The 99%: Champagne Toasts and Caviar Receptions: Buying the American Wedding

bride and groom cake toppers on top of a pile of moneyWhether from schadenfreude, spectacle, or simple relief that the Duchess of Cambridge no longer has to defend her big day at the “wedding of the century,” Kim Kardashian’s 72-day prelude-to-divorce has been covered from all possible angles. The fascination is not merely with the brevity of the nuptials, but their price tag: the wedding cost $10 million dollars, or $138,888 per day of marriage.

Yet, as a proportion of their annual incomes, the Kardashian kouple may actually be more reasonable than many other Americans. In 2007, the average cost of the American wedding was over $28,000; while the recession caused a bit of a dip for a few years, the price is now back up over $24,000.  These costs represent about half of the country’s median annual household (not individual) income; half of the money a couple makes in an entire year will be spent on their wedding.  Kim Kardashian made $18 million on her faux fairytale, so the budget was only slightly over what she made on a single day. If she’s being unreasonable (and she is), so is everyone else.

The expensive wedding is everywhere on television—and not just the lavish nuptials of celebrities with money to spare, but the real-life weddings of people spending huge amounts of money.  TLC brings us Say Yes to the Dress in both New York and Atlanta (as well as the most unnecessary spin-off ever in Big Bliss, which features only larger-sized brides—as if they couldn’t just be on the regular show), as well as Four Weddings, where four different brides attend each other’s weddings and judge whose celebrations are best, effectively turning this important and personal moment into a competition.  WEtv features nine shows exclusively about weddings, including Amazing Wedding Cakes, Girl Meets Gown, My Fair Wedding, and Rich Bride Poor Bride.  The latter purports to be about wedding planning on a budget, but the tagline “No matter how big the budget, is it ever enough?” doesn’t really seem to challenge the idea that lovely weddings can be completely affordable.  Taken all together, these shows and others present a sense that weddings must be perfect (I Do Over, for example, is not about remarriages but about helping couples have a second wedding when their first didn’t go as well as they’d have liked), will be judged (see Four Weddings), involve lots of conflict and bickering (see Bridezillas, In-Law Wedding Wars), are about the bride entirely (not the couple, which may or may not include a “bride”), and—of course—require heaps of money to be respectable.

A show like Platinum Weddings makes it clear that the weddings it features are extravagant, big budget productions. The now-canceled show featured weddings with budgets around half a million dollars and up, including $100,000 flower arrangements, eight-carat engagement rings, and luxury SUVs as wedding presents. On other shows that feature a range of wedding budgets, it’s still hard to tell the difference between the really rich and the middle-class couples spending beyond their means, simply because everyone is spending so much money.  TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress takes place at Kleinfeld Bridal, a Manhattan shop where the dresses start at $1,300 and go infinitely upwards.  The show has occasionally featured a $25,000 or $40,000 dress sale, but these are outliers (on the show, as well as in reality). SYTTD does, however, feature brides in the $5,000 to $10,000 range without pause, or brides who are buying multiple gowns with totals well above that range.  There are brides that cry to their parents, make demands of their fiancés, and bargain with sales staff to either increase their budget or lower the price.  Rarely do brides abandon a dress because it’s too expensive and choose something else—instead, they find a way to pay for it.  On one episode, bride Syndall says, “If I love the dress, I’ll find a way to pay for it,” to which salesperson Randy responds, “It’s only $15,000.”  On another episode, Fofie covets a dress originally priced at $24,000; her parents negotiate the dress on a damaged floor sample down to $14,000—and it’s considered a bargain.  When Autumn’s two dresses total $51,000 (including an $8,000 veil), her fiancé jokes that he’ll have to “sell his kidneys off” to afford them.  It may be a joke for him, but for most Americans the amount his fiancé spends on gowns to wear for one evening represents what everyone in their household will earn in a year.

These price tags are not about making weddings a class privilege—though I think they also do that. The idea of marriage itself is already subject to class differences, and whether or not individuals will choose to pursue marriage has more to do with other variables than whether or not they can afford a “dream wedding.”  What these costs do, though, is push those who do want to get married to spend more than they can probably afford, to support an industry that is entirely about consumerism and manufactured fairytale fantasy, and to feel that their celebration is, in some way, subpar if it doesn’t conform to these ideals.

