Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Damned if you Do, Damned if you Don't

"How much should you spend on a wedding dress? For that matter, how much should you spend on the wedding?"

And thus opens yet another subtly bride-bashing article in the mainstream media. In the Wall Street Journal's Return on Investment column, Brett Arends examines what a wedding really costs, in an article entitled "A Lavish Wedding Costs More Than You Think." As if $18,000 isn't panic-inducing enough, Arends wants to make sure you know that it's not just $18,000 you're spending:
"Your $18,000 wedding? It may really end up costing you between $90,000 and $200,000. That $2,000 dress? Think: $10,000 to $22,000. The $10,000 food bill for your guests? Try $50,000 to $110,000.
No, I am not kidding.
That's because the biggest cost of every dollar you spend is invisible. It's all the money you'd accumulate if you saved it instead.
Do the math. The typical bride is just 26 at her first wedding, according to the U.S. Census. She has four decades or more to save.
If her savings earn 4% a year above inflation over the long haul, each dollar she spends now is actually taking $5—in today's terms—out of her lifetime savings. If her money earns 6% a year above inflation, an estimate that is challenging but not ridiculous, she is taking out $11.
Per dollar spent."
I know it's Arend's job to make us more conscious of the impact our spend-versus-save decisions have on our future life.  And I'm going to be generous and assume he's already ripped apart typically male gadget purchases and flat screen TVs and luxury autos.  Because this particular wedding article is dripping with gendered budget-judging bullshit. It opens with judgment about the dress expense and moves right into discussions of the average bride's age. What about the groom's preference for an expensive DJ? Or the groom with a larger family who wants a more traditional wedding when you just wanted to get married in the backyard?  Or what about the damn groom's age and HIS lost savings?

Oh, that's right.  The $18,000 excessive budget is my bridezilla-inspired fault.  The bridezilla who apparently can't do math and can't figure out the value, import, and consequences of her own financial decisions.

Except that, I've done my math. I know the full value of every hard-earned dollar we're spending on this thing and I know every alternative vacation or grad school plan or house savings account we could have funded otherwise.  I also know there's no possible investment (that I have access to) that's earning over 4% above inflation these days (math? hmm?).  I also know that investing in this wedding will pay dividends in goodwill and love and family and spousal harmony. Yes, investing in this wedding, in this marriage, and in this opportunity to build new family and intertwine old.

One of the most difficult aspects of planning this wedding has been the immediate and overwhelming moral judgment ascribed to our highly personal decision-making process.  Everyone has an opinion about how we're planning this wedding and everyone thinks we're doing it wrong.  Especially since I'm a woman who apparently can't do math.  Jason and I have written a bit about the gender expectations associated with weddings and the damage caused by both the bridezilla b*s and the hands-off expectations for grooms. Relying on these caricatures does nothing to further the concept or practice of marriage as a partnership.  It's much the opposite, in fact. Arends is addressing the very real financial issue of opportunity cost, but doing it in a way that subtly blames the woman for this specifically lost opportunity related to wedding. Even though the article notes that the average wedding cost fell 8% since 2008 to $17,500 (based on a survey by the Knot), this new frugality isn't enough for Arends. So he interviews a wedding expert whose brilliant advice we've all heard before (DIY the invitations! Have a DJ instead of a band! Don't get married on Saturday! Hire a new photographer! Cut the guest list!), but still won't generally help us crack that mythical $10,000 budget goal. Especially when the contradictory advice also admonishes us that we can't have a cash bar, ask a friend to take photos, or cut back on waiters. 

I just want to tell everyone to keep their uninformed opinion and concurrently contradictory no-cash-bar expectations out of my damn wedding. Having an ipod wedding (that's right - we're even cutting the DJ!) still won't get us to a number you think is reasonable. And you know what?  I don't give a damn what you think anymore or how much your punch-and-cake wedding cost in 1975.  This bride has done her math.  I do it every week, in fact, as I look for new ways to shave $10, $100, or even $1000 off the wedding that my groom wants even more than I do. And my math says that the opportunity cost of NOT having this wedding would be far worse than moving forward with the event.

Hopefully tomorrow's column can refrain from bashing grooms for spending too much at strip clubs on their bachelor parties. Sheesh.

34 comments:

  1. Yay for iPod weddings!
    You go girl. I hate wedding sexism so much. I'm not a fan of people assuming that because a wedding costs a lot, of because it goes over budget, it's automatically the brides fault. How about the expensive car the man wanted for the day or the pumpin' light show at the reception? Somehow those things get tossed aside and suddenly it's the dress and decor that's caused the budget to overflow.

