We Thought We Didn’t Want to Have a Big Wedding, And Then We Started Planning

Rory, you reached out to me to talk about weddings. Tell me why!

Most of the narratives I see about money and weddings are either deeply consumerist or, in reaction to the consumerism, focused on the virtue in frugality. Neither has a whole lot to do with my experience.

Before we got married, I judged people for spending a lot on a wedding. When my partner and I decided to get married, I had a lot of feelings about what spending that much money meant about us as people. It could have been a car or down payment! Think of all the travel we could have done with that money! In retrospect, we spent that money on creating and enjoying community, which we wanted much more than a car or a trip or a house in a city we don’t live in.

I don’t think anyone should feel bad about NOT spending money on a wedding, but I also think people tend to assume that spending a lot of money on a wedding is bad financial planning. For us, it wasn’t.

 

What was your experience at weddings before you got married? Family weddings? Friends? How did they make you feel, and what did you like and not like about them?

My family doesn’t really go in for weddings—my grandparents had to crash my parents’ wedding on two weeks notice, the median size of a wedding in my partner’s and my combined immediate families is 8 people—so I didn’t have much real life experience with them. The only template I had for them was the cultural narrative about princesses and matching outfits and the Steel Magnolias line about her wedding colors being blush and bashful. I pretty much thought weddings were dumb.

Then my friends started getting married. Their weddings weren’t like that. They were big, fun parties—chances to see people we hadn’t seen in a while; opportunities to tell the people getting married they were loved. My friends were also having weddings that seemed really appropriate for them. This friend who’s a graphic designer had an aesthetically phenomenal wedding with really beautiful invitations and paper goods and lots of special elaborate details, but not because that was the correct way to do weddings—because she loves that kind of thing. Some other friends had enchiladas in metal pans and made their own cake because they love that kind of thing. These were parties that felt honest and real.

I still felt uncomfortable with them, because, honestly, I didn’t believe that people would be that excited for us if we got married. (I WAS WRONG.)

 

When you decided to get married how soon did you and your wife talk about the wedding? What were the conversations like, the considerations? Did you have similar ideas? Did one of you want to elope?

We made two separate decisions: Are we in it for the long haul? And if we are, do we want to make some kind of fuss where we say some words and tell people about it? It took us something like eight months of on again off again conversations to decide we wanted to plan for the long run together. In retrospect I can see why you might develop a cultural norm where one person has the job of proposing and other person just says yes or no.

For a while my partner wanted to elope. All those people looking at you, all that money. But it’s complicated when your marriage isn’t going to be legally recognized by your home state. Do you go somewhere you don’t know people to get a marriage certificate that doesn’t mean anything where you actually live? (The state I grew up in actually has marriage equality, but it seemed unfair to invite my parents and not hers, and kind of mean to get married there without telling them.) We don’t believe that the license makes the marriage, so it made even less sense to make our wedding decisions based on which states would give us the right piece of paper. And we’re not religious, so it’s not like we could have a rabbi or a pastor marry us. 

Basically, there wasn’t a way to elope that felt real, like we were actually getting married. Although I should not understate how much I wanted to get everyone I love in one room. I want that all the time, and I really, really didn’t want to miss my one chance at actually making that happen. People will show for a wedding in a way they won’t for anything else.

My partner started to think maybe getting married could be fun when I came up with the idea that we could rent out this hostel in the middle of a wilderness area near where we live and everyone could hang out for the weekend and cook together. We didn’t get married there, but in the end our wedding was pretty similar. I felt panicky and a little nauseated thinking about all our closest friends and family showing up for five hours for the wedding and the reception and then heading out at the end of the night. How was I going to actually talk to them???? (<- that is the number of question marks I felt.) So we really wanted to have the whole thing last as long as possible.

Once we decided to have a wedding we had pretty similar ideas about what we wanted: A party in the woods with good food and bad pop music. Maybe a campfire. We thought maybe we'd cook the food ourselves. Thank goodness that didn't happen, but for a while it seemed like a good idea. We didn't want it to be too burdensome to our guests, so we wanted to make sure there were affordable places to stay and camp. (Reading this sentence just keeps making me laugh, because we didn't want it to be too burdensome to our guests so ... we got married 45 minutes up a dirt road, three hours from the nearest major airport? But we organized carpools for everyone! And borrowed tents for them to sleep in!) We wanted to be able to drink without worrying that people would be driving.

