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Dating Maze #323: Expense Anxiety

December 9, 2010 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Caterer, photographer, engagement ring. Who’s going to pay for it all?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have met a young woman who is no doubt my match. We care for each other, our goals are similar, and we have managed to get through a few obstacles thus far without any issues.

We are now discussing engagement and marriage in the near future, and one thing is making me very nervous: the financial strain of the wedding and other expenses that we will incur.

We are both getting started in our careers, and while I make a nice living, I am trying to save and reinvest in my business. We both come from large families, and the expenses of a ring, engagement party, wedding, etc. will not be cheap. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to ask my parents for help as my father’s business has been hit hard. Her family has a slightly better financial situation than mine, but I don’t feel its right to expect her parents to pay an unfair portion of the wedding expenses.

We have discussed finances, and when I tell her I'm nervous, she says not to worry and that we will get by together.

What should I do? I am really getting sick over this.


Dear Noah,

Your letter describes two people who have developed what seems to be a supportive relationship, and should be looking forward to getting engaged and building a life together. Instead, you are anxious and stressed about the upcoming expenses.

We understand where this is coming from. Getting married and setting up a home requires a financial outlay. And because this is such a joyous event, the engaged couple and their families want to celebrate with the people they're close to. If their friends and family have certain expectations about the size and nature of the wedding festivities, their joy can easily turn to anxiety as they wonder how they will ever be able to manage. This is a potential source of conflict for everyone involved.

The bottom line is that the wedding is essentially a one-day event.

We’d like to try reframing things this way: Although an engagement and wedding are wonderful occasions, the bottom line is that these are essentially one-day events. We've seen couples use their wedding gifts, which were intended to help them set up a life together, to pay for these events. We know parents who have taken out a second mortgage – just to make sure that the flowers, music, liquor, venue, food and photography are up to the standards that they think people expect.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the most joyous weddings we've attended have been simple, heart-warming events. The hall was decent but not overly fancy; the menu was tasty but not elaborate; everyone enjoyed dancing to the music of one or two musicians instead of a larger band; and the beautiful outfits of the bride and her matrons were rented rather than purchased. At the end of they day, everyone had a wonderful time, and two lovely people were able to begin their lives together without incurring debt.

Related article: The Night the Lights Burned On

These couples stayed focused on the truly important part of life – that which begins after the party is over. They may have stretched themselves a bit to make the event, but not to the point of fretting over how to pay for it all.

It appears that you are putting a lot more pressure on yourself than necessary. Instead of worrying about how fancy an event your guests may be expecting, we suggest working backward:

  • Sit down together and talk about what you feel you need to set up your first home, and how your current budget will accommodate this. Depending on what flexibility you have in the budget, arrive at an amount that you feel comfortable spending on your wedding.
  • Next, get an idea of what's available in different price ranges by speaking with friends who were recently married.
  • Next, prioritize what aspects of your new home and your wedding event are most important to each of you. Are there items which can either be eliminated or modified – perhaps a second-hand sofa, or a smaller diamond ring? What about the engagement and wedding parties – perhaps a smaller band, or fewer flowers? 

Don’t worry about feeling that you’re hosting a “sub-standard” event. You are the ones who will have to live with these expenses for months or years to come, whereas everyone else will go back to their lives the next day. And in the end, by acting responsibly, you’ll get more respect from others – and surely from yourself.

Fundraising Trap

Whatever your final decisions, we think this is a subject you should raise with both sets of parents – before you become engaged. Although you say your parents don’t have money to contribute, perhaps they have been saving up for such a joyous event. At least they should be given the option to assist, since in reality a child’s wedding is very much the parents’ celebration as well.

Be careful not to pressure them, however. We’ve seen parents get seriously ill (heart attacks, etc.) brought on by the stress of wedding expenses. So be sensitive and be sure than any help they offer is because they truly want to give it.

Gifts should be given with a full heart, not out of pressure or guilt.

We want to caution you as well about a trap that some engaged couples fall into. They come up with an ingenious plan to pay for their wedding, honeymoon, and new home: Fundraising from the guests. Various methods include posting a notice on the wedding invitation hinting at their specific expectations for a gift; they may hold various “bridal shower” events in the hopes of raising more money; they may send wedding invitations to out-of-town acquaintances, knowing they won’t attend, but will feel obligated to send a gift. Please don’t stoop to these levels. Your dignity is at stake, and any gifts that you receive should be given with a full heart, not out of pressure or guilt.

It’s not a bad thing to start out your married life modestly. You’ll learn to work through things together, and that will be a source of pride as you grow together. Many a happy couple have looked back proudly and laughed: “Do you remember that wobbly table we used to eat on?!”

Having said all this, it sounds like the woman you hope to marry understands your anxiety and is willing to work through this issue with you. Although you're facing a challenge even before you are married, this experience will ultimately benefit you in developing the problem-solving skills that all married couples need to rely on time and again. Finances is an area that every couple must deal with throughout their marriage, and by learning to prioritize, negotiate, and work within a budget, you'll be building the skills you need for a strong marriage.

So take a deep breath and enjoy this very exciting time in your life.

Rosie & Sherry

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