Psychology Today was Wrong:
Spending $20K+ on a Wedding Doesn’t Mean Divorce
On May 5th, 2015, Psychology Today posted an article titled “Research Proves Money Can’t Buy Happiness.” The article described the findings of a study by two Emory University associate professors, Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M. Mialon. They claimed that a couple spending over $20,000 on their wedding is significantly less likely to have a happy future together than a couple who spends between $5,000 - $10,000 on their big day.
CNN posted a similar article based on the same study called “Want a happy marriage? Have a big, cheap wedding.” Francis-Tan and Mialon’s study is titled “’A diamond is forever’ and other fairy tales: the relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration.”
It really pissed me off!
These articles undoubtedly made many people feel guilty or nervous, especially considering the same report mentions that the average wedding cost at the time was $29,858. Personally, it pissed me off. Can you imagine someone telling you that if you spent more than $20,000 on your wedding, you would be 1.6 times more likely to get a divorce than if you paid under $10,000 for your wedding?
The articles also noted another key point in the research—that the more people that attended the couple’s wedding, the lower the divorce rate. These two things seem to be mutually exclusive, since typically the more people a couple invites, the higher food and beverage costs will be.
Psychology Today’s article then goes on to give some basic advice about how couples should work on their relationship together if they don’t want to be a statistic.
Journalists often ignore the REAL data in scientific studies and draw their own (incorrect) conclusions.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that these journalists neglected to look at the statistics in the study. The study shows that in the sample of women, “the hazard of divorce associate with spending more than $20,000 on the wedding is 3.5 times higher than the hazard of divorce associated with spending between $5,000 and $10,000.”
What’s wrong with this is that the researchers ignore key factors like geographic region and total annual household income. Obviously, $20,000 goes a lot further in Nebraska than it does in Manhattan, but that was not factored into the study.
The study did mention annual household income, but not in relation to the total wedding cost. What I mean is this—if your household makes $500,000 a year, $20,000 is just 4% of your annual income. If you make $60,000 a year total, $20,000 is 33% of your annual income. Simply stating that spending over $20,000 means that a couple is more likely to get divorced isn’t accurate, because we aren’t looking at the entire financial picture. If the researchers showed wedding expenses as a percentage of annual income and the correlation with a higher instance of divorce, that might be something we could use.
But sadly, the headline “Spending more than X% of your annual income on your wedding may lead to divorce” isn’t as catchy as “Money can’t buy happiness.” And in our content-driven online world, it’s imperative to have headlines that attract clicks and eyeballs.
The articles also completely ignore other data in the study, which states that the more money a couple makes the lower the chance of divorce. This data isn’t surprising to most people, so it’s no wonder it didn’t make headlines.
So...what IS the right number?
When you look back at the original study, it’s easy to see that Francis-Tan and Mialon are trying to prove that the wedding industry’s marketing claims of “have an expensive wedding, live a happy life” are bunk. They didn’t dig deep enough to prove this point, but journalists reviewing their study misinterpreted data to get website clicks.
As a personal finance expert, the idea that there’s one wedding budget number that’s the same for every person is offensive to me. Every relationship is different and unique. Some families are large, and inviting only immediate family might mean 200 people. Sometimes parents contribute, and other times they don’t. Every couple approaches their marriage at a different place in their financial lives, and as such, should employ a different strategy. Spend whatever you want! Just make sure you’re spending intentionally and with a plan. Screw the statistics! They’re wrong anyway.
I recommend compiling a wedding budget as a part of a greater financial workshop review, to make sure that the budget is in context not only with annual income, but with the couples joined goals for their future together.
Moral of the story: Do some budgeting. Have a wedding you can afford. And ignore these misleading articles entirely.