Here comes the debt: How media is changing the way we wed
When destination-wedding planner Sandy Malone got married in 2004, there was no Pinterest, no Instagram, Facebook was in its infancy and there were few bridal websites to draw from.
Just a decade later, Malone deals with the media’s impact on weddings constantly.
“Pinterest is my worst enemy,” Malone said. “They put down the deposit, everything’s good to go and then they’re on Pinterest, they’re on Instagram. (The bride) then sees the need to add more things and do more stuff. My clients are so plugged into social media that they even have their own hashtags for their guests. There are a lot of things that are growing with the expansion in the media that are feeding the wedding industry.”
According to TheKnot.com, the average cost of a wedding is now $28,427. Not included in The Knot’s study is a new arrival to the wedding scene, unveiled at New York’s W Hotel this winter: A social media concierge at the venue. The price for a perfectly Instagrammed, hashtagged and live-tweeted affair is a cool $3,000; evidence that social media may become as valued as a professional photographer or wedding planner to today’s couples.
In a world where high-cost weddings have the attention of social media, news coverage, advertising and countless reality TV shows, is the media changing the face of weddings, or simply giving audiences what they want?
Elizabeth Fairbanks-Fletcher with the Society for New Communications Research says the media play a big role in telling us what’s normal.
“The Internet specifically makes all that information accessible,” Fairbanks-Fletcher said. “The media coverage of celebrity weddings is now the benchmark for individuals planning their own. Advertising can spur the interest, but reality TV and the Internet create renewable engagement. They all work together to continually fan the flames of interest.”
The media coverage also fans the flames of a business that nets an estimated $80 billion per year.
“Every time some pop star gets married and it’s all over the cover of People Magazine, it inspires more girls to have destination weddings. Just like little girls emulate what they see, so do young women who are watching the stars,” Malone said. “People joke about how the funeral business is the one business that’s always fine. So is the wedding industry. The only difference is there’s a lot more room for potential growth without a plague.”
Brad Wilcox, a sociologist and the director of the National Marriage Project, says that it isn’t just the weddings that have changed — we’ve changed, too.
Wilcox says that since the 1970s and the advent of no-fault divorce, Americans look at marriage with less permanency and couples may compensate with an elaborate wedding.
“Because there’s not much legal protection anymore because of no-fault divorce, it signals that the couple and their family are financially vested in the marriage,” Wilcox said. “In some ways, a big wedding is an exclamation point saying, ‘we understand the fragility of marriage and despite everything, we’re going to get married.’ ”
Beyond the media
There’s research to support Wilcox's claims. A 2010 Pew Research study found that marriage is less common than it once was. In 2008, 52 percent of American adults were married, down from 72 percent in 1960.
Education and class distinction played a major role as well. In 2008, 48 percent of people without a college degree were married, compared to 64 percent of college graduates. In 1960, a college grad was only 4 percent more likely to marry than someone with a high school diploma or less.
“There’s a growing marriage divide in America,” Wilcox said. “I think one reason is that over-the-top weddings are a barrier to entry into marriage for the working class and poor Americans.”
Elevated ideals, serious consequences
Romanticized ideas of marriage and weddings not only play out in the media, but can also have major consequences for new couples that buy into them.
Mary Claire Allvine is a financial adviser who wrote "The Family CFO," for young couples planning their future. She says the media pressure on couples is real and so are the financial ramifications.
“Anytime you see a wedding whether it’s in a movie or it’s on a television show, these are enormous, complicated affairs. It causes people to become de-linked from their own value structure,” Allvine said. “The ‘Today Show’ will give someone a fantasy wedding. When you put a label on it of ‘reality’ presented on a news show and don’t say this is a massive trade-off where this couple may never get out of credit card debt.”
But the struggle also lies with us, she added. As a bride 13 years ago, Allvine got a firsthand look at the pressure the wedding industry puts on couples when she went into the Macy’s bridal boutique. She said she found a staff eager to show her gowns that began at $1,500. Allvine walked out.
“I was 35 years old. If I had been 25 and intimidated by the way they said, ‘a lot of girls,’ it’s harder to do that,” Allvine said. “If you or your future partner doesn’t say, ‘That’s out of our reach,’ at what point is it not the movies’ fault but the fault of your own process?”
The younger the couple, the more vulnerable they can be to the message. Lisa Firestone is a California-based clinical psychologist and director of research at the Glendon Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing suicide, abuse and troubled relationships.
“You don’t see older people who are getting married worrying quite so much about this whole thing,” Firestone said. “Younger people have grown up where everything about your life is shown in pictures online. Some young people today have grown up with parents having broken marriages and they may be buying into this romanticized idea of the perfect, forever kind of wedding.”
That “forever” kind of wedding portrayed so often in the media is a fantasy that can veil real problems.
“It becomes a very shallow focus when we get into the fantasy of the relationships instead of caring about the real content,” Firestone said. “It makes people feel like their relationship isn’t good enough if they can’t do the big, expensive wedding.”
Unfortunately, brides and grooms aren’t encountering a lot of moderation in either the media or the retail world.
“What you need is a gaggle of women sitting around saying: ‘You would look so good retired someday,” Allvine said. “Where’s the cheerleading crowd for that?”
Malone, whose Puerto Rico-based wedding business has been the subject of the reality show, “Wedding Island,” said the media attention isn't all bad.
“There are a lot of TV shows out there that are setting expectations very high. I don’t know that that’s bad. There’s nothing wrong with young girls dreaming about their weddings,” Malone said. “We’re looking at an industry that’s grown when the economy has consistently gone downhill. People may be giving up their cable TV and Starbucks may be full of people that don’t have Wi-Fi at home, but they are not giving up on their weddings.”
Balancing fantasy and reality
As weddings continue to fascinate through television and social media, many couples are taking matters into their own hands.
That’s what Dana LaRue did when she got engaged and became overwhelmed. LaRue’s experiences created one of the most popular DIY wedding blogs on the Internet, which shares innovative and resourceful ways to weddings on a budget.
“The media tries to pressure couples into thinking that they need to spend a certain amount of money on this or that element,” LaRue said. “There’s a great deal of voyeurism happening with reality television and manufactured celebrity events that are publicized. People seem to have this innate desire to peer into these other worlds whether or not we know they’re manufactured.”
With a mission of “empowering couples to use their creativity” to “save your money and sanity,” LaRue’s enterprise straddles the line between wedding extravagance and what the site calls “real weddings,” where couples can share details of their day and tips for staying on-budget.
“It’s not about being cheap, it’s about spending smart,” LaRue said. “There’s a shift in the way couples today approach the expense of a wedding vs. that old-fashioned mentality of having to spend $20,000-$50,000 on one day of your life.”
One piece of advice Malone gives couples? Focus finances toward what’s most important. Malone gets all kinds of over-the-top requests from brides-to-be.
“My favorite is the girl that wanted elephant rides on the beach. I actually researched how to rent an elephant,” Malone said. “I have to put up a tipi for a wedding in April. They didn’t ask me about it, they just said, ‘We’re shipping you a tipi.’ ”
LaRue also suggests tailoring tradition to individual needs, no matter how much pressure may be coming from TV or computer screens.
“At the end of the day, it really is up to you what you do or don’t include. And if somebody’s going to judge you for that, that’s their problem, not yours,” LaRue said. “It’s really about following your own heart.”