

kellyography (#250)

@emilyo Oh my goodness, what a charming way to do a wedding. And you and your husband are cuties! Your photos really make the tiny ceremony/celebration look super appealing.

emilyo (#1,011)

@ladybug best place ever!!!

@kellyography awwwww thank you!

@inspector_tiger yes!! and the pizzaiolos sent out a heart shaped pizza when they realized what was up!!

garli (#4,150)

@emilyo Me too! No friends, no family, just a student photographer from a local art college and we told everyone about it after the fact. And my totally satisfying functional relationship didn’t change at all, hooray.

laluchita (#2,195)

THIS! My partner and I refused to have a wedding for years because of the whole, not believing in marriage thing. We did, however, have a 10 year anniversary party, because I wanted a party and I wanted it to celebrate the whole of our relationship together, not just some piece of paper from the state. (which involved like 70 people in my dad’s back yard, and came to around $4k with food/booze/cake etc and did end up driving me a little crazy)

Anywhoo, we ended up getting married for school/financial reasons before the anniversary party, but refused to do vows/rings and didn’t call it a wedding/don’t refer to each other as husband and wife. Our official “wedding” involved getting a marriage certificate at city hall and then having our friend who’s an internet minister sign it while bar-tending a fundraising event we were organizing that weekend. Our “wedding photo” is the two of us holding up the certificate with him giving two thumbs up with a shit eating grin behind us. It was kind of perfect. I don’t feel that marriage has changed the way we feel towards each other, and I’m glad it didn’t. But it’s definitely changed the way that other people treat us, which still irritates me a bit.

readyornot (#816)

This sounds so lovely, so many congratulations on your happiness.

A small civil ceremony and laid-back reception was exactly what I had in mind and felt precisely in keeping with my relationship when we first started talking marriage. Avoiding being the center of attention, eliminating the expense, keeping the focus on the marriage were all goals of mine.

That intimate, practical gathering is not what I ended up with. But I learned in the process of planning what turned out to e a totally wonderful thing that our wedding was not only about us. It is also about giving your parents a chance to come to terms with you growing up, your siblings a chance to transition into accepting your partner, your friends a chance to express their joy and love. And also to party. I, personally, love to party and to provide partying opportunities for people around me. We have rituals to give us the social and emotional space to accept life changes.

Both sets of parents in particular would have been really hurt at being excluded from a wedding. It’s a gift we gave them. And the process becomes instructive about how to navigate your various family loyalties: to your family of birth and your new family.

What we ended up with was a civil ceremony just the two of us, two witnesses, in the city where he was born, officiated by his family’s friend, and a 125 person event in the place where I grew up. I am at peace with how it all turned out, and the parents are thrilled.

@readyornot “We have rituals to give us the social and emotional space to accept life changes.” Yesss. I just eloped on Friday (whee!) and we are planning a party/reception in April. As I’ve decided what “weddingy” things to include in the party all of a sudden the rituals make a lot more sense. (Question: But how can I include my BEST GIRLFRIENDS in a special way!? Answer: Bridesmaids! Etc.) I am choosing to come up with other answers to those same questions (No bridesmaids!) but I get why the rituals exist now and why so many people choose to do it that way. We are really looking at the party as a way to celebrate our union and the people who helped bring us here–and also because it is maybe the last time that we can get this whole group of awesome people together before life takes us in different directions. Also, parties are fun.

annev6 (#3,087)

@readyornot I agree. A wedding, like any party, should be about the guests. I think the problem with modern weddings is people think it’s all about the bride. But frankly, no one is going to have fun at any party that’s only geared towards making one person feel special. Weddings are about thanking the people around you for being a part of your life and supporting your relationship. And it gives your parents a chance to take nice pictures and have all the family together. It’s a milestone and I think it gets a bad wrap nowadays thanks to the culture of the bridezilla. But really, I think that whole bridezilla thing is on its way out. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding that just makes everyone involved miserable is one of those traditions that I don’t think will survive in our post-recession world. It’s just sooooo 2005.

steponitvelma (#914)

@readyornot I agree wholeheartedly. I understand the sentiment behind small weddings, particularly when you factor in the cost-savings. But weddings are so fun! I love the chance to get tipsy and dance and see my friends look so beautiful and happy. I’ll probably die alone, but on the off chance I don’t, I’d love to have the kind of wedding that people talk about for years because of how much fun they had.

This is almost exactly how my parents did it, and my mother says she has no regrets. My parents went to city hall while my dad was on his lunch break and after my mom finished the exam she had that morning. They had their 41 year anniversary last month, although they count the 41 years from the day they moved in together, since they say that was when their partnership really started, not when they signed the marriage certificate.

stinapag (#2,144)

@MilesofMountains My parents too. Except there were only two other people there, her best friend and a buddy of his. The only hitch to their getting hitched was that they were supposed to meet at the front door of the court house after work (on a Tuesday). There were two front doors. Oops.

My parents wedding reception was at a methadone clinic a few days later. My dad was a doctor there on weekends, and the word got out that the doc had gotten married. Someone sent out for fried chicken, someone else found a record player. Someone went to the corner store for Cold Duck. A party busted out when my mom came to pick up my dad from work. They were the only non-addicts at their wedding reception.

