How Kindness and Customs Contribute to the Wealth Advantage of People Who Marry: The Example of Weddings

wedding giftsOver the course of a lifetime, single people spend tens of thousands of dollars on the weddings of other people. Their married siblings receive about $20,000 toward their wedding expenses from their parents and parents-in-law. These financial transfers grow out of kindness and customs, but they contribute to wealth inequality between people who marry and people who don’t.

Don’t count on marrying to boost your happiness or health. Claims about those kinds of benefits are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. Material well-being, though, is something else entirely.

People who marry become better off financially. In an important study, Jay Zagorsky tracked assets and debts of more than 9,000 baby boomers between 1985 and 2000. He found that the married participants experienced “per person net worth increases of 77 percent over single respondents.” (However, those who divorced experienced the same decrease in net worth, an average of 77 percent.)

Here at Unmarried Equality, we are especially attuned to the ways in which married people’s advantages follow from the many laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. But married people are also beneficiaries of other significant varieties of largesse.

I was reminded of this by a claim I found online at World Finance:

“…married couples are more likely to receive money from their families than their single or cohabitating peers. This is particularly the case when it comes to the wedding itself, with monetary gifts being customary in cultures around the world. In many countries, it is also common for parents to help newlyweds buy their first home.”

The claim was published without any documentation, so I wondered whether it really was true. Do parents give more money to their married children than their single children, once contributions to wedding expenses and down-payments for homes are included?

I scoured academic databases for an answer, and consulted with scholars with expertise in intergenerational transfers. (Thank-you, Karen Fingerman and Jay Zagorsky.) I never did find a study that assessed all financial help that parents gave their married and unmarried adult children, including everyday transfers and more sizable contributions.

So here, I will focus on just one example in which people who marry – and only people who marry – are benefited financially by other people: weddings. There are no laws saying that parents have to help their grown children pay for their weddings, or that wedding guests have to come bearing gifts. Usually, though, they do.

The transfer of wealth from parents to their married children, and from friends and family (many of whom are single) to the newlyweds, grows out of customs and kindness. I like kindness. In the example of weddings, though, I will argue that whatever other good may be associated with showering newlyweds with money and gifts, the practice also contributes to wealth inequality between people who marry and people who don’t.

Just how much do parents contribute to their children’s weddings?

The wedding site The Knot claims to have as members nearly 80 percent of the couples who wed in the U.S. According to their most recent survey of nearly 13,000 couples in 2016, the average total cost of a wedding (excluding the honeymoon) is $35,329. That’s an all-time high. Only 10 percent of couples covered all the costs of their wedding, and 8 percent didn’t pay for any of it.

The bride’s parents, on the average, covered 44 percent of the expenses, and the groom’s parents covered 13 percent, for a total of 57 percent. For expenses totaling more than $35,000, that’s a financial contribution of about $20,000. (That is very close to the estimate from a smaller Wedding Wire survey of 506 parents, who said they contributed an average of $19,000 to their children’s wedding.) To come up with that kind of money, one in ten of the parents raided their retirement accounts.

At the same time that weddings are costing $35,329, the price tag attached to attending a private four-year college for an entire academic year is averaging $45,365. In 12 markets, weddings cost more than college.

How much do guests spend on weddings?

An American Express study of 1,803 adults in 2016 found that wedding guests spent an average of $127 on the wedding gift if they were related to the newlyweds, and $99 if the newlyweds were friends.

The gift, though, is just a fraction of what wedding guests pony up to attend. Adding all the other expenses, ordinary guests shell out an average of $703 per wedding. For members of the wedding party, the expenses add up to an average of $743.

The amount that people spend differs by age. Surprisingly (at least to me), it is the millennials who are spending the most: $893 if they are just a guest, and $928 if they are in the wedding party.

One of the big expenses can be airfare, especially now that 20 percent of couples have destination weddings. Nearly half of those weddings (49%) are 200 miles or more from where the newlyweds live. And Americans are now attending about 3 weddings per year.

Beyond a season of weddings: What does this mean across a lifetime?

According to the CDC, the current life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years. How much are single people spending on the weddings of other people over the course of a lifetime? Let’s say the single people are about average in their spending (about $700 per wedding) and in the number of weddings they attend (3 per year). That’s $2,100 per year. Now add up that $2,100 per year, starting at age 18, for each of the next 60 years. That’s a lifetime expense of $126,000.

Suppose that estimate is too high. Maybe 75-year-olds don’t go to three weddings a year or spend $700 on each one. Let’s cut the number by more than half, all the way down to $50,000. That would still cover more than a year of tuition, fees, room and board at a private college. It would be enough for a 20 percent down payment on a quarter-million-dollar home.

What about the $20,000 toward wedding expenses that people who marry get from their parents and parents-in-law? People who stay single are never going to get anything from parents-in-law since they won’t ever have any. Will their parents help them financially in ways they do not help their grown kids who marry? If they do, will the amount of their help approximate the wedding totals? We don’t know, but it seems unlikely.

Should we all just stop giving gifts to newlyweds?

Gifts to newlyweds, whether from parents or other relatives or friends, are expressions of congratulations and well-wishes and caring. Personally, I’m not ready to stop giving gifts when I attend weddings (unless the newlyweds request no gifts). In the context of our prevailing norms and customs, not giving a gift would probably be interpreted as an expression of not caring, or maybe rudeness. That would not be my intent. If I care enough to go to a wedding, that means I care about at least one of the persons who is marrying.

I do, however, think that our customs are outdated, and it is time for them to change. In many contemporary couples, both people are employed. They are probably already living together and sharing expenses, and already have two sets of appliances, table settings, and linens that they have merged. They don’t need subsidies from single people whose one salary, if they live alone, has to cover all of their living expenses.

Gone are the days when parents can reasonably expect all their children to marry. If they want to be generous – and equally so – to all their children, maybe they should keep that in mind.

The extravagant spending on newlyweds and their weddings would not be so troubling to me if other events that matter to people were equally valued. As I argued previously in a Washington Post article on self-marriage (which does not appeal to me, personally):

“I realize that weddings are so strongly embedded in our culture that they are not going to be displaced anytime soon. Perhaps, though, we could take more seriously and celebrate more fulsomely the other life events that people find meaningful and significant. They could include, for instance, completing college or graduate school or a tour of duty, buying a first home, writing a book, getting a coveted job or promotion, or attaining acceptance into the Peace Corps or the training program of your dreams.”

The big picture: Newlyweds aren’t just better off after they marry

I’ve been focusing on the ways in which people who marry become better off than they were when they were single. They are rewarded financially by laws that benefit only them, for example, and they also benefit from extra-legal customs and kindnesses, such as the transfers they receive at their weddings.

But that’s only half the story. People who are better off socioeconomically are more likely to marry in the first place – a trend that has been increasing over time. It is interesting that, at a time when fewer and fewer people are marrying, and when the people who are marrying are especially secure financially, the money that gets spent on newlyweds and their weddings just keeps growing.

 

[Notes: (1) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (3) For links to previous columns, click here.]

bella-ocean-backgr-347-dpi-smallerAbout the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, among other books. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com and take a look at her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.”

About Bella DePaulo