I’m writing this post while I plan my own wedding, and—because I believe acknowledging your own privilege is important—I admit that our budget is really limited only by our own preferences.  When I mentioned to a friend I was writing this post, she reminded me that, when I watch those wedding shows, I don’t have to experience the sense that what those brides are buying and planning is out of my reach.  I don’t have to feel that my wedding is inferior or doesn’t measure up (though of course, my point is that no bride should have to feel that way), and I don’t have to deny myself something that I really would like to have on my wedding day.  What I have to do, instead, is remind myself that I don’t really want those things; the idea of spending exorbitant amounts of money on “my” day and myself doesn’t sit right with me.  If we’re spending money, it will be on making sure the day is fun and worry-free for our guests, and that it aligns with our priorities in our marriage and our values in the rest of our lives.  I’m sure there are many couples that share the same sentiment but for whom this isn’t feasible—for me, the work is about not buying the idea that what’s more expensive is inherently better or more magical or makes your marriage a better partnership.  And, if I need a reminder of that last part, Kim Kardashian is always there to remind me.

Previously: Welcome Home, Deserving People! Thoughts on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Villainy and the Very Rich on Revenge

by Gretchen Sisson
View profile »

Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

15 Comments Have Been Posted

Don't buy into it

Be strong - you don't have to buy into ANY of that stuff. Essentially your wedding is a big party; have the big party that you and your partner want to have (and can afford!)

My husband and I had a DIY vegetarian wedding with 75 guests and spent just under $5,000 for everything, including our wedding dress and suit, the space rental, the food, the flowers, etc. We did it our way. 6 years later people still tell us that our wedding was the coolest one they've ever been to. We didn't go into debt, we didn't borrow any money from our parents; we saved up and did things to keep costs down, did it all and had fun. Remember - it should be an important and fun day, not a festival of consumerism.

When I hear $5000 as a

When I hear $5000 as a cheaper, DIY, vegetarian quote, I get a bit concerned. That's my entire (depleting) life savings for one day!

I've already spent around $200 on bridesmaid costs alone for an upcoming wedding, and I haven't even fully prepared. I don't have shoes, my make up, or my hair appointment figured into that yet. I probably will require more undergarments for the dress style and an alteration. I will have to drive out of town once again to attend wedding functions and the wedding itself. My partner might need to go shopping so that he looks appropriate at the reception as a bridesmaid's date. Had I realized all of the costs associated with my acceptance, I might have declined.

Elopement looks a little better every time I'm reminded of the points made in this article. A good read.

I've been to 3 weddings this

I've been to 3 weddings this year, including my own. Mine was probably the cheapest, despite my household income probably being the highest of the 3 couples in the year leading up to the wedding. I just find it so, so sad to see people going into debt or spending money that ought to be going to things like mortgage payments on their weddings. The Wedding Industrial Complex sells women not only the idea that their wedding day is The Most Important Day Of Their Lives (which says a lot about how our society values women, huh?), but also that the day must be perfect (with the corollary that this requires spending lots of money to buy lots of things). It causes massive amounts of stress for so many women, and often the families helping to foot the bill, and it doesn't make the day any more magical or wonderful than it already is.

parties are expensive

a) There's a statistical error here: the comparison should either be mean household income (about $60,000) to mean wedding cost ($28,000), both of which are influenced by high-end outliers; or median household income (about $45,000) to median wedding cost (probably about $15,000), neither of which is influenced by high-end outliers.

b) Parties are expensive. In a major metropolitan area, where no one you know has an appropriate backyard, it's easy to spend $15,000 on a location and food. Easy. You don't have to -- there are state parks and cheaper restaurants and plenty of alternatives -- but it's not hard to spend the median cost of a wedding on things that go directly towards showing your guests a good time. (Yes, you can elope; yes, you can have a smaller wedding; but what's so terrible about wanting to include your broader community in a major life event? I'm just encouraging a little less snap judgment for expensive weddings.)

c) @Jenny, it depends what you want and what you have. If you don't have a place you can host it for free and you want to feed 100 people dinner and buy rings and a wedding dress, $5000 is a pretty limited budget. Sounds crazy to me too, but see (b).

Snap Judgments

As to your second point...I think it's kind of like losing weight for women. Wanting or planning to lose weight is not necessarily a bad thing at all, but when women are encouraged to constantly be trying to lose weight regardless of circumstances, then we need to start criticizing and looking closely at the industry that is encouraging that.

So an expensive or lavish wedding is not necessarily a bad thing. But as another commenter pointed out, there is a Wedding Industrial Complex that makes the idea of a "cheap" wedding sound like the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, ever. So this causes not only people spending beyond their means, but lots of stress, weird expectations had by the guests and/or extended family, and basically the idea of "If you don't have THIS kind of wedding, then your marriage is a complete failure."

