When It Comes to Weddings, Does Cost Really Matter?

Research indicates it may, but not in the way you might expect.

Posted Apr 17, 2016

With wedding season quickly approaching, I can’t help but wonder: Is there a relationship between the cost of a wedding and the quality of the marriage that follows?

The wedding industry would have us believe that the more you spend on a wedding, the better your marriage will be. For decades we have been seeing images of dream weddings on the pages of magazines like “Martha Stewart Weddings” with brides in costly gowns running off into the sunset. More recently, wedding planning websites like “The Knot” are bombarding would-be brides and grooms with images of expensive dresses, enormous diamond rings, and elaborate centerpieces. From the flowers to the food, every aspect of weddings seems to come at a high cost, with the notion that it is worth it for your “big day.” In fact, by some reports, the average cost of a wedding the United States hovers around $30,000. Why would so many invest so much in one event? Overall, we are lead to believe that this kind of monetary investment will lead to marital bliss.

But Hollywood seems to suggest that the opposite may be true. In the movies, extravagant affairs usually lead to disaster (think of the "Sex and the City" movie). Moreover, there are countless examples of celebrity couples that started off with large, expensive events, and ended in divorce. For example, Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Humphries cost a reported $10 million, but the marriage lasted only three months.

So what is the truth? Is there a relationship between the cost of the wedding and the quality of the marriage? And if so, will a large monetary investment in a wedding day pay off in the long run for a marriage, or is it a sign of trouble to come?

On the one hand, recent research from a pair of economic professors at Emory University suggests that those who spend large sums of money on a wedding are more likely to end up divorced. Specifically, they found that women whose weddings cost $20,000 or more were 3.5 times more likely to end up divorced than women who spend a more modest $5,000 to $10,000. Moreover, those who spent $1,000 or less on a wedding (men or women) were at an even lower risk of divorce. These findings, which they purport to be the first to statistically examine this issue, indicate that there is an inverse relationship between cost of the wedding, and length of the marriage—that is, the more you spend, the higher your risk for divorce.

On the other hand, researchers at the University of Virginia, as part of the National Marriage Project, found that having a formal wedding (presumably costing more) is associated with happier marriages. In fact, they found that the more guests you have at your wedding (again, making it more expensive), the higher your marital quality will be. They also found that this holds true, even when controlling for factors like income, which seems to indicate that a larger wedding may bode well for all couples.

What explanation can there be for these seemingly contradictory findings? Well, like all social science research, it’s complicated. First, there is evidence that the average cost of a wedding in the U.S. has far exceeded the means that most couples have. Couples who go into debt for the wedding of their dreams will likely experience a rocky start to their marriage, as money is one of the most frequently cited things that couples fight about. Second, the link between money and marriage goes beyond the cost of the wedding. Socio-economic status is a factor that many researchers have linked to marital success—with those who have low SES being at higher risk for marital problems and divorce. In the case of those with low SES, debt from a costly wedding would only exacerbate that issue. In the case of those with higher SES, their investment in a wedding may in fact translate into a higher possibility of marital bliss.

Finally, these studies aren’t reporting on the exact same thing. Although there is a correlation between the size of a wedding, and the cost, there may be something beyond cost that is driving the positive effect of having a larger wedding. Perhaps having more people present at the declaration of your marriage vows indicates that you have more people supporting your marriage—and there is evidence that social support from family and friends can have a very positive effect on a marriage. The more you, and those around you, invest in your marriage, the more likely you are to weather the rough patches and stay together.

So, what is the relationship between the cost of a wedding and the quality of the marriage that follows? As always, the answer is: It depends. For couples working on planning a wedding, and thinking about the these issues, I would suggest discussing the following:

  • What is the focus of our planning? Are we building a good start to a marriage, or merely a “big day?”
  • What kind of wedding can we realistically afford? Will we start off our marriage in a financially sound place, or saddled with debt that could possibly lead to conflict?
  • What kinds of investments can we make in the wedding? Is it possible to invest time, energy, and the help of others to offset financial costs?

Your wedding should be a reflection of the kind of couple you are, and the kind of marriage you want to have. But, in the long run, will the centerpieces really matter all that much? Try not to get caught up in the hype that the wedding industry creates, be conscious of the costs you are paying to create your vision, and focus on the long-term pay offs for your life together.