Why Marry?

Rebecca Mead, whom I am proud to call a longtime friend, is a staff writer for the New Yorker. In addition to being a very good reporter, she’s also a very good stylist; this is a rare and blessed combination. She has just published her first book, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, which is full of interesting stuff. For instance:

Every year, as might be expected, the American Wedding Study’s* tally of the amount spent by Americans on getting married increases: from about $22,000 in 2003 to more than $26,000 in 2005 to, in 2006, a grand total of $27,852 … According to the 2006 study, Americans were spending $14 billion annually on engagement rings, wedding rings, and other items of jewelry. They were purchasing just over $7 billion worth of wedding gowns, tuxedos, flower girl outfits, bridesmaids’ dresses, veils, satin shoes, gloves, stoles, and other items of wedding attire. Brides and grooms were registering for $9 billion worth of gifts from their friends and relatives, of whom there were an average of 165 at each wedding. The expenses of the wedding day itself, including the food and drink, the limousines, the flowers, the wedding bands, and other nuptial paraphernalia, totaled $39 billion, which comes to [$750 million] being spent on weddings across America every weekend (with the exception of Super Bowl weekend, when only the oblivious or highly inconsiderate decide to begin married life). A further $8.5 billion were being spent on honeymoon vacations.

I have just started the book, so I am not sure if Rebecca addresses the question I find most compelling about weddings: Why are there still so many of them? I don’t mean why are there so many big, expensive weddings of the sort that Rebecca chronicles — but why, when the advantages of marriage itself in this country seem to be not much greater than in other countries where many forgo it (c.f. Ségolene Royal, the recent runner-up in France’s presidential race) — why do so many people still get married all? There are obviously a lot of good and true reasons, but I also wonder how much the herd mentality — and the wedding-industry pressure described in One Perfect Day — have to do with it.

* The American Wedding Study is, alas, conducted by Conde Nast, which is a publisher of several bridal magazines (as well as the New Yorker).


Might want to let her know that she needs 3 more zeros on the end of $750,000

"totaled $39 billion, which comes to $750,000 being spent on weddings across America every weekend."

Stephen J. Dubner

@ osb:

thanks; sorry; typo ...


Is the question why marry, or why have a wedding?

The marriage part seems pretty obvious in number of cases as many employer benefits and certain tax incentives are conveyed only through marriage. (Of course there is also a tax 'penalty' in certain instances where both workers have relatively equal, high earnings. This leads me to an unrelated question, how do same sex couples living in states that allow same sex marriage do their taxes? I assume they are married for state tax purposes but not for federal purposes--so how do these individuals deduct their state taxes on the federal form?)


The Economist, this week, has an article on marriage "The Frayed Knot": http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9218127

Some of the positives identified may go some way to explaining why marriage remains popular.


this one's easy- the only reason to get married is when you wanna have kids- I'm with chappy8- this post incorrectly equates marriage with getting gouged by the wedding industry- and mikeralls points out 4,259 reasons to get married (I rounded down)

Cam Beck

From Walter Williams, a fellow economist... There is not a cause/effect relationship at work, but there is a strong correlation that should be explored.



One snippet from the second article:
Though I grow weary of pointing it out, let's do it again. Let's examine some numbers readily available from the Census Bureau's 2004 Current Population Survey and ask some questions. There's one segment of the black population that suffers only a 9.9 percent poverty rate, and only 13.7 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. There's another segment that suffers a 39.5 percent poverty rate, and 58.1 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. Among whites, one segment suffers a 6 percent poverty rate, and only 9.9 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. The other segment suffers a 26.4 percent poverty rate, and 52 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. What do you think distinguishes the high and low poverty populations among blacks?

Would you buy an explanation that it's because white people practice discrimination against one segment of the black population and not the other or one segment had a history of slavery and not the other? You'd have to be a lunatic to buy such an explanation. The only distinction between both the black and white populations is marriage -- lower poverty in married-couple families.

In 1960, only 28 percent of black females ages 15 to 44 were never married and illegitimacy among blacks was 22 percent. Today, the never-married rate is 56 percent and illegitimacy stands at 70 percent. If today's black family structure were what it was in 1960, the overall black poverty rate would be in or near single digits. The weakening of the black family structure, and its devastating consequences, have nothing to do with the history of slavery or racial discrimination.


Cam Beck

Sorry... Second article URL is:


Big weddings have scat to do with marriages. In many cases now, the couple have already married semi-secretly, often so they both have medical insurance.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to attend a wedding for a marriage that was over before I got the pictures developed. [well, digital camera technology will eliminate that problem!]

Marriage is an attempt to maximize family stability: (1) raising children to be good citizens, (2) providing financial, emotional and social stability to the "empty nesting" parents later. These are good things that can be achieved without marriage, but are easier with it.


I really haven't studied the methology, but I've always suspected the "typical wedding cost" estimates are biased upwards. The whole wedding industry -- including Conde Nast -- has a vested interest in convincing people that $28,000 is a "average" amount to spend for a wedding.


mikeralls 4,259 (rounded down) reasons to get married lays the blame squarely where it belongs, on feminists. Those hairy-legged Amazons of American feminazi lesbianism have devalued marriage and overvalued wedding trimmings for years now.

Wake up America! Vote for Ron Paul!!


I recall some analysis done a few years ago (did a google, but couldn't find it) that speculated much of the shift to single mother households among the African American community was because of the introduction of welfare. The study pointed out that pre-welfare, black families were more likely to have both parents, and that it followed the typical nuclear structure. Once welfare was introduced, poor women didn't need a husband to earn.

