This past weekend I went to the annual bridal expo with a friend who is getting married soon. As my wedding was many years ago, I was astounded to see how far the bridal industry has come. Or maybe I should say I was astounded to see how far the bridal industry will go (to separate people from their money, that is).
As we walked amongst the booths, I found myself thinking that this expo was a microcosm of what’s wrong with our economy and the “spend at all costs” mentality in this country. At one booth we were cheerfully informed that the average wedding now costs $28,000. The consultant went on to explain that this sum of money would buy you an average wedding. To have a wedding that people will remember and talk about for years, the bride should plan to spend upwards of $35,000. All I could think was, “Holy cow! Thirty-five grand is like two decent cars or a very nice down payment on a house.”
We journeyed on. Two national banks had booths selling wedding financing. Right there on the expo floor you could venture into a private cubicle, talk to a banker and come out with a loan to cover that $28,000 (or more) wedding. Or a high limit credit card. Whichever “works best for your unique wedding.” Who knows what interest rate you would get, but that’s not the point. These banks are selling the once in a lifetime experience and happily feeding into the idea that money is no object. One bank’s signage read, “Let us help you make your wedding day dreams come true.” It should read, “Let us help you go into debt for this one day so that your future decisions will be hampered by your wedding day debt load.”
Onward and upward. I was amazed at how unabashed most of the booth operators were at asking for my friend’s money. At one booth that was selling party favors, the operator told my friend that she had to have this item for her wedding. “If you don’t have it, people will think you’re cheap. Your guests want good favors and you don’t want to disappoint them.” There was no shame in making my friend feel guilty. When she started to walk away, after giving a polite, “No, thank you,” the operator called after her that, “It’s your wedding. Do you really want people to feel like you couldn’t be bothered to care about them?” I couldn’t believe it. At several other booths the guilt pitch was also in full force. We were told that my friend’s guests would view her wedding as “just another wedding” if she didn’t buy a particular music package. That she would deprive her family of treasured memories if she didn’t buy a certain photographers wares. That her dress would be “instantly forgotten” if she purchased anything other than a certain designer’s gown.
As if this weren’t enough, we encountered a wedding planner who’s slogan was (I kid you not), “You can plan for your marriage later. Plan for your wedding today.” My friend, who has a warped sense of humor, actually sat down to hear what this person had to say. The planner told the group of women not to waste time planning for the marriage. Forget about talking about money, or kids, or jobs, or housing, she said. Spend the months of your engagement focused on your wedding, ensuring it is the best it can be. If you have a great wedding, the marriage will work itself out.
Hmm. I think this is reversed. How many people end up on Dr. Phil that have been married for a year and are looking for a divorce because something like the fact that their spouse didn’t want kids or had $100,000 in debt caught them by surprise? Too many. Shouldn’t the engagement be a time for planning the marriage with the wedding being secondary? I thought so, too, but no one at this show shared my view. In the quest for the almighty buck, these people were advocating that the bride shouldn’t worry about her marriage, but only about the wedding itself. What troubles me is the fact that I know that too many people will take this advice seriously.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any ruder or more blatant, we hit the booths where brides encourage (or beg) others to spend money on them. The registry booths. Here we had booths urging brides to register for everything from china to power tools to money. There were a couple of banks encouraging brides to set up accounts so that guests could just deposit money straight into the account, no gift shopping required. It isn’t the gift registry that bothers me as much as how clearly consumer oriented the wedding has become. Having been a guest at more than a few weddings lately, I’m always astounded at how much stuff some brides register for (and from how many stores). Giving a gift now feels like an obligation for a wedding guest, rather than a gift of generosity. When you’re all but handed a sheaf of papers detailing the “wants” of your bride, it feels like an ambush. Some invitations even come with instructions: “Please deposit money into the accounts of Miss X and Mr. Y at the Spend It All Bank.”
I wondered where the brides were getting these outrageous registries and where the encouragement to be so blatant about gifts was coming from. When I got married, I registered at one store, predominately for china and housewares. I only told people where I was registered if they asked, not wanting to make anyone feel like they had to get a gift. And I certainly didn’t enclose my registry in the invitation, as one bridal friend did recently. What happened to make te wedding into a shop fest? Having been to this show, I now know where the push is coming from.
The operator of one of the bank booths was handing out printed cards with the bank’s name and contact information preprinted. There were lines for the bride to write in her name or the groom’s, and a blank line for the money amount to be written in. These cards were to be tucked in the invitation so that the guest could take the card to the bank, write the gift amount on the card, and hand it to a teller for transaction processing. I thought it was tacky and said so, but the booth operator told me, “Well, how else are people supposed to know where to give the money?” Several department stores were encouraging girls to “Register for everything you might want. You probably won’t get it all, but there’s no harm in shooting for the stars and if it turns out you don’t want an item, you can exchange it.” One store was handing out wedding themed 8 1/2×11 envelopes in which to place the registry for giving to guests. With all this going on, I decided it was no wonder that gift giving had gone from being a quiet request to, in some cases, a demand.
I understand that the wedding industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and that every vendor is competing for a tiny slice of a relatively small pie. Only so many people get married in a year and, according to census statistics, that number drops every year. Therefore, these vendors have to get what they can out of each customer. They know that a bride also brings in other business in the form of guests buying presents, so they want a bride to be very direct about asking for gifts. They are also very aware that if they contribute to a happy wedding day, the bride and groom are more likely to shop with them in the future. The chance to get a customer for life is a very powerful motivator for these businesses. I understand that they have to make money. What I have a quarrel with is the method.
The vendors know that many women planning a wedding are excited, anxious, happy, and willing to spend a little more if it will fulfill a fantasy or save them time. They prey on those emotions, convincing women that this one day is more important than long term goals like buying a house or retirement. Unfortunately, many brides are led to the financial slaughtering ground.
I was appalled at how low some of these vendors were willing to stoop, and even more worried about how many women seemed to be buying into the idea that the only way to have a “good” wedding and a “successful” marriage was to spend many thousands of dollars. I don’t doubt that there were women at this show who could easily afford $35,000 or more. For them a show like this is just a chance to compare offerings. But for most women, who can’t afford that kind of money or will have to go deeply in debt to do so, this show seemed dangerous. The messages being thrown around, “You’re a failure if you don’t by this,” “People will hate your wedding if you don’t hire this DJ,” “You’re entitled to a boat load of gifts, so don’t be shy about telling people what you want,” “This is a once in a lifetime experience and you need to spend this kind of money so you don’t regret it later,” and, “You don’t want your guests to think you’re cheap,” encourage overspending. In fact, they demand it.
As my friend and I rode home, I thought that the whole show pretty much summed up the consumer mentality of this country. You should have everything you want, when you want it, cost be damned. You’re entitled to good things, so go get them. You can always pay for it later. You only go through life once so have those special moments, regardless of price. Bigger is better. And so on. It’s the same mentality that has a lot of people facing foreclosure and trashed credit ratings. Since a wedding is (usually) one of the first big expenses in a lot of people’s lives, I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the overspending starts here: Spend big on a wedding then it’s easier to spend big on a house, on kids, on cars, on furniture and everything else. Heck, you’ve already dropped $30K on one day, surely a $500,000 house is worth it. Give in to these vendors who want you to overspend on your wedding and maybe you’re setting yourself up to overspend on everything else.
But the thing I couldn’t escape was this: The girl who gets married in a small, intimate, lovely ceremony is just as married as the girl who spent $40,000 on her wedding. The point of the wedding is the marriage. But you wouldn’t know it if you went to a bridal show.
Image courtesy of Manassas Cakery