Here’s Why More Americans Are Saying ‘I Do’ at City Hall

It may be the best wedding gift of all.

When Scott Oeth was thinking about proposing to his girlfriend, Linda Hardin, he knew the stats. The average wedding costs in 2014, according to popular website The Knot, were a whopping $31,213.

Lucky for him, his bride-to-be was thinking exactly the same thing. So last year the couple arranged for a courthouse wedding, a celebratory dinner at their favorite steak house, covered as a gift by his new in-laws, and a backyard BBQ reception later in the summer for 100 guests.

Total cost: A paltry $1,250.Oeth, 43, says he wouldn’t change a thing. “It was all wonderful, and we had such a great time,” he says. “I don’t think that most people who spend tens of thousands on traditional weddings could say the same.”

More newlyweds seem to be thinking like Scott Oeth and Linda Hardin. Courthouse and city hall ceremonies now account for between 3 and 4 percent of marriages, up from 2-3 percent a couple of years ago, according to industry resource The Wedding Report.

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Financially speaking, toned-down weddings make a ton of sense. After all, think of all the other places newlyweds could spend that money to get their marriage started on the right financial foot, Oeth says.

Fully funding IRAs for both spouses. Paying off high-interest credit cards. Getting rid of student debt. Starting a 529 college-savings plan for young children. Saving up for a down payment on a first home.

“Expensive weddings are like a subprime mortgage crisis of the heart,” says Laurie Essig, associate professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College and “Love, Inc.” columnist for the magazinePsychology Today.

Noting that most young people have student loans, Essig says, “It just doesn’t make financial sense to be taking out even more debt to have a lavish wedding.”

Those typical expenses, according to The Knot, include $14,006 for venue rental, $2,556 for the photographer, $3,587 for the band, and $555 for the cake.

In many urban centers, costs can be much higher than those national averages. In Manhattan, for instance, the typical wedding bill comes to a wallet-punishing $76,328.

Of course, it is no mystery why people are so willing to pay through the nose for their Big Day. Marriage is seen as a once-in-a-lifetime moment that couples want to memorialize with one spectacular day.

Forgoing ExtravaganceWhen you think of financial alternatives to a fancy wedding, it is hard not to see the logic of forgoing the extravagance.

“Of course, it doesn’t make sense to spend all that money,” says Essig. “But marriage is a magic ritual, and magic will always outweigh more pragmatic stuff, like going down to city hall and filling out forms.”

Many spouses-to-be are afraid to bring up the idea of shaving wedding costs, for fear of appearing like a cheapskate, hurting their partner’s feelings, or angering in-laws at a highly emotional moment.

Get over that reticence and have a money conversation, experts say.The so-called wedding-industrial complex may not like it, but there is no law against buying a used dress from a thrift store, or getting a vintage ring, or having the ceremony in a park instead of a grand ballroom, Essig suggests.

Even if your wedding is a quick and simple affair, always check local regulations beforehand, advises Christen Moynihan, editorial manager of the website Broke-Ass Bride. There might be waiting periods after acquiring a marriage license, or specific ID requirements for getting all the necessary approvals, and you do not want to be caught off-guard.

A ceremony in front of a justice of the peace might only run a couple of hundred bucks. “There was a time when low-cost weddings and courthouse ‘I Dos’ were scandalized, but in recent years there has been much higher acceptance for weddings to take place in whatever way the couple envisions,” Moynihan says.

Scott Oeth and Linda Hardin redirected some of their wedding savings toward a fabulous honeymoon on Kauai. Since they are cost-conscious, they bought a travel package through Costco and got free first-class flight upgrades because of Scott’s Delta Medallion status.

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