There isn’t a single picture of my parents’ wedding. It sure has hell was remembered well by those who matter the most, though.

(My mom had absolutely no idea what to do with my wedding a little over 40 years later, which had 215 people and 478 photographs and was an equally valid way to get married.)

wallrock (#1,003)

My parents did the same thing back in 1976. They had five witnesses (my three grandparents and my mother’s two siblings) and went out to a supper club for dinner. A month later they had a reception in Illinois for my mother’s side – she didn’t necessarily want to by my grandmother insisted on it. As my father tells it he always knew she came from a large extended family but didn’t realize it until the second hour of standing in the receiving line.

Yay! We’re doing almost exactly the same thing in… jeez, two weeks. I wouldn’t consider it “not a wedding” though, just a “very small wedding.” (Though it has been a challenge to resist “wedding creep” and adding on more stuff… we’ve had some lucky breaks like the chef at the restaurant we booked for the dinner offered to do us a traditional West Indian wedding cake and a fixed menu, my mom happened to have a nice ring for us, etc.)

Interestingly, it turns out that several of my co-workers have done the same low-key courthouse deal, so I guess it’s not as uncommon as the reality shows would have us believe. Or maybe its an underpaid NGO worker thing.

@stuffisthings As for the parents thing, my parents did a small civil ceremony and house party for their wedding, and the bride’s side is from France where it’s common to do a separate civil wedding (and where it would be kind of inappropriate for me to participate in a church wedding since I’m not Catholic), so they’re cool with it too, though everyone does ask if she’s pregnant.

melis (#42)

Aww, StuffThings! Congratulations, lil dude!

leafyseadragon (#2,974)

my husband and i took off to vegas and just did the judge wedding ourselves. i think with gas and food and licenses and hotel was $300? prolly less. my family threw me a reception that i didn’t really want, and it was terribly uncomfortable. people def gave us the side eye for doing it that way, but idgaf.

fennel (#2,494)

yay, courthouse weddings!

interesting, a massachussetts wedding is cheaper than a texas one. the marriage license cost us $35, and the justice of the peace was free — you just had to ask for one, and make an appointment, which then took place in the beautiful old council room of the city hall (and our justice did a wonderful, thoughtful, 100% gender neutral job — she had a text that they use for everybody, straight or gay — and as a woman marrying a man, i *hugely* appreciated the gender neutral part).

we did rings, which were optional but we wanted them, and they costed in the triple-digits, even though we both got simple bands. we decided what to wear that very morning, from our closets, except for a bouquet which I had put together the day before at the florist, and we had a photographer so that our far-away relatives wouldn’t feel left out. then an oyster bar, and a night out in a really great historic hotel in the center of our city. totally low-key, and yet it absolutely altered my world!

virginia apple (#3,120)

This is the way to do it. You’re lucky you don’t have a mother who thinks it is actually HER day, not the bride’s. I’m not even in a relationship and my mother and I frequently fight over how she wants to plan a big affair with a fancy dinner and poofy white dress and jordan almonds etc etc etc. I fear I’m doomed to have seven bridesmaids all in matching crappy satin David’s Bridal dresses. Barf.

RebeccaKW (#3,130)

@likethestore My mother thankfully understands that I don’t want a big wedding (whenever it may happen). However, she is adamant that I will have a wedding shower (and a baby shower, if that ever happens). Her reasoning is “because you WILL.” It doesn’t matter that I don’t want one or see the point in one.

My husband and I did a no frills wedding for about $1K. I wore the dress my maternal grandmother wore, and my mom gave me my grandparents’ bands. my paternal grandmother gave my husband her diamond for me.
we packed a picnic with wine, meats, and fruits, and walked over to montrose harbor with a few close friends and family members. picked a spot under a lovely lilac tree, then my best friend performed the ceremony, which was quick, sweet, and tailored to us. after the picnic, we walked back to our house where the remainder of our close friends celebrated for hours. booze, food, cake (with a hilarious topper compliments of etsy). best. day. ever.

theproductslut (#3,124)

I loved my courthouse wedding. We lucked in to a gorgeous 70-and-sunny day in early February. We had 20 guests, including our immediate family. After the ceremony, we went to the bar my husband worked at and had a beer toast (my friend surprised us with a light saber arch and the Ewok celebration song to walk in with, which made for awesome laughing photos), and then we all went out for Chinese food (courtesy of my sister-in-law). $60 for flowers, $50 for the judge, $50 for the license, $50 for 2 dozen cupcakes 2 d and $300 for the wedding rings (his was triple the price of mine because his hands are bigger, but they are plain white gold bands). Loved it!

RocketSurgeon (#747)

Thanks for this. We’re getting married in mid-April at city hall with some family and close friends (~15 people). I have a short, royal blue dress, I might grab some roses from the bodega on the way to city hall. We’re taking our “wedding” guests to dinner afterward and then hosting a cocktail party the next day to celebrate with other friends. As for family who won’t be attending, it’ll give us an excuse to drink some champagne with them next time we see them.

The only “traditional” thing we’re doing is hiring a photographer, because my mom has always said that she didn’t care where/how/with whom we get married, but she wants a good (non-iPhone) photo of us on our wedding day.

Total cost is a several grand with the photographer, buying dinner for 15 and an open bar for 3hrs at the party, but it’s worth it to do it the way we want to.

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