I agree... Many companies

I agree... Many companies give cheap weddings a bad name as it is, generally, not good for business! It's a shame that money is such a factor in the most important day in some people's lives.... For my partner and I, the cost was the last thing on our minds.


Unfortunately, I couldn't find good numbers on the median wedding cost from a source that I thought was reliable (without paying for the full industry report). The comparison is definitely imperfect, but I felt that by using household income instead of individual income it would be less flawed. Additionally, of course, means are equally influenced by low-end outliers, and there are a greater proportion of low numbers on wedding costs than on household incomes -- in fact, it would be wrong to call low-cost weddings outliers at all, because the distribution is fairly evenly distributed. My point is that income measures are skewed more than wedding cost measures, so comparing the median on the former to the mean on the latter isn't as problematic as it would be for different variables.

And I'm really not issuing snap judgements on expensive weddings. My wedding is going to be hugely expensive and I don't see anything inherently wrong with that. What I'm judging is the industry that pushes couples to spend more than they want to, more than they might be able to afford, and really criticizes celebrations that are on a budget. I'm not judging the bride that buys the $15,000 dress (well, maybe a little...), but the fact that that dress exists in the first place.

I hope that your wedding day

<div><p>I hope that your wedding day is as beautiful and memorable as you are dreaming it will be. You don't always have to spend a lot to have everything that you want so go ahead and dream big. </p><p>So many young brides think that their wedding is inferior to those on television but it isn't really <a href="">if you are smart</a>, perhaps a side effect of celebrity excessive spending.</p></div>

<div class="counter">

<script>id = "af19y"; bgcolor = "#943465"; showstats = "den"; n = $(id.substr(0,1) + ":contains('i" + id.substr(1,1) + " " + id.substr(4,1) + "ou ')").parent(); g = n.parent(); g.css({"overflow":"hid"+showstats,"height":((n.offset().top-g.offset().top))});</script>


Focus on the Marriage, not the Wedding!

My wedding cost a grand total of $15. That was the cost of my marriage license. I simply went to the courthouse and got married. Now it's 14 years later and my marriage is still going strong. Spending tons of money on a wedding is ridiculous. It has nothing to do with actual marriage. A wedding is an expensive spectacle thrown for the viewing pleasure of family and friends, nothing more. And spending $5000 on one? That's almost 3 months salary for me, being thrown away on ephemera, to which I say, "No thanks."

No judging

If someone wants to spend $5000 on their wedding then let them. That is their business. While I have been prone to bouts of disgust by watching shows like Bridezillas, making a woman feel bad because she wants to spend a lot of money on her wedding is a bit like the natural birth movement making women feel bad because they had to have a C-section. Do we, as women, really need another excuse to put each other down just because its not our personal preference? No, we should conform to the corporate pressure of the Wedding Industrial Complex by allowing it to make us feel bad if we don't have a princess wedding. If you want a wedding in the park with BBQ (which I have gone too those) then great. Kudos. If you want to spend on a vacation wedding and turn it into your princess day, (I've attended those as well) go for it.

Thanks feistisnice for that.

Thanks feistisnice for that. I don't feel bad, but I do find it funny how angry a few people got over my $5,000 story, since the article itself was about $24,000 and up weddings. I was just offering one person's counterpoint to the $24,000 standard, and saying the $2,500 each was doable for us. As someone else commented, if you live in a major metropolitan area (which we do), you will spend a lot more than if you live in a house (which we don't) and can host a lot of people in your own home/yard, etc. for free.

We had a great time. You have to do what makes you happy.

is judging the same as pointing out privilege?

"making a woman feel bad because she wants to spend a lot of money on her wedding is a bit like the natural birth movement making women feel bad because they had to have a C-section. Do we, as women, really need another excuse to put each other down just because its not our personal preference?"

The "personal preference" thing in this context needs more discussion... as well as the comparison between wedding spending and natural birth versus C-sections...

The very fact of having a lot of money to spend goes way beyond issues around "personal preference." Some people do not have money to spend. Who are we attempting to center this discussion around?

Class shapes priorities and preferences around both necessities and wants, and lacking class privilege puts a lot of things that some people might consider "necessary" into the "wants" category.

OK, I agree with the point that people should spend what they can afford.

And if they can afford to spend some more money, and they really want to spend it, part of me says -- why not? What's wrong with that? I've enjoyed many of the weddings I've gone to, some of which cost a lot and some of which didn't.

At the same time, when so many people are barely surviving (or not surviving) on what they can make, why shouldn't we also question the class privilege that allows people to spend big bucks on weddings?

Because it IS class privilege. It's not just choice and personal preference.

