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The wedding-industrial complex has to be one of the biggest victims of the pandemic lockdowns. Fewer big gatherings, so less money spent on renting halls or catering, flowers, limousines, tuxes, dresses and more.

My guest for the Q&A in this edition of Carrick on Money isn’t too upset about all of this. Karen Cleveland is a co-author of The New Wedding Book: A Guide to Ditching All the Rules. What follows is an e-mail exchange we had about why people spend so much on weddings and how the pandemic might change that going forward. Prepare to hear some smart, contrarian thinking on wedding spending.

Q: Do you have any data on what the average cost of a wedding was, at least pre-COVID?

A: Estimates range that in Canada (before the arrival of COVID’s micro-weddings), the average wedding costs between $22,000 and $30,000. By some estimates, the cost of weddings have doubled in the past 10 years, though the annual family income in Canada increased only 26 per cent. It just doesn’t square: We’re spending heaps of money on weddings that have outpaced our salaries, and what’s more, divorce rates aren’t really budging. It begs the question, what is driving all of this hoopla?

Q: There are so many cost pressures on young adults today – student debt, a tough job market, expensive housing. Why do you think many are still willing to pay for an expensive wedding?

A: Weddings are seemingly untouchable because of the fantasy and high-stakes emotions wrapped up in them. There’s nothing practical about weddings. Not only do couples want to celebrate their relationship in a fun way, there’s the added pressure of their families and of course, the influence of celebrity culture and social media. For women, we’ve been inundated since childhood that our worth is tied to marriage, and that our wedding day is the one day we can have everything exactly as we want it. Take all that, and add in the high-grade pressure of a US$72-billion global wedding industry, it is no wonder that couples are overspending.

Q: How are weddings financed these days – savings, parental contributions, debt? What do you think about the idea of taking on debt for a wedding?

A: There’s no formula, but in our research for the book, it seemed to be a blend of couples paying for their own wedding, with some help from their parents. The Annual International Wedding Trend Report indicated 68 per cent of couples paid for the majority of the wedding themselves, though we can’t assume that means paying cash for it. According to a survey from a bank, Canadian couples dip into their savings and investments to front 60 per cent of their wedding costs. For most North American couples, it is almost accepted that getting married is going to end in sizable debt and some serious financial stress – that is extremely concerning. And it doesn’t bode well for a happy marriage. A review of 115 studies about divorce found that couples who spend liberally on their weddings are more likely to divorce than couples who stick to a tight budget. The idea of taking on debt for a party feels outrageous and, at the risk of sounding alarmist, I’d say it is reckless. To share in my outrage, I encourage anyone to watch the show Marriage or Mortgage on Netflix.

Q: The pandemic has obviously curtailed big weddings for the most part – do you have a sense people are postponing or taking advantage of the opportunity to have a cheaper, smaller-scale wedding?

A: Prior to the pandemic, the type of wedding that was often glorified in pop culture was big, grand, and very expensive. What’s more, the wedding narrative really lacked diversity and many couples we spoke to didn’t see themselves reflecting in the wedding narrative. The past year was one that focused the lens on celebrating all kinds of weddings and marriages, bringing some long overdue diversity to wedding imagery. More importantly, it also stripped weddings down to their essentials: marrying in front of a few close people, in an intimate, special setting. What’s more romantic than that? The option of having people attend your wedding virtually is here to stay, I bet. COVID-19’s micro weddings have given couples an alternative to over the top weddings.

Q: Is it fair to say the wedding industry is really a bridal industry?

A: One hundred per cent. There’s no groom industry, right? The wedding industry is synonymous with the bridal industry because it markets so specifically to women. That’s problematic not only because it perpetuates out-of-date stereotypes, but it leaves little room for couples that aren’t cis-gender and heterosexual. It doesn’t feel relevant any more. The way in which the wedding industry speaks to women is problematic, too. It certainly doesn’t come from a place of strength or empowerment. The message is that you are something to be visually consumed, and if you’re not chasing perfection, you’re not measuring up. A study from Cornell reported that more than 70 per cent of brides are planning to lose weight before their wedding. In what other space would we tolerate this pressure on women?

Q: What are some tips for keeping a lid on wedding expenses?

A: Have a smaller wedding. It’s not a sexy solution, but it is simple and effective. More guests, more costs. Fewer guests, fewer costs. Next, pressure-test your vendors by getting a cost for an event, and withhold the small-but-important detail that it is a wedding. You’ll quickly be able to see if they are gouging you with a wedding markup. Finally, prioritize what matters to you as a couple. Do you really care about rolling up in a limousine, or having thousands of dollars of flowers around you? If you do, great, prioritize that. But don’t build your budget around a random wedding template budget, which was likely designed by an organization/person that directly profits from your spending.

Note: To hear more about wedding cost, and more of Karen Cleveland’s thoughts, tune into the upcoming third season of Stress Test, the Globe and Mail personal finance podcast for Gen Y and millennials.

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