Are We Entitled to a Wedding?

Practically Married : Are We Entitled to a Wedding

I wrote the piece below a couple years ago after reading an article in The Atlantic. I’m reposting it now because Memorial Day Weekend marks the start of what some people call “wedding season.” Although the weddings that will happen this summer have largely been planned and paid for already, I still think it’s important to consider the implications of the money spent.

I recently read Neal Gabler’s article “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” in The Atlantic in which Gabler gives an honest portrayal of the financial difficulties he faces despite the fact that his education, profession and income make him solidly middle class. In the piece, Gabler mentioned that he and his wife have “no retirement savings because we emptied a small 401K to pay for our younger daughter’s wedding.”

I winced when I read that. I wondered why they would make a seemingly irresponsible decision, and why their daughter would accept the money. Of course I don’t know the details of this specific situation, for example, did the daughter even know that’s where the money came from? (If not, she does now.) Beyond this particular story, the article made me wonder about what couples expect when it comes to financing weddings, and what parents should expect of themselves.

While I understand a parent’s desire to contribute to all aspects of their kid’s life, I think it does your child a great disservice when you sacrifice your own financial security to pay for a wedding you can’t afford. Let’s be clear, if you are taking money from your 401K, you can’t afford it.

Planning, and more importantly paying for a wedding provides a couple with opportunities to practice skills they will use throughout married life. Compromise, negotiation, living within your means, and seeing the good in what you have instead of focusing on what you don’t, are all important aspects of marriage. It seems that creating and sticking to a realistic wedding budget is an ideal way for a couple to practice these necessary skills.

I also wonder what message it sends about money when you make yourself financially vulnerable to pay for a wedding. Is a 401K really a retirement account or can it be used as disposable income? Is an emergency fund really for emergencies, or can it be a down payment for a home that is otherwise out of reach? As parents, I think we have to model financial discipline, even when that means not being able to give our children everything they want, or everything we want for them.

Beyond the lost opportunities for skill practice and financial lessons, I thought about the burden it places on a child when a parent sacrifices in this way. Over time, even the most beautiful wedding becomes simply one of many memories a couple will share during their life together. However, seeing your parents struggle financially is something a child will have to live with on an ongoing basis. Worse, what if the marriage is short-lived? Is there pressure to stay in a relationship because you feel guilty for what your parents spent on the wedding?

It is not my desire or intention to simply criticize Neal Gabler for his decision. I appreciate his willingness to reveal his financial circumstances, particularly in a culture where naked selfies are more prolific than honest revelations about money. He wrote the piece to expose the shame that he and so many of us feel when it seems like our bank accounts don’t live up to our middle class expectations. The point is for us to learn from it. There are many lessons in his article, but the one that stood out for me is that couples are not entitled to a particular kind of wedding, and parents should not let guilt, obligation or other emotions overtake their better judgment to try to give it to them.