The Great American Wedding Machine

March 14, 2001

By Sarabeth Matilsky

Nineteen thousand dollars is a lot of money. It could finance a trip around the world, or nearly equal a down-payment on a house. Nineteen thousand dollars could buy a car outright, no monthly payments necessary, or it could pay several years' worth of rent. It could feed an average American family for 6 years, and it's nearly eighty-five percent of an average American's yearly income. Nineteen thousand dollars equals the amount of money the average Chinese person earns in 52 years. According to a 1997 Bride's Magazine survey, nineteen thousand dollars—$19,104, to be exact—could also pay for an average American wedding.
Nearly two and a half million couples get married each year, and these days, it's all about choices: you can have a wedding in a football stadium or a grand cathedral or a cruise ship, coordinate your décor so that the bridesmaids' dresses match the floral centerpieces that match the chandeliers, and you can spend your honeymoon in Bali or Bermuda or Brisbane. The sky is the limit, the bridal magazines assure you, on Your Special Day. There is, however, the aforementioned caveat: you have to be willing to pay.
What if, postulates Jeff Brown from the Philadelphia Inquirer, couples skipped some of the extras, spent no more than $4,000 on a nice little wedding, and invested the rest? "Suppose," suggests Jeff, "you put the $15,000 saved into an aggressive stock portfolio and forgot about it until you retired in 40 years? If you earned, say, 10 percent a year, you would end up with about $680,000. In fact, after 35 years, you would have about $420,000—perhaps enough to retire five years early and go on a fabulous second honeymoon."

Why are people regularly spending upwards of $10,000 on the reception alone? Why do women spend $800 or more on a wedding dress? How did weddings become such a big business?
Partly, says Paula Mollov, a consultant with All About Parties in Boxford, Massachusetts, it's because a wedding is a fairy-tale affair. "It's unfortunate that many marriages now end in divorce, but people don't like to look at that when they're getting married. All the brides want this spectacular party. It's a life-cycle event, a culmination of youth. This is the last big fling that you're going to have. Once they do the ring thing, couples suddenly settle down and have kids and they have to think about serious things. They want a fabulous party, with all their friends. It becomes monumentally important, and putting the money away is just too practical."
Sue Winner, author of the romantically titled "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Budgeting Your Wedding," says that couples today are often more financially secure and independent than engaged couples of the past. In fact, she notes, a modern couple's idea of a perfect wedding may be quite different from their parents'. But, Winner writes, "One thing has not changed from the very beginning: the bride and groom still have no real experience hosting a major event, and they have limited experience creating and following a budget."
It's not only inexperience, however, that plagues the average wedding planner. Angel Logan, owner of Angelbells wedding consulting service in Waltham, Massachusetts, says that couples—and especially women—encounter lots of pressure to have a flawless, expensive celebration. It's "social conditioning," she says, "years of conditioning. I mean, the whole thing for females is You Get Married—still. Even though there's a lot of career-minded, feminist-type females out there, it's still kind of the social conditioning that women grow up and get married and have children—and have the perfect wedding. I get what the formal wedding is all about—it's almost a performance, so to speak. Everything has to be just so, the flowers have to be just so—and a good portion of the time it's not just the bride making these decisions—it's the families. You know, the mother in law wants this, the mother wants that, the sister wants another…"
Paula Mollov agrees that there's lots of pressure to have a perfect wedding. When I ask her why, she laughs before she answers.
"That's a question for a psychologist! I really don't know." But partly, she thinks, it's because we're assailed by programs on TV like Celebrity Weddings, and especially by magazines. "People pick up Martha Stewart's wedding magazine and say, 'I love that!' Whether you like her or not, Martha Stewart is a trendsetter…Everyone's always looking for the next trend. People…say, 'I want that,' or, 'I may not get all those things but I'm certainly going to have something like that.' I mean, it used to be that families got together and it was…very homey and casual."

As Mollov noted, bridal magazines like Bride's and Modern Bride have the capability of starting trends with a well-placed article and photo, a useful talent when you're trying to lure in advertisers. To wit: in the current issue of Bride's, 1,109.5 pages out of the 1,286-page, nearly-five-pound issue are devoted to ads.
According to Denise and Alan Fields, the authors of a book on inexpensive weddings, almost every bridal magazine refuses advertising from discount bridal-wear retailers and from gown-rental companies, because of pressure from full-service bridal-wear retailers. In 1992, Harper's Magazine reprinted a letter sent that May to retailers of bridal wear by Jim Duhe, then the director of fashion advertising for Modern Bride magazine. "Dear Retailer:" wrote Jim,

"The attached editorial appears on page 358 of the current issue of Bride's Magazine. It is an affront to every full-service bridal retailer and may have an extremely negative impact upon your business.
"Bride's recommends that its readers (your customers) 'negotiate price,' 'borrow a slip or petticoat,' and 'compare catalog shoe prices,' and tells its readers that 'the groom's tuxedo may be free.' It is difficult to understand why Bride's was compelled to publish this information.
"With fifty-seven years of publishing experience and 'support' to the bridal industry, Bride's could and should have been more sensitive to the needs of the retailers it purports to serve.
"All of us in the bridal business must concentrate on projecting full-service bridal retailing in a positive light. If Bride's is not part of the solution, it's part of the problem."