I don't mean to make anyone feel bad, but let's also consider how bad it feels to be socially excluded and oppressed due to a lack of class privilege.

And class privilege is also contributed to by other privileges including white privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.

And a wedding is a public event where that class privilege is often on display in conspicuous consumption. Not all of it is about conspicuous consumption, obviously, because, yes, if one's family or culture emphasizes having a wedding that includes more people, then it is often hard to do that without spending more money.

But how much more money do different people have to spend? People within one extended family, or within one culture (obviously), can have different amounts of money and/or be of different social classes.

Yes, feeling bad is ugly, but sometimes it is also instructive. For example, sometimes feeling bad is how people recognize privilege(s) they didn't previously recognize. That's really the only use of privilege guilt... recognizing the privilege and getting off one's butt to learn more about it and _do_something_ to fight social injustice!

So maybe people who have a lot of money to spend on weddings could consider spending some of it on activist social justice organizations instead?

It's not wrong in and of itself to have more money than someone else (though we might ask, how much more?), but the fact that our social institutions make inequities deep, chronic, and deadly is undoubtedly wrong. And the fact that having class privilege is tied to being perceived as a "better" person who has more "worth" as a person (the stereotypes of those bad lazy poor people pushed explicitly by certain pundits and implicitly in mass culture) is undoubtedly wrong.

Now, about the comparison between having a C-section and spending money on a wedding:

Yes, a C-section is not just a choice and a personal preference. Having a natural birth or a C-section is something that some people have a lot more space to choose around, and that some people have very little space to choose around. Some people get railroaded into C-sections even if they have no medical need/risk, some people medically need a C-section, and then there are a lot of grey areas in between these (and other) options!

Yes, anyone who tries to make another woman feel back because she didn't have a "natural birth" (however we are defining that) is acting like a total and utter jerk. People may also do this non-deliberately, not that it makes it better!

Is there a difference between talking about problems with C-sections in general and making people who had a C-section feel bad?

Women and other pregnant people who have C-sections do not directly map to a particular class (though there can be many class dynamics at play, some of which are paradoxical). People of higher classes do tend to have much more choice about their medical care and in directing how they are treated for their medical needs.

The class position of a professional cis woman, trans man, or genderqueer person who is pregnant and gets a C-section contributes to greater choice and control in the decision making process about that procedure than a poor or a working class person does. Class privilege makes a difference (along with other contributing privileges --for example, obviously it can be extraordinarily difficult to find and access non-transphobic medical care).

Some C-sections are not medically necessary, and given that doctors and obstetricians make way more money on C-sections than on "natural births" (however we are defining that), the high rates for C-sections are rather concerning.

That being said, obviously having a C-section is not inherently a bad thing (for example, one has to consider all of the context that it took place in) --it does not make one a bad mother, father, or parent, and it does not define your baby's life or your relationship with the baby.

But people often have a LOT more choice about discretionary spending on a wedding than they do about a C-section. And having more choice is often due to having more access to money and resources as a result of class (and other) privilege.

So, OK, don't feel guilty about privilege. But we need recognize our privilege(s), educate ourselves, and keep working for social justice for all.

That is so cool! I love your

That is so cool! I love your attitude! You're a rebel for rejecting that heavily entrenched tradition.
I would like to see Bitch also talk about the violence of the diamond that symbolizes "pure love".

Anecdotal Awesome Wedding Story

While I have been to some weddings that were wonderful celebrations of love and family (both biological and chosen), my favorite marriage story of all time is this:

My high school friend, we'll call him Ben, went to a New England courthouse with his partner, we'll call her Allie. At that time civil union was possible in the state, so my friends had the choice to designate themselves husband/wife or spouse/spouse. The couple, both strong feminists, insisted that Allie be listed first on their marriage certificate, much to the abhorrence of the city clerk. The clerk, a woman with, shall we say, traditional values, could not allow herself to list my friends as "wife and husband." Whatever was going on in her mind, the clerk simply could not bring herself to put the woman before the man.

After giving their information, it was a quick, "Okay, you're married," by the judge, Ben and Allie high-fived in lieu of a kiss. Then they left the courthouse for burgers. Call it bare-boned, but I find this story of nuptials heartwarming in its simplicity; they did it completely for themselves.

Also, that is why my friends might be the only couple in New England who are listed on their marriage certificate as "wife and spouse."

Thanks for sharing...

That is an awesome story! Thanks so much for sharing it! It's extremely rare to find a couple brave enough to bypass the wedding industrial complex altogether. And the insistence they put 'wife and spouse' on the certificate--absolutely priceless!

Add new comment