In general my partner wanted to have less stuff and less fuss and I wanted to have more. I had this idea that we should organize activities, which I am so glad she talked me out of. No one wanted to do organized activities! They wanted to lie on the dock and drink beer and talk to each other! She tried to keep things simple and I tried to make things organized, and so in the end we had a first aid kit, a carpool list, a tent exchange, and a message board, but we didn't have any activities or pamphlets or materials or programs or anything.

It was important to both of us to spend money in ways that fit with our values. We didn't want to buy a bunch of stuff that ended up in landfill. This led to some (entertaining in retrospect) fights about how to interpret our values. Was buying IKEA glasses for tea lights too consumerist and bad for the environment? Should we thrift something instead? Who was going to deal with the hassle of actually thrifting and packing the actual objects?

Similarly, we cared more about who was there than about exactly what happened. I do have this piece of advice: make the guest list first. Figure out who you want there before you make any other decisions. We did this first basically by accident, because we were arguing about how many people we were going to want to invite and decided to settle the argument by making a list of the people we wanted to invite. Fortunately when we were making that list we found out we had similar ideas about who was close enough for us to invite. There are small wedding people and big wedding people and we're both medium-sized wedding people.

When we talked to our families, they had very different supportive reactions. Her family doesn't really talk about money, so they were really happy for us and said they wanted to help us, but didn't go into much detail about that. My parents immediately said they wanted to give us money towards the wedding. My dad called me and said he didn't want it to cost more than $25,000. Here's what I thought when he said that: "No way in hell can it possibly cost that much." HAHAHAHAHAHAHA WRONG.

A friend of mine who got married a few years ago—the one with the enchiladas and homemade cake—said that when she started planning her actual wedding, she had to give up the dream wedding she didn't know she'd been carrying around. Hers was some kind of Anne of Green Gables thing where everyone was sitting around together stitching the napkins and helping make her dress. Mine involved a family property where everyone would camp and our dads would run the grill. In reality we don't have an appropriate family property, we have older family and friends who aren't interested in camping, and my dad didn't want to run the grill. He wanted to drink good champagne and pay someone else to cook.

I don't wish we'd had that wedding I imagined. I've helped cook for weddings and it is a LOT. The clean-up is worse, because everyone's tipsy and dressed up and then they have to wash dishes for an hour in heels. I'm really glad we didn't ask people to do that when we didn't have to. Everyone already helped a lot, so much, so generously. Weddings involve a truly astounding amount of hauling. I'm glad that once the wedding started they could kick back and drink good champagne and let people we paid wash dishes.

There were specific things we disagreed about. We had some really difficult conversations about those things. What did it mean about us if we had a photographer? What did it mean if we had physical invitations? (I wanted a photographer and she wanted physical invitations.) We had physical invitations. I learned Illustrator to design them, a friend gave us some help with a specific graphic, then I taught my partner Illustrator and she uses it for work all the time. We hired a photographer. Just trying to decide was stressing me way out and we decided to use some money I was earning from working extra (which I'd planned to do anyway, and which felt like my money rather than our household money) for it. I don't know that I'd do it again but the photos were great, really great, and there are gorgeous photos of our families and friends. There's this photo of my mom where she looks like a silent movie star. There are these photos of our friends dancing. There was a totally unplanned moment where our dog walked up to say hi when we walked down to the bit of lawn for the ceremony, and looking at that photo makes me feel all the feelings.

 

Did the fact that your wedding was a gay wedding affect your thoughts about it—like maybe give you some freedom because the “tradition” wasn’t necessarily expected or built in? Or once you decided to get married, did it just feel like getting married…

One really direct way the gayness mattered: We didn’t have to follow the legal rules and so we didn’t have an officiant. We had a Quaker-style ceremony with speaking and silence and we said our own vows and our parents gave some blessings. 

We also didn’t want to have a wedding where someone was the bride. Neither of us is the bride. Neither of us is the groom. There was no aisle and no giving away and we both wore pants. Weddings are incredibly gendered, and that way of doing weddings felt like it didn’t have space for either of us, so we had to do other things, and for us those things were much better. But there are also queer couples for whom those traditional forms have a lot of meaning.

We were also lucky that our families aren’t traditional. When we asked our parents what they wanted out of the wedding, they said they wanted to be invited. Both sets of parents said that! Neither of them invited their own parents. Then my mom said she wanted me to invite my siblings, and ideally also my aunts. These were very manageable requests. So there is another piece of advice: If you can arrange retroactively for your own parents to have eloped it takes away some of the pressure off your wedding.