    I don't think anyone should be telling us to do the math, most of us know how much it's going to cost, and for us, it won't be anywhere near $18,000. It won't even be half. And that's because we're having the wedding we want, not the wedding The Knot tells us we should be having.

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  2. Wow, I cannot believe how out-of-line that article is. That is some serious bullshit.

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  3. My husband, who (as his nickname suggests) is an economics professor, read that article and spent ten minutes ranting to me about how terrible it was. Economists spend a lot of time thinking about the tradeoffs between immediate consumption and savings. With *anything,* there's *always* a tradeoff between consumption now and savings for later. Saving is not always the right choice. Sometimes people make the rational calculation that spending on something now is worth more to them than saving that money. So why aren't we criticizing people for buying, say, cars? "Sure, for $25,000 you could have a new car now, but think how much money you would have if you saved that money at 4% interest above inflation and took the bus instead!" Or what about normal, everyday clothes? "Well, you *could* spend $300 on that business suit to go to work, but really, in the long run, it's going to cost THOUSANDS of dollars, so why not just wear what you already have!"

    Basically, Econo Man felt that Arends's argument is not unique to weddings, and that the article didn't account for the sorts of things you're describing in your post -- opportunity costs and rational choices about consumption vs. savings. I'm glad to see the article picked apart here, because I also get really sick of the "blame the bride" articles about how allegedly excessive weddings are.

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  4. Yes one could spend the money on investments but this is a choice too. I too relish the opportunity to invest in love and family.

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  5. What a stupid article! I mean, spending on anything major in your life – a big trip, a new car, etc. – is technically spending money that could be invested instead. Yes, we are spending a good amount on our wedding, but we are also saving and investing a lot of money in addition, and are certainly planning for our future. The amount we’re spending on the wedding is totally within our means, and I think it’s important to spend your hard-earned money on things that make you happy and bring joy to your life, as long as you’re doing it in a responsible way. Our wedding is definitely an investment in happiness and love!

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  6. I read this article this weekend and was also angered by it, especially from the "wedding expert" POV, since all of the things listed were really "DUH" points for all of us who have done so much research about how to stretch our dollar. Newsflash wedding expert, I'm already doing a lot of DIY and not having a DJ and the price of my wedding would still enrage the WSJ author into a lecture series about how to save for my future. If wedding expert had told me to elope or have punch and pie in my backyard for 50 people, ok, then I can believe it. But seriously, don't patronize me, WSJ.

    And I totally agree with you that it's gender stereotyping. Every year around Filene's Basement time journalists have a field day documenting how completely crazy brides go over a dress and then launch into articles like the one the WSJ published.

    No one ever takes the groom into account, everyone just falls to the stereotype that the groom doesn't have a say and just sits back and says "oh, honey, whatever you like. I'm going to go do more important things, like make money while you spend it. Why don't you go shopping? Isn't that what you do?"

    Kudos for bringing up the article.

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  7. We are rocking the mp3 player, probably a $10 one.

    Girlie, I am now at the stage of "let go and let flow" but mainly because we are at some weird stage of not having anything weddingy to do right now.

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  8. The article is based on a faulty assumption: that she who dies with the most $$$ wins. But we all know that you can't take it with you, and that it won't keep you warm at night. And we've learned during the recent Depression, that you can conscientiously save all your life, and lose it all with crashing stocks and failing banks. When you consider these issues, it's suddenly much WISER to invest in wedding that will strengthen families and give you fond memories for a lifetime!

    The other reasoning mistake: if the parental generation is paying for all or some of the wedding, the money isn't even the bride's to save. She may get the gift of a wedding, but she's not gonna get cold cash to put in a mutual fund. Duh, Arend. Doesn't he have an editor?!?!?!?

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  9. Yeah, this is totally maddening. I was going to make the point as well that barefoot bride made in the second paragraph of her comment. Didn't he just say that the bride and groom weren't the ones paying anymore? Aghh.

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  10. @petite chablis, bicoastal bride, walking barefoot - I had a ton of issues with the article, but a rant can only go on for so long. I hate when people forget that personal finance and sensible saving is a TOOL, not an end in and of itself. All of our financial choices have implications, from that pack of gum up to a home.

    Arends also got into the parental paying issues but it was so messily written that I didn't even bother trying to deconstruct it here.

