Please Consider Having a Fast, Cheap Wedding and Not Inviting Anyone
Abigail and I were married this May at the City Clerk's Office in the Bronx, on Grand Concourse, right near Yankee Stadium. My brother was our witness and sole attendee, and Abigail was eight months pregnant. The whole affair cost us under $100, including the hot dog I bought from a corner cart after the ceremony. We took one picture, which I love. It was perfect.
We didn’t skip the reception because we’re unsentimental people. Believe me, we’re so sweet together it’ll make your teeth hurt: We mark other life milestones with revelry, and we share an intensity-bordering-on-codependence that engenders both envy and disgust among our peers. But we’d been together for more than a decade, and we were about to have a child. The idea of hosting some kind of big affair seemed like an unwieldy expense, a totally unnecessary digression from all the other important things going on in the life we’d already built together.
It was a big day for us. We’d wanted to get married for some time, but even as we’d evolved together, moving around the country for jobs, struggling with money and responsibility, there had always been some new pressing reason to put off officially tying the knot.
Now parenthood—another goal we had delayed too long in the search for some kind of stability—was knocking at our door. And we knew that with our daughter coming, it was our chance to finally hit the matrimony button, tapping into the recognition, privilege, and legal benefits available to on-the-books couples. So that windy morning in the Bronx, we stood before a justice of the peace, exchanged our “I dos,” and became an official, government-approved husband-and-wife duo.
If this doesn’t sound like the dream wedding you have in mind for yourself, you’d be in the majority—most people still get hitched traditionally. But like us, a lot of other couples are opting out of the banquet hall-renting hubbub these days. “Courthouse and city hall ceremonies now account for between 3 and 4 percent of marriages, up from 2-3 percent a couple of years ago,” reported Reuters in late 2015. That’s still a very small layer of the overall cake. But there are a few factors that make me think couples will increasingly choose to swap a walk down the aisle for a stroll through the metal detectors of their local municipal building.
For one thing, fewer people consider themselves religious than in the past. A recent Pew survey found that the number of Americans that “believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to church or other religious services all have declined modestly in recent years.”
Because I am not religious and was marrying someone from outside the religious community I was born into, my deeply devout parents—though they love my wife and daughter—were alienated from the process. Abigail’s mom and dad, for their part, are fairly secular people, and were themselves civilly married. We had no family pressure to get a lot of people together, no faith community to fill out a guest list, and no offer of support, financial or otherwise, to throw a party. This definitely changed our incentives when it came to choosing how we were going to get married.
Without spiritual belief or familial expectation encouraging a big affair, we could look at the cost of a wedding with clear eyes. The figures—over $30,000 on average for a U.S. wedding, and more than $80,000 on average in Manhattan—were mind-boggling to us and many other couples who choose city hall ceremonies. As is the fact that many couples will go into debt to finance their wedding, and 1 out of every 3 who end up borrowing are still paying off the loan six years later.
“Expensive weddings are like a subprime mortgage crisis of the heart,” Laurie Essig, relationship columnist and associate professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College, told Reuters last year. For young people already saddled with burdensome student loan debt, “it just doesn’t make financial sense to be taking out even more debt to have a lavish wedding,” she said.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to rail against the “wedding-industrial complex,” “bridezillas,” and the out-of-control American wedding zeitgeist. I’ve enjoyed some old-school weddings, and I have nothing bad to say about hors d'oeuvres, open bars, or the special thrill of seeing long-staid family members drunkenly embarrass themselves with inappropriate toasts. Hell, if you can really afford it, spend the money—cater waiters have to pay the bills somehow.
And obviously, it’s not all or nothing. There are nonreligious backyard events, rodeo-themed nuptial hoedowns, and the always-popular Vegas drive-through wedding, starting at just $99. All good options. But for Abigail and I, once we ditched the idea of the party, the rest all fell away, and the quiet, private courthouse option just seemed right for our life situation.
We didn’t need a life journey “bon voyage” from every cousin I’d ever argued politics with at a family gathering. Parents still pay for a big chunk of many couples’ weddings, and with ours not particularly inclined, the idea of shelling out thousands for a reception at a time when Abigail couldn’t even party her hardiest seemed like a poor choice. Especially when we had a kid to invest in.
In the end, it wasn’t even the math that led us to the City Clerk’s Office that day. We do have a community, but that community is not the context of our relationship, and with everything we—and only we—had been through over the last 10 years, it was hard not to see this as personal moment, a time for Abigail and I against the world.
We came to this conclusion: Our wedding was for us.
At the City Clerk’s Office, we held hands nervously in the waiting area joking about the wedding outfits of the other happy couples, ranging from full white-dress regalia to, like us, full casual Sunday whatever, down to the sneakers. There were bridesmaids, brought along for pictures, and relatives to celebrate and help with paperwork. A middle-aged, French-accented couple—the groom an in-uniform postal worker—asked a stranger behind them in line to be their witness.
There were still long wait times, forms to fill out, impatient clerks chiding sloppy handwriting and rolling their eyes at impertinently asked questions. It was impossible to forget we were deep in the bowels of a bureaucratic maze that is mainly designed to dispatch people’s legal miseries. But in this basement corner dedicated to the Bronx’s time-pressed lovers—us broke brides and grooms knocked down and knocked up—there was a sort of weird magic excitement, an instant community and rapport with our fellow nuptialists.
We chatted with other newlyweds, eyeing each other with a sort of sheepish recognition: “What’s your story? How’d you end up here?” It was one of those rare places and times where the barriers come down for normally standoffish New Yorkers, and it feels completely natural to talk to strangers.
The Bronx clerk’s office might not have the charm of a classic downtown New York City Hall wedding, but in general, the courthouse ceremony has its own romantic verve and dedicatees. Instagram’s Married in New York account and other social media documentarians hail the phenomena. Celebrities are doing it. And there are a host of blogs, guides, and other literature dedicated to promoting the joys of these marriages.
For those with dreams of a white wedding, walking down an aisle, and vows solemnly read by some venerated clergy person, obviously city hall might not be the best option. Consider, though, when you ponder the expense, the man hours of planning time, the stress and the drama of a big affair, what purpose this whole ball of wax has in your own lives—and whether you and your partner wouldn’t be better off choosing another direction altogether.
Reflecting our new economic reality, for millennials, former life milestones like home ownership have become increasingly less important as signifiers of adult success. Maybe we should start to think the same way about big weddings.