 

You mention the trip or the car or the down payment—was there a moment when you feel like you made a decision for a wedding instead of one of those things, or is it only after when you look at the price tag that you realize, we could have done X with this money?

Basically as soon as my dad said he’d pay $25,000 I started imagining the other things that money could do. But really, I’ve never owned a car worth more than $3,000. A down payment in the Bay Area, where we live, is more like $100,000. So $25,000 is a car or a down payment for somebody else, not for us. The trip is the only one I actually think about. But I would rather have that party than a trip, because it was so powerful and amazing to have everyone there together. It was the best community moment I’ve ever had. It feels like a talisman against bad times, this moment when I saw so clearly how lucky and loved we both are, and when together we made something really great happen that neither of us could have done alone.

 

Photo: Ezra SF

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33 Comments / Post A Comment

Ellie (#62)

This was a great article! I completely agree that writing about weddings tends to vacillate wildly between two extremes, the consumerist (sometimes guiltily so) and the virtuously frugal (often also guiltily so). This was a nice balance and I also think that you struck at the heart of what I think is important about weddings too – contributing to the sense of community, friendship and family with among the people in your lives.
I’m curious, was either of you raised Quaker and that’s why you wanted to have a Quaker style ceremony? I was raised Quaker but I’ve never really considered the idea of having a Quaker wedding (if any kind of wedding).

gl (#5,458)

@Ellie I went to a Quaker funeral once and it was one of the most moving experiences. (The woman whose funeral it was had grown up Catholic and became Quaker as an adult.) I think a Quaker wedding sounds lovely (and much less sad). But also not as traditional, which is maybe why you hadn’t considered it?

@Ellie My husband and I incorporated the Quaker-style “open floor” into our wedding ceremony. My parents grew up in the Philadelphia area, so we’d heard of the idea before, and seeing it on a few blogs just sealed the deal for us as a thing we could do. Since we’re not Quaker (we were both raised Catholic but are agnostic-ish now), we called it “community reflection and intentions” to relate back to the Catholic tradition a little and not be all Quaker-for-a-day about it.

Before deciding how to do our ceremony, we’d had many long conversations about meaning and ritual. Our extended family runs the gamut from atheists to evangelicals to Orthodox Jews, and all of those traditions have shaped us. We wanted a ceremony that would bring all “our people” together and honor all those traditions without resorting to generic platitudes. Our friends and family gave us a mixture of prayers, blessings, worldly advice and secular well-wishes.

Lily (#3,106)

@cuminafterall Can you talk a little bit about how you explained what was going on to your guests? Did you ask them to bring readings/thoughts to share? We’re in the early stages of planning a Quaker-style ceremony, but because our families aren’t Quakers, we’re trying to program everything a little while retaining the spontaneity (and actual Quaker-ness). We’re worried no one will say anything if we don’t give people a general plan!

@Lily We spread the word through our parents, and also put a little note in our ceremony program (it was the only reason we even had a program– we wanted people to know what was going on). It said something like, “Anyone who feels inclined or moved to speak may stand and share a prayer, thought, or message of support for [our names]. While we welcome intentions, we also expect periods of silence and reflection. If you would like to speak, please stand as the last person finishes.”

Rory (#5,459)

@cuminafterall we did something similar. I also asked 2-3 people to say something to get things kicked off, but it turns out that our family and friends have THINGS TO SAY. We didn’t need to worry.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

This was super great–I’m having the a big, semi-traditional wedding, paid for by my parents (THANKS PARENTS) but they did offer to just give us the money and let us run. And we were tempted!

However, everything that you said in the article–the building of a community, the celebrating of your starting a new journey with your person surrounded by your family and friends and people who are important to you, and that lingering sense of joy, those things are just priceless. And so we decided to do the big wedding with all the family, in my gorgeous hometown on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

I’ve had so much fun at my friends’ weddings, and my married friends all talk about how amazing their weddings were, and I am really hoping that that sense of joy and love and happiness occurs when we get married next summer.

WayDownSouth (#3,431)

When my wife and I were married, we had just finished renovating the house (two years after purchasing it) and had no money left. Our wedding cost $1,800, which was all the cash we had (that wasn’t going into the house) We’ve been married almost 17 years and that day remains one of our favourites.

That said, more expensive weddings are fun. When my brother got married 25 years ago, his wife’s grandmother had left $25,000 in her will for the wedding. It was beautiful and the reception and pictures were brilliant. So spending more money had a very positive result.

