According to the Office of National Statistics, a couple spend between £21,000 and £25,000 on their wedding (stock picture)
Kate is paying off her ‘big day’ at the rate of £250 a month.
The contract lawyer from South London says: ‘I borrowed more than £20,000 for the wedding. I wanted a Vera Wang dress, a 10ft veil, a cake made of Laduree macaroons and a reception for 120 friends and family. That kind of wedding all adds up.’
Unfortunately for Kate, 31, she now has another expense to contend with.
‘I’m also getting divorced,’ she says. ‘My husband walked out on me after eight months of marriage. I came back from work one day to an empty house. He was gone — just like that. All he had left me was a note saying he couldn’t hack it any more. I am only just beginning to come to terms with it.’
Listening to Kate talk about her big day, you can’t help but agree with the words of High Court Judge Sir Paul Coleridge, who launched The Marriage Foundation last week. With more than 30 years’ experience in family law, he complained about the influence glossy magazines such as Hello! have on the wedding industry, saying it has created a ‘Hollywood image of marriage’. He went on to add: ‘The more we spend on weddings, the greater the rate of family breakdown.’
I couldn’t agree more. Having researched the wedding industry for my book Wedding Babylon, I was often shocked by the excess of money and the absence of love. The British wedding market is now worth £7.5 billion a year — and it’s growing.
According to the Office of National Statistics, spending has more than doubled since the 1980s. And despite the financial crisis, a couple still spend between £21,000 and £25,000 on their wedding — almost the same as the national average wage.
As a result, more than 20 per cent of married couples start their life in debt after splashing out much more than they can afford. So exactly what happened? When did weddings get WAG-ed and the big day become more important than the big commitment? When I talk to wedding planners, they remind me it wasn’t so long ago that happy couples contented themselves with a smart dress, a few friends, a glass of something and a slice of fruit cake in the village hall.
‘Those “Big Days” were very different from the weddings of today,’ says Andrew, a wedding planner from West London with more than ten years’ experience, who asked to be interviewed anonymously in case his revelations harmed his business. ‘Previously, weddings were quiet and discreet. Nowadays, if you think that the stag and hen parties last a week, the wedding itself has to be even bigger and better.
‘And people do go crazy. I’ve created Venice in someone’s garden, I’ve put up a three-story marquee with an internal lift, and I’ve covered a new house in lichen to make it appear older. I regularly see brides who spend a million pounds on their big day. The biggest budget I’ve had is £4 million, but that is nothing, I suppose, compared to the Russian oligarch who recently splashed out £10 million on his daughter’s wedding.’
More than 20 per cent of married couples start their life in debt after splashing out much more than they can afford on their big day
According to clinical psychologist Oliver James, author of Affluenza, all this glitz and glamour should be viewed with suspicion. ‘A recent study hypothesised that lavish wedding displays make the couple feel more secure,’ he says. ‘Researchers tested the theory among 572 couples whose uncertainties included fears about the partner they’d chosen, whether or not to get married at all and what their life will be like afterwards. By impressing an audience with large expenditure, these fears may be diminished.’
In other words, the more worried the couple are about their long-term commitment, the more likely they are to really push the boat out and have an ostentatious wedding. ‘It’s rather ironic that when weddings were not very expensive back in the 1950s, a high proportion of women would consider marrying for money,’ says James. ‘But now weddings have reached an exorbitant cost, more women than ever say that they would only marry for love.’
For a generation of women brought up saying ‘I’m worth it’, not to mention watching reality shows such as The X Factor where anyone can be a celebrity, their wedding day is the one day when they get to have their hair and nails done, drink champagne and live the dream.
‘It is Queen Bee syndrome,’ says James, who blames the bloated growth of weddings on the ‘princess culture’ that seems to be permeating modern society. You have only to look at the huge excitement that surrounded the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton to see the effect. What bride-to-be doesn’t now want to be Kate?
