Wed with a bang not a whimper

23rd April, 2011

We can’t all have a wedding that costs tens of millions – or even £5bn, the amount Prince William and Kate Middleton’s nuptials will reportedly (and implausibly) knock off Britain’s struggling economy. But even if most of us are untroubled by bills for carriage rides from the palace and the hiring of Westminster Abbey, the rising cost of getting hitched appears to be a global issue.

Reports suggest that tying the knot is now a $30,000 affair in the US, with price tags also rising to £20,000 in the UK; not far short of income per capita in each country. Celebrity weddings are now so expensive they almost rival the cost of celebrity divorces. And nor is this just a rich-world phenomenon. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, authors of Poor Economics, note that even households in poverty in north-west India typically spend 10 per cent of their income on weddings and other festivals.

What could be the return on such lavish spending? It becomes easier to comprehend when you realise that most of us do pay a good deal less. Headlines about the rocketing costs of solemn vows are often gathered from surveys of readers in fancy wedding magazines, exactly the kind of people who might arrange a fancy wedding. Indeed, if they weren’t tempted by a blow-out for the big day before they subscribed, they soon will be.

But the mooted £20,000 tag is not even typical for a flashy wedding-magazine-reader’s wedding. Instead it is the average, where a few major extravagances inflate the figure well beyond what most couples would recognise. Just 10 £100,000 weddings in a survey of 1,000 people notch up average costs by £1,000.

If Will and Kate’s wedding did cost £5bn (which it will not), it would raise the average for everyone else by over £30,000. But the cost of the median wedding – that which is more expensive than half of all weddings, but less expensive than the other half – is certain to be much lower. (I am grateful to colleagues on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less for pointing this out.)

Fine. Let’s say the true cost of a typical British wedding is a generously proportioned £10,000. Carve off enough for a honeymoon, a couple of thousand more for the basics – a dress, a suit, a couple of rings, and a venue for the ceremony – and suddenly you’re looking at spending an average of 50 quid a head on food, wine, and entertainment for a hundred guests. This is hardly absurd.

Indeed, it may be a bargain. Andrew Oswald, a professor at Warwick University and a specialist in the economics of happiness, thinks that a happy marriage brings as much life satisfaction as an extra £70,000 a year. Even without this, get your gift registry right and you could even make a profit. And if you don’t, you’ll still be paid back in the long run. Zsa Zsa Gabor aside, most of us can expect to be guests at a wedding rather more often than we are hosts.

The writer is married. He regards his wife as cheap at twice the price.

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