Lily Rowan (#70)

This is really beautiful and lovely.

aetataureate (#1,310)

Wait, your grandparents weren’t there . . . ? On purpose? I need clarification on that part. Confused by how parents “did not invite their own parents.”

ellabella (#1,480)

@aetataureate Obviously I don’t know, but I could easily imagine that while the parents are totally supportive and accepting of their gay daughters, it is possible the grandparents are so much not so that it would be unpleasant (or dramatic or miserable or whatever) at the wedding. If this is not the reason I would be curious to hear what it is!

aetataureate (#1,310)

@ellabella That’s my assumption as well, but if that were the case, why would it be up to the parents to decide whether or not to invite the bigoted grandparents? This is the confusion.

ellabella (#1,480)

@aetataureate Good question! I guess I just assumed that what she meant was more that it was a relief that their parents were on the same page with them about the grandparents, so it didn’t become an issue the way it might if the parents wanted to invite the grandparents and the couple did not? Of course I don’t think anybody should have bigoted people/people that are negative, etc. etc. at their own weddings, but also think it is nice generally to let your parents invite people you wouldn’t prioritize (great-aunts, parents friends, etc.) if you have the room and especially if they are helping to foot the bill.

Rory (#5,459)

@aetataureate that was totally confusing — I meant my parents didn’t invite their parents to THEIR wedding. All our grandparents are super supportive and were invited, though one couldn’t make it for medical reasons.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Rory Thank you!!

boringbunny (#3,260)

I’m totally confused (and terrified) about your medium-sized non-consumerist in-the-woods wedding being $25,000+. I’m definitely eloping.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@boringbunny I’m curious about that too, what the cost breakdown is. I tend to think in cases like this that people just spend a massive amount of money on booze? Seriously.

boringbunny (#3,260)

@aetataureate I assumed they rented out a place for most of their party to stay? Or that when they said medium sized – they meant 300 people. Otherwise that’d be like ~$10,000 on liquor-store booze for…~150 people? That would be epic. And likely a disaster.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@boringbunny Hahahaha, perhaps a medium-sized . . . movie theater.

It’s interesting to me that the interviewee wants to correct people’s view that expensive weddings represent poor financial planning, when, to me, it’s not that, it’s wastefulness. These big weddings seem to almost always be sponsored by parents, which is fine but is not the same as financial planning! If that money wasn’t there outside of use for a wedding.

nell (#4,295)

@boringbunny I would put in here that the thing that truly sinks your wedding budget is the guest list. I’m getting married this summer and so far we are doing nothing at all over the top (My wedding dress was $200, we’re only serving beer and wine, I’m doing the flowers) … and it’s probably going to cost about 25k because the one thing that was really important to us was inviting everyone we want to invite. Basically if you want a super inexpensive wedding you almost have to have a small wedding (or a dry wedding, and fuck that)

Rory (#5,459)

@boringbunny You def don’t have to spend the kind of money we spent to have an 80-person wedding, even in an expensive area like where we live. We housed and fed 25 people for a week and another 60 for 2 nights. You don’t have to do that. Here’s the basic cost breakdown:

– $8000 (net) for the place, but we had it for a week and everyone could sleep there and there was a lake. People kicked in for lodging, but especially if they were camping it wasn’t much.
– $8500 for catered food. This covered dinner and brunch for 80 people. There are cheaper ways to do food for sure, but I don’t think this is over-priced for what it was.
– $800 (wild guess) for food for dinner, breakfast, and lunch before the wedding. We cooked a cheap dinner (bean soup!), put coffee and tea and toast in the kitchen for diy breakfast, and got cold platters from a deli for lunch.
– $2300 for photography. Unambiguously unnecessary expense.
– $1000 or so for clothes, but it’s all stuff we’re still wearing regularly.

The rest went to booze, which my dad and my partner’s dad ordered so I don’t know the exact total. Plus there were some incidentals (invitations, thank you notes, a bucket of flowers) but food and place are by far the biggest expenses.

@aetatureate I’m not at all trying to say this was possible because of our great financial planning. Just that I don’t think it was wasteful to spend all this money on the wedding. No one tells someone who’s writing about their amazing trip around the world that it was wasteful to spend $25k on that. For me, for us, this was much much more valuable than a trip.

boringbunny (#3,260)

@Rory Thanks for clearing that up. It seemed like more of a simple affair in the article – like a backyard campfire – which is why it was confusing. I think small weddings where the guests feel taken care of are really lovely.