In May 1998, the trade magazine Target Marketing reported that subscriber files of such companies as Modern Bride have become popular to limousine services, florists, fashion magazines, and credit card and financial services marketers.
"Engaged couples are voracious consumers," the Target article explained. "Not only do they need to purchase products and services—such as flowers, dresses, invitations and favors—for their wedding day, but they will likely be making travel arrangements for a honeymoon and furnishing a home.
"Brides-to-be are 'perfect prospects for virtually any offer,' says Pam Finnegan, senior account group manger at American List Counsel, manager of the Modern Bride subscriber file. In addition to marketers of traditional bridal products and services (i.e., limousine services, florists, photo albums), bridal lists are getting secondary usage from non-traditional bridal marketers such as fashion magazines, apparel catalogers, book clubs and more."

Weddings, says Angel Logan, "have been pretty much expensive for quite a few years now." When she was putting together a business plan two years ago for Angelbells, Logan needed some demographics marketing research. "The research I had done was showing that the wedding industry was right behind the computer industry," she says. "It's booming." And vendors, she says, "are charging through the nose." Even honeymoons are not immune: on average, couples spend $4,000 for a nine-day honeymoon, three times as much as for an average vacation.
American couples today spend with abandon on their weddings, to the tune of $42.4 billion dollars a year, and retailers, caterers, and DJs alike all know it. An article in The Detroit News reports that insurance companies, hoping to cash in on this lucrative market, have started offering wedding insurance. The policies pay (after certain deductibles) for nonrefundable costs incurred if the ceremony is canceled due to illness or weather, if paint spills on a bridesmaid's dress, or if gifts are stolen. "'But if the best man loses the ring, or the airline cancels the flight to Hawaii, no, those costs aren't covered,'" says Jeff Swarbrick of Kelter-Thorner insurance company.

Partly, Paula Mollov says, people are spending tens of thousands of dollars on weddings because "details" are all the rage. People want extravagantly beaded napkin rings that rent for $8 a pop, or little silver frames for place cards; soon, they've got dozens of little extras and a hefty tab. "I think that a lot of the new generation has been living the Good Life, therefore: you see it, you get it…it's instant gratification," she says. "I'm certainly one of those who feel that we've overindulged our children to some degree. They haven't done things themselves. I mean, I remember living rather frugally and simply, and a lot of times when you see kids graduating from college now, they'll move to New York and their parents subsidize the apartment and take care of this and that and the other thing—or they'll go on to graduate school, and again, parents will pay for that as well. Our generation did it themselves."
"How do people pay for their weddings?" I ask. "Do they take out loans in order to afford them?"
Mollov laughs. "I have never asked that question. It's an interesting question to ask, but I have never asked that question."
Angel Logan is matter-of-fact. "Some people will pay the money," she says. "If they have it, they'll spend it. A lot of people aren't budget-minded. If they don't have anybody guiding them, they're just going to follow whatever instincts they have, if they're not very resourceful, and lots of people just aren't."
Also, says Mollov, there's the fact that parents are still willing to spend lots of money on their children's—especially their daughter's—weddings. "One of my assistants whom I absolutely adore, she's seeing all these incredible weddings…she's still in college and she's not even close to getting married. She asked her father if he'd started a wedding fund for her. I mean, usually when you have children, you start college funds for them. But I don't know…maybe people are starting to do that [start wedding funds], so that they're not hit with huge expensive weddings later."
After all, she says, the price of a wedding is becoming comparable to a year of college.

Even though many parents still pay for their children's weddings, Mollov says, couples today are more affluent than ever before. "A lot of brides and grooms are coming to the relationship with a lot of things they already have."
But instead of needing less at their weddings, couples are requesting more. "People have websites today," Mollov explains, "that give you all the details, lots of information. You can click on a store and basically buy the engagement gift or the wedding gift online…brides are registering at places like William Sonoma and Crate and Barrel. They're registering at Target!…I was just reading one of my bridal magazines that says now what you want to do is give them stocks and bonds."
Giving wedding gifts is a tradition that stems from when couples really did start their lives together on their wedding day, and they needed help and household items to make things work. But the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "gift" as "something given." Not "something requested on a website," but something voluntarily shared as a token of goodwill. In other words, truly optional. Like most wedding traditions, it's changed subtly along the line. Now, it's somehow okay to assume that your wedding guests will bring you something.

