Till Debt Do Us Part

Savvy couples can gift themselves a financially sound future instead of thousands of dollars of wedding debt, as long as they commit to tough budget conversations

Casey Hynes

An engagement should be a thrilling time. The question is popped, and you’re ready to plan what’s supposed to be one of the biggest days of your life. The challenge is, how are you going to pay for that day without financially derailing all the days that come after it?

According to a survey by The Knot, the average wedding of respondents in 2015 cost more than $32,000, an all-time high for the long-running survey and more than a $5,500 increase compared to just five years ago. The jump might be due to the prevalence of social media, which adds considerable pressure to make your reception Pinterest-perfect. Scrolling through endless wedding posts on Instagram and Facebook subconsciously creates “larger than life” expectations, and can lead couples to spend more than they’re comfortable with—or more than they should be comfortable with—on venues and vendors.

Given the hefty price tag for the average American wedding, it’s no wonder more than half the respondents to another Knot survey said they planned to pay for their wedding by borrowing money from a credit card or financial institution, and 16 percent turned to friends or family for loans. Further normalizing such decisions are platforms like LendingTree and MyWeddingLoans.com, which offer unsecured personal loans to cover venue expenses, dresses, and even honeymoon reservations. Credit cards are another easy way to rack up debt without thinking about the long-term implications, as blogger Anna Newell Jones discovered during a post-wedding “hangover” in which she realized she was $24,000 in debt.

Some couples even take out home equity loans, a strategy that can quickly turn disastrous. “That’s equity you’ve worked hard to build,” said Melinda Opperman, chief relationship officer at Credit.org. “You’re taking unsecured debt and securing it against your home. You’ve now jeopardized the roof over your head.” While Credit.org counsels against taking on wedding debt at all, Opperman said using credit cards was a safer bet than home equity.

“When you can’t make a credit card payment, they can’t foreclose on you,” she said.

The Knot, a go-to resource for brides, also cautions against using loans or credit to pay for wedding expenses, but resorting to those tactics can seem easier than broaching the topic of budgeting for the big day. Still, the cost of accruing wedding debt extends far beyond your bank account. The decisions you make as an engaged couple can follow you throughout your married life.

“It’s going to impact your relationship going forward,” said Paula Levy, a Connecticut-based marriage therapist and divorce mediator. “It will impact how [couples] feel about each other.”

““Negotiations over relatively minor wedding-related expenses can set the stage for financial decisions to come, and reveal truths that might otherwise never be fully explained.””

Later in the relationship, mismatched financial expectations are often what cause marriages to end. A 2015 study from SunTrust Bank indicated money problems were a leading cause of marital discord.

“What we have found is, even when money is a source of conflict, the fight is usually more about how the money is spent, not about how much they have,” Opperman said.

Levy sees these issues arise among couples all the time. On one side, Levy said, more financially responsible partners (or those with more financial resources), don’t want to deprive the other of having the day of their dreams. On the other, partners with less savings don’t want to feel nagged or controlled by their better-off spouses-to-be.

Rather than ignore differences in priorities and spending habits for the sake of peaceful wedding planning, couples should use their engagements to get to know one another financially. Not only will they get some clarity around their partner’s financial savvy—or lack thereof—but even the smallest details might unearth surprising revelations.

Levy recalled one couple she counseled who argued over the cost of flowers for their wedding. The florist quoted the bride $8,000, and her fiance balked at the price. When Levy asked the bride why she wouldn’t budge on expensive floral arrangements that would quickly die anyway, the woman explained the flowers represented birth and new beginnings, important symbols she wanted at the wedding. The couple compromised, ordering less expensive flowers and releasing two birds to symbolize the new beginning.

““If you can’t budget and plan to get married, how will you raise children together? How will you save for your first home?” ”

Negotiations over relatively minor wedding-related expenses can set the stage for financial decisions to come, and reveal truths that might otherwise never be fully explained. Some people are extreme savers because they grew up in poverty; others like to spend now because they couldn’t afford to splurge on anything when they were younger.

“You need to understand the emotions instead of just saying, ‘Oh, this person is cheap,’” Levy said.

She noted that because many people are getting married later in life, they’re often set in their ways when it comes to dealing with finances. Couples either butt heads over how to spend and save together, or they opt to keep their money completely separate—a tactic that brings its own risks.

In one case, Levy counseled a couple approaching retirement who had radically different spending approaches but never addressed their conflicting methods. When the time came to retire, the husband had $1 million saved and the wife had $100,000. Needless to say, deep conflicts arose when the husband realized his wife expected him to support her retirement out of his savings.

Even extreme case like these can be avoided with improved communication—the type of conversations that can begin with wedding planning. Making difficult decisions about guest lists, venues, and vendors gives couples practice in budgeting and prioritization.

Levy suggested that couples ask, “What are we giving up?” in order to have a dream wedding and decide together which is more important. Those conversations will lay the foundation of their financial futures.

“If you can’t budget and plan to get married, how will you raise children together? How will you save for your first home?” Opperman said. “We know it can be frustrating to couples in a hurry to tie the knot. But if you can’t save and plan for a wedding, maybe you’re not ready for the marriage.”