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Sun., Dec. 8, 2013

Jamie Tobias Neely: The rising costs of wedded bliss

Anna Caddey found graduate school far more demanding than she’d ever imagined, the homework nonstop and the all-nighters frequent. Her longtime boyfriend joked that if he’d proposed during that time, she’d never have noticed.

Caddey graduated from Washington State University’s interior design program in May 2012, and that June her boyfriend took her on a hike up Steptoe Butte, the site of their first date six years earlier, to pop the question.

Before long, the pressure was back on. Caddey found herself working late into the night once again, this time to design the wedding. For the millennial generation, weddings are just one more complicated, expensive step on the way to adulthood, along a path that seems strewn with them. First marriages now occur at all-time highs – age 27 for women and age 29 for men – and marriage rates have dropped to historic lows. The reasons are varied, primarily economic, but also cultural.

The high costs of college, the loss of working- and middle-class jobs and even the costs of the weddings themselves play a role.

Now 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. And while delayed marriage can pay off economically for highly educated young couples like the Caddeys, it doesn’t bode well for the children of less-educated parents. Later, as a group, they fare more poorly in school than children of well-educated parents who tend to marry first, give birth later.

The New York Times last week published a special report on the changing face of the American family. It profiled several unconventional couples, including a pair in New York’s financial services industry who were scrambling to make a living for themselves and their children while postponing marriage until they could afford the wedding the father – contrary to stereotype, not the mother – was dreaming of.

Weddings have become a $70 billion industry in the United States. In 2005, the cost of the average wedding was $30,000, according to historian Vicki Howard, author of “Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and The Business of Tradition.”

Caddey and her husband were one of the lucky couples. They combined support from their parents, Caddey’s design skills and plenty of hard work for a picturesque wedding last summer, just after she turned 28. They were married on the lawn of her parents’ home in an apple orchard with a view of Lake Chelan.

They pitched in to help build two outdoor pizza ovens on her parents’ property. The ovens were stoked with apple wood on the wedding day to bake pizzas for 170 guests. The logistics of a DIY wedding were mind-boggling, and the costs weren’t insignificant.

Caddey’s aunt happened to mention that when she got married, the couple celebrated with a simple cake-and-punch reception. Caddey’s response: “You mean you can do that?”

The pressures on today’s couples are intense. And the wedding industry is there to reinforce them. Recent brides may adopt some of the retro trappings of their grandmother’s weddings – garden flowers in blue Ball jars, say, or red velvet cupcakes – but they’re less likely to jump at the chance to stage a full-scale retro wedding.

Perhaps the pressure could be rolled back if more young couples turned to their grandparents for an economic template. Those wedding ceremonies usually took place at altars or in courthouses and were often followed by cake-cutting in church fellowship halls. In the words of marriage researchers, weddings then were seen as the cornerstone of adult life, not – as they are today – the capstone. Even better, those grandparents lived in a time when most of the costs of attending a public college were actually borne by the public.

Best to skip a generation for levelheaded advice, because baby boomer parents tend to top off substantial contributions to college tuition with significant investments in their kids’ weddings.

The upshot: One-third of baby boomers ages 60-64 surveyed in 2012 told the Pew Research Center they didn’t feel confident they’d saved enough for retirement. There’s plenty of economic pinch to go around.

Should those millennials ever pay down their student loans and save up enough to buy a house, better make it one with mother-in-law quarters.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net


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