To see the Wedding Industry in action, my fiancé and I went to a Wedding Expo on the Sunday before Valentine's Day. We were curious in a kind of scientific way, it was nearby, and we reasoned that we'd probably never go again. Plus, Jeff said hopefully, maybe we could score some free food.
At noon, the expo was in full swing, and after receiving our complimentary telephone-book-sized copy of Modern Bride and a bag full of catalogs and pamphlets, we walked inside.
The room was a standard hotel ballroom, only this one was ringed with vendors' booths offering photography services, limo rentals, honeymoon packages, tuxedo rentals, bridal apparel, catering services, and hand-done calligraphy invitations. In the center were rows of chairs, filled with brides-to-be and their girlfriends and mothers, and one or two embarassed-looking men. The rows of chairs were facing a runway. A DJ was pumping out dance music as model brides and grooms paraded in front of the crowd.
"…and now, ladies, the latest in wedding gowns from Arnie's bridal!" The announcer was a sprightly-voiced woman standing at the front of the room next to the runway. On the runway was a model, smiling in a persevering sort of way. On the model was a white, poufy dress. "This gown, ladies, is at the forefront of the tulle revolution that's overtaking bridal fashions this season. Just look at that tulle-ing! Look at the flow of the fabric as she twirls." Obediently, the model twirled. "Absolutely the latest in sophisticated preciousness!"
Two young women in the front row pointed excitedly at the dress's tulle details, while the rest of the audience cheered as the first model exited the runway and two replacements came on.
The music switched to "I'm too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt, too sexy it huuuurts." The two new models were grooms, who swaggered around the stage and arched their eyebrows. A daughter pointed out their suit jackets to her mother.
"…always remember," the announcer kept reminding everyone, "Arnie's bridal, with its 157 locations near you, can fulfill your every dream and desire for special clothes for your special moment. Remember, this is only a selection of their in-stock products. Remember, your wedding is the one day when you get to be a COMPLETE PRINCESS!"
And so it went. Considering that guys don't even have to buy their tuxes, the two male models came out more often than you'd expect.
The female models exhibited dozens more dresses, and the announcer maintained her exuberance all the way through. "Simplicity is IN this year! Tulle is IN! Look at how beautiful strapless can be…watch that breathtaking tulle-ing—so soft—so flowing—so precious…admire those glass slippers, ladies!" Jeff noted that many of the dresses looked like curtains.
The "free food" that Jeff had pinned his hopes on was disappointing. He deemed the available samples "hospital food" and had to be appeased with the complimentary heart-shaped slinky from the booth at
The lady at the Macy's booth wanted to know when my wedding was.
"June," I said.
"And have you registered yet?" she asked. She was middle-aged, with tinted hair and large glasses.
"Actually…no," I said.
"And may I ask why not?"
"Well…uh…well, because I just can't say to my friends, 'Hey, come to my wedding and while you're at it, buy me this!' I don't think that's right."
"I see," she said, a look of sympathetic patience crossing her face. "You know, every day, girls come in and say the exact same thing. But let me play devil's advocate for a minute. When you register, it's so much easier for your guests. It's so much easier for you! I can't tell you how many brides end up having to go around to dozens of stores after their wedding, trying to remember who gave them that horrible picture frame or that ugly vase. People want you to register! In fact…" Her tirade continued for five minutes more before she made her final, triumphant point: "How else are you going to tell your guests what you need?"
She smiled. She was certain she'd convinced me, and she had nothing more to say.
"But I don't need anything," I said.
Just like that, the woman was utterly and completely stumped. "Uh," she said. "Well!" She considered me thoughtfully for the first time, now that she was no longer sure of her sale. Finally she said, "Good for you. No one's said that before!"

The wedding expo could represent anything in America that has been commercialized until its original meaning is lost in the shuffle. Nowhere in that hotel ballroom was there any evidence of the reality of—or any true reference to—"marriage" as the dictionary defines it: "A close union." This was about money, and how to appear the way you and others think you should look. This was about finding the Right costumes, serving the Right food, and making a wedding into an extravaganza to celebrate—what? Love? It wasn't entirely clear.
The sad part about the wedding industry boom is that more and more money is spent on weddings while fewer and fewer marriages last. We all long for ritual, yet on the whole, we seem to make commitments lightly. Money is one of the top three things couples argue about, and yet many begin their married life with an enormous outlay of cash. Maybe we don't even need to spend less on weddings—we just need to make as large an investment in and pay as much attention to the details of the relationship as we do the party. Deep down, we want our weddings to be celebrations of the enormity of marriage, the amazing fact that in this supremely chaotic world, one person can find another with whom to share goals and dreams and love and life.
In the end, it's not how much you spend, or what color your gown is, or what kind of flowers you have, or whether your centerpieces match your seven-tiered wedding cake. There can be a happy middle ground, between an intimate family gathering and the unbelievable excess of twenty-first-century America. Somewhere in the spectrum, unique for every couple, can be the celebration of a special and sacred commitment between two people who promise to love each other till death do they part.