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Don't shame people for spending money on their weddings

These newlywed piggy banks have the right idea.
These newlywed piggy banks have the right idea.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Chris Kirk, a fantastic data viz programmer at Slate, has a fun interactive that lets you tally up how much money you'd have today if you'd invested your wedding budget rather than spending it. If you got married in 1986, for example, and spent $10,000 on your wedding, you gave up nearly $200,000 in savings:

Slate / Chris Kirk

It's certainly true that Americans aren't saving enough, and more should be putting their retirement savings into index funds (like ones indexed to the S&P 500, as in Kirk's example) rather than trying to invest in specific companies in the stock market.

But I actually think the 1986 wedding example makes the opposite point: you'd probably have been better off spending the $10,000 on the wedding rather than saving it for 29 years. The reason we make money is to spend it on things that make people — ourselves, our family and friends, desperately poor strangers who could use the money more — happy. Same goes for savings. The implied judgment this interactive makes is that whatever that $192,870 was spent on 29 years later would produce more happiness than spending $10,000 on a wedding in the moment.

It's not obvious to me that that's true. Weddings are extremely potent sources of utility. There are the immediate gains of the reception: getting roasted by your best man/maid of honor, drinking heavily, dancing. There's the benefit of enjoying an intense emotional experience that allows you to plug into widely accepted cultural scripts you've absorbed throughout your life. And most significantly, there's the benefit of nostalgia. The $10,000 helps create memories that yield hedonic returns for decades after the fact.

That last one is the real kicker. Consumption that continues to produce benefits over many years is particularly worthwhile, and the longer you save, the shorter the time horizon over which you can get benefits from past consumption. Imagine that after waiting 29 years, you used that $192,870 to pay for a much fancier wedding. In doing so, you've sacrificed three decades of potential wedding enjoyment. The diminishing marginal utility of money is also a factor here. A $192,870 wedding is probably going to be better than a $10,000 wedding, utility-wise, but not 19.287 times better. Putting all that together, would waiting three decades and spending the increased wedding budget then really have made you happier? Maybe. But I doubt it. The nostalgia factor and diminishing returns issue really weaken the case.

piggy bank

It's traditional to put the money inside the piggy bank, but, you know, whatever works for you. (Shutterstock)

Of course, that $192,870 in savings probably isn't going toward a fancier wedding decades later. It's presumably going to be used as a source of retirement income or as funding for kids' college tuition. That's all well and good, and if in the intervening 29 years there were literally no other way to save that much, I suppose forgoing the wedding would've been a good call. But if you could rouse $10,000 for a wedding in 1986, chances are you made at least a comfortable amount in the decades since. Retirement savings is a gradual process: putting away 15 to 25 percent of your income annually lets you save more when you're older and making more money, so that savings doesn't sting as much. Randomly sacrificing important life events while young is a less sensible approach.

I'm not saying you should spend an unlimited amount on weddings. On the contrary, there are a lot of easy ways to reduce the cost without reducing the utility gains too much: don't buy a dress, rent out a restaurant rather than a wedding venue that'll gouge you, etc. Matthew Yglesias runs through a lot of these tips here. But spending a decent amount of money on a wedding isn't a silly proposition. It's a prudent way of generating happiness.