Big debt often follows a big wedding

The mermaid-shaped gown with the $4,200 price tag was the first purchase that Cynthia Davis of Coral Springs, Fla., charged to her Visa card.

The tiered cake, the groom's tuxedo and gifts for the bridesmaids followed, putting Davis and her fiance, David Davis, in serious debt for the first time in their lives.


Two more credit cards paid for doves to be released after their vows and for a horse-drawn carriage to take them to their reception, where 340 guests would be waiting.

When the big day was over, the balance due was $12,000 - a debt the couple struggled with for three years, through bouts of unemployment, until they separated in 2001.


Wedding bills are weighing down couples and their parents long after the vows, and many have been forced to seek financial counseling as a result, according to credit counseling agencies.

Young couples with modest incomes are having the most trouble repaying. Whether they celebrate lavishly or modestly, they are more likely than ever to pay for their weddings without help from their parents. And even when parents pay, what more people expect of nice weddings is increasingly more elaborate for both the richer and the poorer. And so, with debt do they start.

Cynthia Davis, a 23-year-old administrator at an employment agency, has entered credit counseling to help her manage her wedding debt.

"I hope everyone had a good time because I'm still paying," Davis said, laughing, then quietly added, "Really paying in a big way - not only financially, but with my marriage."

Howard S. Dvorkin, the president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said, "Paying off these weddings is going to take a heck of a lot longer than the few hours the party lasted, maybe longer than the marriage lasts."

"Because there's the emotional aspect," he said, "people lose sight of the finances when they're getting married."

For Mitchell and Sandra Crim of Bellevue, Wash., spending for their daughter Sarah's wedding day "was a matter of pride," said Mitchell Crim, a customer service representative for Nintendo. "We did not want to appear cheap, or that we were incapable of giving her the wedding she wanted. And that's just part of the illusion."

The 250-guest affair that the Crims held for their daughter in August 2001 saddled them with $4,000 of credit card debt. The payments were a burden from the start, they said, and after Sandra Crim's employer reduced her hours, the debt made even paying for groceries difficult.


"And it was hurting our relationship," Mitchell Crim said. "It's so difficult when the main focus of your existence is trying to find a way to pay these people," he said, referring to the creditors.

The Crims went for credit counseling in February. They now make monthly payments under a plan that, Mitchell Crim wryly notes, will take four to five years to pay the remaining bills from their daughter's big day.

"If you have to buy something on credit, buy a house. Buy a car," he said. "Certainly do not buy a wedding."

But wedding planners across the country say that couples are, in fact, buying weddings on the installment plan. And although there are no numbers on how often brides and their families are borrowing, a recent survey of 1,400 bridal magazine readers found that last year 43 percent spent more on their weddings than they had budgeted.

The survey, from the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank, a research service for Conde Nast-owned wedding magazines, also found that the average wedding now costs $22,000, representing more than five months' worth of wages for a middle-income family, according to data from the Census Bureau.

Yet after adjusting for inflation, that $22,000 represents only a 7 percent increase over the average cost of a wedding in 1990. Moreover, the average wedding consumes no more of a middle-income family's earnings than it did in 1990, suggesting that weddings are not necessarily less affordable than they were a decade ago.


So why is wedding debt an issue now?

For one thing, more couples are paying for their own weddings - 27 percent last year vs. 23 percent in 1997, according to the Bridal Infobank. And an additional 30 percent are paying at least part of the bill, up from 18 percent in 1997. Newlyweds typically earn less than their parents and often carry the burden of student loans. Many are also trying to save enough to make a down payment on a house.

Wedding expectations, meanwhile, have far outgrown people's incomes, especially those in the low to moderate end, said Chrys Ingraham, an associate professor of sociology at Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., and author of White Weddings, a book about America's fascination with weddings.

Couples who years ago would have simply married at City Hall are now "emulating what they believe to be an upper-class model," Ingraham said. "There is this notion that the big wedding is a good thing for everybody."

Last year, Pamela J. Smock, a sociologist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, interviewed about 120 people who were living with their romantic partners and earning low to moderate incomes. She said she found that the inability to pay for "a real wedding" was keeping a fifth of them from marrying.

"The perceived cost of the wedding - what we as a culture have now decided is the standard for a wedding - is very powerful," said Smock, who conducted the interviews as part of a larger, continuing study on couples who live together without marrying.


A sluggish economy also makes wedding debt more of a problem. Two months after Stacey and Justin Blair amassed $20,000 in credit card debt to from their wedding in May 2001, Justin Blair was laid off from his job as a laboratory technician. Stacey Blair said that because of their debt, the couple had to move into her aunt's house to save on rent.

They also parted with their two leased cars in favor of sharing a used car, and they enlisted a financial planner to monitor their spending, even submitting their credit card statements for review each month. "Everything was just a mess," Stacey Blair said. Still, she said she considers the wedding well worth it: "It was such a fun day, I didn't care how much we put on our credit cards."

Michael G. Lawler, the director of the Center for Marriage and Family, said, "It's the United States of America, after all, and there's going to be some sort of debt. ... The question is, what strategies do you have, together, to deal with the debt?"

Douglas and Jacqueline Weaver, who live in Rockmart, Ga., spent more than a decade dealing with the $5,500 or so in credit card debt that they incurred for their wedding in 1992, when they were barely 21.

They finished repaying it last month, after nearly five years in a debt management program.

Jacqueline Weaver said the experience has taught them patience, whether that meant waiting to use the car they shared, or saving enough cash to buy a second car, or taking day trips instead of out-of-town vacations, or chipping away at debt keeping them from buying a house. Mostly, she said, the debt taught them to have patience with each other.


For the past few days, the family has been visiting the NASCAR tourist attractions in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., on their first big vacation since their honeymoon in Orlando, Fla.

"We've been married for 11 years, and we just are finally seeing light," she said happily.