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