Rory (#5,459)

@boringbunny I think before I got married I thought the expensive parts were things like clothes and decorations and favors. Consumer objects of various kinds. You can spend a lot on that, but the spendiest thing is just finding a place to put everyone (assuming you don’t have an appropriate back yard) and getting them fed and drunk.

Rory (#5,459)

@Ellie neither of us grew up Quaker but I went to a Quaker college and worked at a Quaker summer camp. And we’ve had friends have Quaker weddings. To be way too earnest for a sec, having the ceremony made by everyone there also reflects our beliefs about witness and community and inviting people into our lives. I totally recommend it if you’re ever trying to decide how to organize your wedding.

Ellie (#62)

@Rory OK, cool! That’s so nice to hear. To be honest being raised Quaker gave me a weird fetishization of religious rigamarole so it’s never really appealed to me to do it for myself (the same reason the fact that my parents gave me a hyphenated last name and neither of them changed theirs makes me want to drop the whole thing for my husband’s name if I get married) but I think it’s such a great tradition.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@Rory Was this Quaker summer camp in southern Vermont?

mariajoseh (#405)

oh, this was great. I have mixed feelings about weddings but I’ve always liked the idea of having all your loved ones in one place and celebrating.

Also, Logan is back! I missed you yesterday :)

andnowlights (#2,902)

Oh weddings. I still have mixed feelings about my wedding, honestly. I didn’t want a wedding- I wanted something SUPER small, family only, but in the city in which we lived. I’m the only girl in my family, though, and married an ordained minister and my parents have a lot of friends. What I was basically required to have was a 150 person extravaganza- even my super awesome idea of having our reception at the mini gold course (with a bar every couple of holes) was nixed. It was so fun, don’t get me wrong, and the mid-five figure price tag was never offered to me for any other purpose, but I still wish we had been given the option. It was gorgeous and perfect and beautiful (and featured as one of the best weddings of the year in my city), though, and I’m so thankful to my parents for doing that because it was a lot of money, time, and effort on both their parts. Also, all 4 grandmothers got to come and now that 3 of them are gone, it was worth seeing their faces at our wedding and having those memories.

I still wish we had gotten to have it at the mini golf course, though, because it would have been AMAZING.

nell (#4,295)

I really liked this – I’m planning my wedding right now and although I know how icky the wedding industrial complex is, the extreme DIY/potluck thing was not us at all, mostly because to me it seems super stressful. Like this couple all we really care about is throwing a great, fun party for all the people we love, and for us that means a) big guest list and c) food and booze for that big guest list. We’re not at all having an extravagant wedding, but feeding 150 people and getting them drunk is spendy.

RachelW (#2,605)

@nell Yes, this is something that I think people forget when they rant about the wedding industrial complex and how much weddings cost. Even if you skip the personalized napkins, the chiavari chairs, the photo booth and the chocolate fountain (although, I will never ever complain about the presence of a chocolate fountain anywhere), it will cost a lot of money to feed people a good dinner in a nice place. I got married in October and with a 65 person guest list, the wedding cost about 15K. If you had told me a year ago that my wedding would cost $15,000, I would have gasped in horror. But most of that money went to the venue (which was beautiful and included things like chairs, linens, and wait staff) and the food ($70 a person adds up…). We saved money where we could (did the sound equipment/music ourselves, crowd sourced photos, a friend did the flowers at cost), but in the end, a fancy dinner party for 65 people is never going to be cheap. And everyone had a great time, and nobody went into debt over it, so I am ok with it.

WriteBikeBobbi (#3,938)

My husband and I eloped. We got married on top of a mesa in the desert, a place that was very dear to us. I said my vows in hiking boots and a sweater. We then had a few low-key parties to celebrate, as our friends/families lived in various parts of the country. It was easier for us to travel to them. It was the best of both worlds — no stress, no ridiculous expense, no family members arguing, no drama, followed by fun and togetherness with people we loved. At the time, we had very little money — but that was only a small part of our choice to elope. We’re deeply in love and have been happily married for five years, and don’t have a single regret about our choice. It’s not made our marriage any less fulfilling; on the contrary, I think a lot of people get caught up in the WEDDING and forget that the marriage that follows is something quite different. To each his own; but I’ll never understand people who think it’s reasonable to drop $25K on a single day.

Adam (#5,554)

Wow, it must be awesome to have parents who will give you a quarter of a hundred grand like that! My parents would or could not even give me $100 for a wedding.

I wish the Billfold interviewed more poor people. Or, you know, just, normal people!

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