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  11. ya ipod weddings! we are renting a PA system from our place then totally rocking the ipod too. basically, i think people should keep their noses out unless they have something constructive to say especially if they aren't even paying for it! when it all boils down, some people will like it some won't we hopefully won't be in debt and will hopefully have had a super fun day

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  12. Yes and Yes! I posted something similar a while back. We all need to drop the budget/cost judgments!

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  13. I love you. I really do. You are just THAT good.

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  14. YES YES YES! SO true!!! I am like so over all of the judging about personal budgets. $17,000 may be just fine for one person's family & budget.. where $50,000 is more in line for someone else's family & budget. Neither are wrong choices. What is wrong is going into $20,000 or however much debt for any wedding. I think if you have the funds to plan something - regardless if its $7,000 or $67,000 - that is your business & no one should judge you for it.

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  15. "investment." for serious.

    it's silly to compare weddings. we don't compare lifestyles in the same way. i may have splurged on a live band, but then again, some folks spend $4 a day on a cup of coffee, and i don't. we can't compare spending unless we compare priorities.

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  16. amen, sister. you know what i hate? the term "wedding advice." no matter where it's coming from - your aunt, your friend, the knot, the wall street journal - it's judgy. so judgy...and no matter how many numbers he tries to stick in there, the underlying theme is it's the woman's fault for wanting to be a princess. well, i hate princesses and i'm sick of the stereotypical and contradictory bullshit. thanks for posting.

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  17. Yes, our pretty little princess dreams will be our financial ruin. Because we clearly cannot act like sensible people when it comes to this whole wedding thing. Well, what can you expect when it comes to girls and math? Good thing daddy's paying for it - at least the math/trip to the poor house will be HIS problem.

    PS: I love it when you show your teeth.

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  18. What a bunch of crap. I think the thing he misses big time in the whole process is the huge difference between value and worth. And if people have $200,000 that they want to spend on a wedding then thats their prerogative. Just as it is to spend $5000. If we go by this mentality we would never spend on anything. I'm not even going to comment on the gender issue.

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  19. Yeah, I wanted to write a response to this. I think my biggest problem with it is THIS IS NEWS? Every time you make a big expenditure that's money you don't invest. Which is, you know, how it works. In theory we earn money A) to survive and B) So we can eventually spend it on things that matter. For many of us, weddings are one of life's big expenditures, but also one of the moments in life that really matter.

    And I for one, thought it was worth every penny.

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  20. Also, how do we know the money spent wasn't invested years ago? A good chunk of ours was invested by grandparents 20+ years ago for their grandson. And, the wedding was when part of it was spent, which I think they would have liked.

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  21. @Meg: Right? How do you think I fund my 401K and IRA? By only making nownownow decisions with my expenditures? No, because if I did, I'd have less left for the future. Head, meet desk.

    Granted, it's his job to write about ROI in various real life situations, which is why I didn't attack that aspect (as much) and went for the gender/misinformed judgment attack instead.

    Also, I love that your granparents' investment helped support such an important day in your life and family's growth. THAT's some good investment advice.

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  22. Came back to say that I just found out that Jezebel did its own article based on the Arends piece, but... nevermind. I think I just found you in the comments section.

    God, they totally missed the mark. I would have thought Jez would have ripped it to pieces. Or at least clawed at the logic and pretense a little.

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  23. I saw this and was outraged, too. It's also funny that he thinks we would invest this money if we weren't spending it on the party. I, for one, would spend it on dirty martinis, roadtrips, clothes and shoes.

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  24. That guy is an asshat! Is he married?

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  25. You know what cracks me up? The subtle "typical bride is 26 at the time of her first wedding." Like women are the one keeping the divorce rate up.
    He also doesn't even discuss how much of your investment in the wedding you recoup in gifts. (This is meant to be sarcastic, but I think his entire problem with his approach is he is looking at the wedding as a throwaway for which you get nothing back, and that's not true - and the benefits aren't just emotional. People do give gifts, and you can invest that and be 4% richer after 80 years.) I mean, honestly, this guy calls himself an economist?
    Also, I'd like to point out I could be 80 and rich and worried about the estate tax, or I could be 80, still pretty comfortable, and sit next to my husband and tell my grandchildren about our wedding. And tell them about my wedding dress. (Which did NOT cost $2000.) And remember the way my flowers smelled and the way my parents smiled as they walked me down the aisle.