I also think the threat of being cut off from welfare or other social benefits among the very poor is another reason they may not be in a rush to marry. I saw this in my own family when my brother and his girlfriend (who was on welfare with her kids) hesitated to marry because she would lose benefits due to increased household income that would no longer qualify. They eventually married when he got a job with good healthcare benefits. They have since divorced.


DG Lewis

You get married so you always have someone to give you a ride home when you drop your car off at the shop.


My current perspective (22 year old white male, college graduate with what would be considered a "very good" level entry job) makes me think that the only possible reasons to marry are:

1) Financial advantages from economies of scale and tax breaks (although a post above mentioned this is not always the case, and you can get economies of scale with a live in partner, without the title)

2) The woman is pressuring the man to get married by threatening to end the relationship

3) Old age insurance - you don't want to end up all by yourself with no one to visit you at the nursing home when you're 82. Although if you have children without getting married and are an active part of their lives, I'd think they would still visit you, regardless of if you are still together with the mother or not.

I'd love to hear other reasons as I can't come up with any (unless you think pre-marital sex is immoral, which I don't think is much of an issue these days).

As to the "why have a wedding" question, I think the answer has to do with signaling. There is this game-theoretic analysis of education, that the real point of education is to be able to send an honest signal to potential employers that you are hard working and intelligent. Assume there are two types of people in the population, "hard working" and "not hard working" and two types of jobs, "high paying" and "low paying". Both types of people would prefer the high paying job and when asked, both types would say they are hard working. Employers have no way to tell who is being honest. Enter education: If education bears a cost (effort, time and money) then only the hard working ones will go through all that effort to be making more money. Ironically, a Harvard professor came up with this analysis.

Weddings can be the same sort of signaling. "We are so committed to spending a life together that we will throw away $28,000 to show everyone how committed we are." Throwing away $28,000 might also make them work harder to resolve arguments, as they would view that as a lot of wasted money otherwise.

The other story about this is people like to show off. There's a story about a marina which was too shallow for the largest of the yachts to come dock. Those owners petitioned for the marina to be drained so they could park their boats on the dock. When asked why they couldn't just dock their yacht a mile off the coast and take a smaller motor boat to the shore, they answered "because nobody will see us then".

I believe I had my game theory professor actually analyze engagement rings in the same sort of way (the industry rule that "you should always spend 3 months salary on the ring") just to show how committed you were.



Ms. Mead offers a theory that dumping money into a complex wedding ceremony and reception is just moving what was once the stress of marrying just out of high school to planning all the details of the wedding. And this ties to your signal theory, RutgersPainTrain. Before just the act of marriage was a strong enough signal, but now, the act of marriage occurs between two individuals who've already graduated and started their careers, and this demands an even stronger signal. If a high-school educated man and a woman likely destined to domesticity couldn't hack a successful marriage 30 years ago, then what about two people already settled into their careers and personal lives?

Speaking as the husband of a successful wedding planner, the industry has become subtly predatory. Vendors and planners now collaborate to raise prices -- to take money from couples and families that have no idea what they're doing. My wife doesn't do this, but it's a practice not frowned upon. The country is littered with mediocre banquet halls eager to jump on the reception conveyor belt. Climbing up the food chain, we have the "Association of Bridal Consultants," which is basically a membership scheme trading money for projected legitimacy. My wife refuses to join even if she's lost some business from brides seeking someone who is an "ABC member."



The reason to marry for me has become deeply blurred especially as a man currently going through a divorce. I'll sit this dance out to avoid sounding like a Sam Kinison bit.



This link says it all about why an American man should never marry.


This is an economics blog, so I guess I'm not surprised that everyone is focusing on the monetary advantages to marriage. But I think there's also an emotional dimension that's being missed.

Two people can date seriously, live together, etc. But marriage is a higher level of commitment. When you're dating, it's not complicated to break up (unless there are children involved). But when you're married, you've promised to be together forever, it's expensive to get divorced, and many people will spend the time to try to work through things (with counseling) than they perhaps might have had they just been dating.

Marriage isn't just a stability vehicle for children. Given the rainbow of different kinds of relationships out there, children play a significant, though not essential, part. There are plenty of happy marriages between happily childless couples, happy partnerships between non-married couples with children, and everything in between.

In my mind, marriage confirms for the couple, and for the outside world that they are committed to one another. Rings tell people who are interested in someone that they are off limits.

Big weddings are another matter - often it's the parents who want it, or the bride who's dreamed her whole life of having some lace draped, frosting-covered perfection of an event. I think lots of couples (especially brides) focus way too much on the one day and not enough on the marriage that comes after it.



I got married for legal reasons; marriage at that moment allowed me to sidestep a lot (lot, lot, lot) of immigration hassles.

This is not to say that I would not have married this same person given time, just that the immediate legal advantage was what made us do it right then. Our eventual reason for getting married would most likely have been some combination of it being the expected path for a committed couple, and legal advantages (shared benefits, children, etc).

We had a courthouse ceremony. I think that we wound up spending something like $100 on the marriage.

I feel much better about that than I would had we spent $27,000. I mean, dude.


The negativity surrounding marriage is sickening as someone young considering marriage.
And young people's attitude was even worse!
They'll all rush to judge you for getting married- doom you without hesitation. But have a baby out of wedlock, oh thats cool- and it's personal, you shouldn't judge. But my marriage, thats public.
They're all still the same sick, scared little children that they were when their parents generation got divorced. Since this generation is such a bunch of cowards, they've decided to not even try making marriage work, for fear that it might fail.
And that, in my opinion, is a guaranteed failure.


My oldest brother and his wife spent $5k and 15 minutes and got married in Las Vegas.

Being gay, I can easily spend more than $27k in legal fees and not get more than 1/4 of the legal benefits that a married couple gets (partner health care benefits, hospital visitation, social security benefits, etc...).