All the brides I interviewed for my book talked about wanting to be a ‘princess for a day’ or about desiring the whole ‘Cinderella package’ to feel ‘special’. Very few of them had thought about what would happen next. They were more swept up in the table decorations than they were with the idea of long-term commitment.
‘Young girls, in particular, have been infected with a princess culture that embraces an overt and conspicuous dream of femininity,’ agrees James. Walk into any wedding fair and you can see just how overt and conspicuous things can get. While researching my book, I visited the National Wedding Show at Olympia and was amazed at the amount of pink net, pumpkin coaches, satin slippers and pearlised accessories on offer.
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There were silver-bell motifs everywhere, princess-cut tiaras aplenty and enough chocolate fountains to drive Willy Wonka wild. There were horse-and-carriage-embossed invitations, pink glitter shoes to sprinkle over the tables and more fantasy castle cakes than Disneyland.
And to make sure everyone looked ‘magazine-perfect’ for the photos, I was fascinated to see his ‘n’ hers collagen, Botox and filler makeover packages — with one small caveat: don’t do it too close to the ‘Big Day’ as no one wants to go down the aisle with tell-tale bruises on their face.
With all these options, is it any wonder weddings send people mad? Granted, no one sets out to get completely sucked into the whole experience, but you can hardly blame the bride. Like some financial sitting duck, the wedding industry is geared up to see her coming and adds a zero on to everything that she wants. She is drip-fed a dream that she finances on her credit card, and all the focus is about the one day, and not what happens afterwards.
‘Most couples spend more time planning a foreign holiday than they do thinking about what it is like to be married,’ said one of the vicars I interviewed for my book. ‘Some of them will have come from broken homes, so they don’t have any good examples to follow. They see the wedding as an end in itself, when it is only the beginning.’ He says he regularly sees couples who are much more interested in creating a bit of a show than they are in the actual service. ‘I’ve had brides asking if they can shift the venue around a bit — get some more lights in and a better sound system. I feel like saying: “If you want to get married in a nightclub, go ahead. But this is a church.” ’
He is also often astounded at the answers he gets to a little marriage questionnaire he makes couples do before getting married in his church. ‘I am amazed how little they appear to know about each other,’ he said. ‘One bride didn’t know her groom had been married before. Another couple had never discussed whether they wanted children. These are big issues that need to be addressed before going down the aisle.’
Andrew the wedding planner also believes that engaged couples should think clearly about what’s motivating them to throw a big wedding before they start shelling out. ‘You have to ask yourself: what is the wedding for?’ he says. ‘Is it for the father of the bride to show off how rich he is? How far he has come? How much money he’s got? Is it for the couple to show off how glamorous they are, and how hip and cool their friends are? Or is it for two people who love each other to tie the knot? If it’s the latter, then just do it on the quiet and don’t spend the money.’
Yet it seems we just can’t help ourselves. And with more brides posting their pictures on Facebook and more wedding ceremonies being shown on the net, our desire to have the latest designer dress, the new Chinese paper lanterns that you light up and float off into the night sky or the perfect chocolate and gold leaf pudding show no signs of waning.
‘There are now benchmark Hello! moments that have to be ticked off,’ says psychologist Oliver James. ‘From the transport to the wedding, to what the bride and groom chose to sit on. It’s important to show that you can afford these things. It is like the democratisation of wealth. The ultimate emblems of this were Victoria [Beckham] and David’s thrones. They were saying: “We are royalty.” They are not; they are just rich.’
However, as the wedding season comes upon us and worried brides are wondering if their Big Day will be Big Enough, maybe we should stop and listen to Sir Paul’s wise words. Perhaps it’s time to realise that, in these austere times, less is actually more. ‘Marriage is not something that falls out of the sky ready made onto beautiful people in white linen suits,’ says Sir Paul. ‘It involves endless hard work, compromises, forgiveness and love.’
And it doesn’t take a genius to work out that these qualities have nothing to do with a princess-inspired wedding day that will leave the bride and groom £25,000 in debt.