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  26. What an obnoxious article! Us silly women, we just don't know the value of a dollar. I would love to see how much money the author has spent on electronics in the last year alone! (oops, was that me being sexist?) There are a million things I could opt not to buy and put the money into savings instead. The wedding was just one of those. Maybe people should stop having kids since they are such money suckers. See how that goes over.

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  27. It's funny how we all read and process information differently. As I was reading the blurbs from his article I was feeling more and more depressed...and more and more in the goddamn "I'm broke as hell" hole...and even put myself in the "I'll be broke from this wedding until I die" hole.

    Until I realized this party is going to rock my face off. And it's not even an extravagant party. It's not over the top...it won't even be a terribly unique wedding after all...but it's ours. And we're only young once. My guess is we'll think about this wedding gazillions of time in the future and smile at the memories. It will be worth it.

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  28. I'm laughing at the bit that says you're 26 on your 'first' wedding... presumably we'll all go, wasting our hard-earned cash on getting married again and again throughout our lives.

    I pity the poor girls who have OHs who might have read this and are insisting this is the real reason they're ring-phobic!

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  29. Those a$$holes. Of course we could save our money instead of getting married. But do they honestly think we haven't been through "how to cut your wedding budget" six ways from Sunday? SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE! The sticker shock is bad enough without the finger-wagging from the press. Oh, and my dad, who believes that if he got married for $3,000 then so can I. (Inflation, people, inflation.)

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  30. This is super interesting. While I agree with everything you wrote (I'm all about the cash bar by the way), I will not focus on what HE wrote as much as focusing on what a great perspective YOU had on the whole article. I think it's so great that we have smart, capable and opinionated women who can see through the crap that is thrown out into the universe and stand up for themselves. You brought some great insight to this article. You helped a lot of us feel better about our own spending or desires to want the more expensive wedding even if it is throwing away investments. My question is, what the hell was the point of his article anyway? Who was he writing to and what does he expect to change?

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  31. It's all a choice and I totally agree that the happiness benefits (look it up, it's official) of throwing a wedding are a totally valid investment in your future! And Cupcake- I think you're hysterical!

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  32. "What about the groom's preference for an expensive DJ? Or the groom with a larger family who wants a more traditional wedding when you just wanted to get married in the backyard? Or what about the damn groom's age and HIS lost savings?"

    --because the entire goddamn article was pegged on a bridal sale. The fact that "brides" are the focus of the piece comes up in the first sentence. It's quite a stretch to accuse the writer of a greater gender bias agenda when it's made pretty clear that brides are his topic from the get-go.

    I don't mind discussing equality, but you're now inserting your own agenda in place of what was otherwise a pretty interesting talking point -- the hidden cost of weddings in the context of future savings.

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  33. @anon - that's exactly the point. That all wedding articles default to the bride's expensive choices and not the couple's choices. These articles shouldn't be pegged on the bride's choices or a dress sale, because that's not necessarily where the major expenditures are. He never moved into a general discussion of couples' expenses but focused on the bridezilla caricature (without ever naming her. but it's what most of these articles rely on.) He has a point re: opportunity cost (somewhat, though he dilutes it with useless budget saving information that won't nearly get him down to an $18K number in many parts of the country, even if we should still have an open bar, aparently)

    Also, please note that women who participate in running of the brides are participating in a cost-saving opportunity, not a massive expense opportunity. It was gendered from the get-go, which is why I brought up the flip side. Many of us intelligent, financially savvy, non-briedy-brides are tired of the judgments and assumptions that get imputed about our supposed "excess" with respect for weddings when we're the ones grappling with (and many times paying for) simple affairs that simply cost a lot.

    As I mentioned, we're still saving, but we also see the wedding as an investment in family and community. It's an expenditure that's worth it to us. Much as a car or a home or a flat screen tv is worth it to someone else. We have these "don't spend/have an open bar" contradictions thrown at us as brides all the time and I'm fed up. And I'm damn well aware of the opportunity cost of any large expenditure. It's not a hidden expenditure at all, especially if you're socking away money yourself to pay for this thing,

    Also, if the author wanted to talk opportunity cost when related to weddings, he could have talked about DJ, catering, alcohol, etc and and dropped the gendered dress discussions/bride investments out of it.

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  34. I feel as if I have so much to say, but I am so awed that I can't actually come out and say it. Except... I can say this, AMEN, SISTER!

    I just might have to link my blog to this.

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