Why spending less on your wedding could save your marriage

Couples spend $30,000 on average planning their big day–but new research shows the more you spend, the shorter your marriage will be.

You’ve planned the bachelor and bachelorette parties, the rehearsal dinner and the day-after brunch. There’s the photo booth, which is a definite necessity these days. And what couple doesn’t have a website designed to share with the world the first time they laid eyes on each other?

The sane person will certainly agree with sociologist and sexologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz when she says, “The whole thing has gotten way out of hand.” The whole thing being the never-ending list of costly accompaniments that now come along with planning a wedding.

Yet until Emory University economics professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon decided to organize a study last year, no one had paused to question whether this out-of-control spending was having an effect on, well, the actual marriage. Spoiler alert: it does. And it’s not a positive one. Francis and Mialon surveyed more than 3,000 people–all of whom have been married just once–and found that across income levels, the more you dish out on the big day the shorter your marriage will be. Now, that’s a raw deal. A few takeaways from their research:

  • Guys, dropping $2,000 to $4,000 on an engagement ring means you’re 1.3 times more likely to get divorced compared with the more frugal fellows who only allocate $500 to $2,000.
  • For both sexes, spending more than $20,000 on the wedding ups the odds of divorce by 3.5 times compared with couples who keep it between $5,000 and $10,000.
  • For the best odds, though, keep the festivities to less than $1,000.

According to wedding media company XO Group, the average wedding budget has soared to an all-time high of almost $30,000–and that’s not including the honeymoon. And, 1 in 8 couples spend more than $40,000 on their nuptuals. The wedding industry generates $55 billion a year, research firm IBISWorld calculates. Costs soar as couples increasingly want to demonstrate their commitment with cash. “Advertising has fueled the norm that spending large amounts on the engagement ring and wedding is an indication of commitment or is helpful for a marriage to be successful,” the researchers wrote in an email.

Francis and Mialon say one possible explanation for their findings is that post-wedding debt can stoke marital tensions. But, as Schwartz is quick to point out, correlation is not the same as causation. She says part of the problem may be that “the wedding has become the highlight rather than the beginning of something.”

After almost three decades of planning weddings, Kim Horn, whom bridal geeks might recognize from her cameos on the WE network’s My Fair Wedding, agrees. “The focus is not on the relationship and the long-term commitment,” Horn says. Since the 1980s, when Horn first started her career, she feels the industry has become much more hyped. Between bridal magazines and reality TV shows, couples are inundated with advertising, so she says it’s not surprising that average spending has doubled in the last 30 years.

But there’s still hope if you have your heart set on throwing a huge bash for your wedding day. It may seem contradictory, but while excessive nuptial spending is a hazard to lasting love, a hefty guest list has the opposite effect. So instead of opting for a smaller wedding to save money, simply spend less per person. Rather than renting a photo booth, pick up a couple Polaroid cameras. Or save the $1,000 a DJ charges and try this novel idea: make your own playlist.

The PBS NewsHour is sharing this story as part of our new partnership with OZY Media.