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The real price of true love

As the length of the average marriage shrinks, so the cost of the average wedding escalates. Ed Howker investigates an overblown industry

26 August 2009

12:00 AM

26 August 2009

12:00 AM

Ask any happily married couple about their wedding and they will say the same thing: ‘it is the best day of your life.’ Dear reader, I write today, as this year’s wedding season draws to a close, and on the eve of my own wedding, to expose this lie. Like the Easter Bunny or Gordon Brown’s iPod jam-packed with songs by the Arctic Monkeys, it is a noble myth, a disingenuous redaction, perpetrated to reassure an anxious populace. They don’t mean ‘best day’, these married folk, what they mean is: the wedding process will take an exhausting, shambolic, and ultimately paranoid two months of your life. These long months will be punctuated by hour-long rows about, of all things, table decorations, which will push your formerly supportive relationship to the edge of the abyss. Then, at the end of that, there will be a party. The worst of it is that this whole rigmarole will probably set you back about twenty grand.

Yes, that’s right. Contrary to the Daily Mail’s recent spate of ‘I found my dress in a skip and bought my wedding on eBay for a fiver’ stories, the average cost of getting married in Britain has now swollen to more than £20,000 — the cost of an undergraduate degree. And of course only a very few can afford to pay for this up front. A poll by You and Your Wedding magazine found that the standard couple now borrow £26,000 for the big day at a 5 per cent rate over 16 years. Given that the average marriage now lasts 11 years, in today’s Britain there must be hundreds of thousands of couples suffering the trauma of divorce while the cost of their wedding still hangs around their necks.

These statistics suggest two rather unhappy trends. First, that the British have a peculiar knack for marrying the wrong people. Indeed, one of the few European league tables in which we consistently remain top is divorce. Second, it’s fair to conclude that wedding planning has gone too far.


I know what I’m talking about. I haven’t been to my own wedding yet (it’s in the countryside next Saturday), so I write this staring marble-eyed into space. I tele-phoned a recently married friend for reassurance and advice about service sheets. He was no comfort at all. After several minutes of cross-questioning he confessed that he did not speak to his bride for a whole week before the wedding — not for any reasons of spiritual or matrimonial sanctity — but simply because they could not bear each other, or the chaos, any longer. Their rapprochement was brokered by the words ‘I do.’ ‘It is,’ he conceded, ‘a nightmare.’

And the landscape of my particular incubus grows all the more asinine by the hour. She wants to tie pink bows around the sheep. When I suggest in retaliation that I’d quite like the organist to play ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses at the end of the service, she thinks that would be inappropriate. ‘You’re making a joke out of my wedding,’ she says, ‘why not go the whole hog and exchange vows in Klingon?’ She is dismayed by my vigorous nodding.

So who’s to blame for the 21st-century wedding debacle? Some might suggest Peter Andre and Katie Price, or any other celebrity who has in the past decade taken a couple of hundred grand from OK! or Hello! Others might blame Richard Curtis, who in Four Weddings and a Funeral created such an accurate satire of British weddings urban, rural and Highland that most people have long since forgotten that he was sneering at them. Debrett’s (increasingly popular with everybody from footballers to toffs) says that ‘planning a wedding is really like project-managing an event. It requires high levels of organisation and many, many to-do lists! The bride’s hair and make-up must suit the style of the dress,’ they continue, and recommend that brides on larger budgets ‘have something specially made for their bridesmaids as this ensures the dresses are the perfect match for the individual and the style of the day. Bespoke dresses are a good idea for brides who are after something very unusual or specific and six months should be allowed for bespoke bridesmaid gowns, with several fittings required. Final measurements will be taken around two months before the wedding day.’

Further down the food chain, Pembroke-shire County Council, for reasons somewhat unclear to their taxpayers, have pages of ‘month by month’ plans so ‘you can be sure your day will be the day you dreamed of’. Never mind that this has nothing to do with planning policy or bin collection or the other things that people pay a council for — the authority has a mini-site, created by Barbara Eynon, the superintendent registrar of the county, about arranging your wedding. The council recommends that you book cars, florists, venues and photographers for your wedding 18 months before the event. In the past six months I have flicked through dozens of wedding guides with the same 18-month start point — some even suggest wedding preparations should begin 24 months before the ceremony. This makes nerve-wracking reading when you’re trying to do it in six.

How much of my life would be wasted, I wonder, how many late-night negotiations about invitation fonts, if there were really 24 months to plan? And how much more money would we spend? For the dealers in Britain’s £500 million wedding industry, the more the better, of course. I’m sure little would please them more than to know that one bride of my acquaintance recently decided to take a year out of full-time graduate education to plan her wedding.

From where I’m fretfully sitting, it all feels like a conspiracy, with everyone from Pembrokeshire council right through to You And Your Wedding magazine involved. Engaged couples make vulnerable consumers — my suspicion is that too many get into debt because they tell each other that nothing is too good for the ‘best day of their lives’. And spurred on by well-meaning relatives, a giddy cocktail of half-remembered Disney movies and those 1980s royal weddings, we lose all perspective. When our politicians talk about the ‘broken society’, they can never say enough about the value of marriage. What we forget is that the value has nothing whatsoever to do with the cost of the wedding.


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