What? What is this? Are you sure?
Those were the first words I heard when I proposed to my girlfriend Gina about four weeks ago. Coincidentally, they would end up being the first words out of my mouth when I learned how much a wedding can cost.
We are all familiar with the idea of New Year's resolutions: eating better, more exercise, new hobbies, etc. I hadn't given it much thought this year, but I quickly realized that in 2016, I had no need to come up with my own.
The beast that is the wedding industry
That's because the moment Gina said "yes", a field of land mines awaited us: venues, caterers, photographers, music, attire, gifts, and more. All of these expenses joined forces to create a truly formidable resolution: pay for the wedding without turning our finances on their head.
Personally, I was content to sit back and enjoy the "honeymoon" phase of our engagement, but life had other plans. In the opening weeks of 2016, wedding planning became a very real, and very sobering part of my day-to-day routine. Just to be clear, I have no problems sitting down with Gina to discuss food, research venues, and the many other details that go into a wedding. I might not admit this in person, but I actually enjoy poring over Pinterest boards and Airbnb listings.
No, the toughest challenge was realizing that the wedding industry is an unforgiving beast that very much enjoys the ring of its cash register. Just the slightest hint of matrimony, and that rustic farm goes from $500 per night to $7,000 for the weekend. Gina and I quickly learned that this premium pricing was standard practice for most wedding services -- every little detail seemed to be accompanied by its own army of fees and expenses.
Chalk it up to our naiveté, but is it so wrong to believe that we can plan a small to medium-sized wedding in the D.C. metro region at a bargain price?
Yes, apparently, it is.
The Knot conducts an annual survey of thousands of brides and shares some eye-opening data for the industry. As it turns out, their 2014 results pegged the average cost of a U.S. wedding at $32,213! And better yet, that number increases to $39,025 for the "Washington DC/Northern Virginia/Suburban Maryland" region. I breathed a massive sigh of relief when I found that the median was closer $20,000, but that still amounts to nearly one-third of the annual median household income for the region, all spent on just a single day.
I was even more alarmed to learn that many people will go into debt to pay for the festivities. About one-third of couples rely on credit cards or other borrowings to fund their weddings, and one U.K.-based survey found that of these debt-laden newlyweds, almost half regretted taking on the debt with another 30% still paying it off six years later.
A new hope
So in the face of such daunting prospects, I turned to the one thing that has always guided me through the darkness, an old friend that neither tires nor complains: Microsoft Excel. I have compiled all of our wedding research into a centralized spreadsheet.
Venue tracker? Check.
Guest list? Check.
Dynamic expense model? Absolutely.
Armed with this organizational M16 (and the help of some amazing family and Fools), Gina and I have been able to reclaim some sense of control over the planning process, despite the fact that we have just taken the first steps off the starting line.
The best-laid plans of mice and men . . .
Funny enough, this is where things really started getting complicated. As if we didn't have enough on our plates already, the wedding planning sessions have evolved (or devolved, depending on who you ask) into a big picture conversation about our finances.
Remember the original resolution I mentioned earlier: pay for the wedding without turning our finances on their head? That sounds reasonable enough, until Gina and I acknowledged that we had never properly discussed "our finances" and what keeping them off their head even means. Sure, we had agreed on a total budget for the wedding, but that number was a back of the napkin calculation at best. So for the past few weeks, we have been rehashing previous conversations about our careers and goals -- all through the lens of our finances.
Venues and caterers soon gave way to 403(b) plans and joint checking accounts. From current investments to risk tolerance, nothing was off limits. The more we shared with each other, the more our confidence grew around not just the wedding, but the years beyond it.
One problem, two resolutions
So that is when the two of us came up with an experiment. What if we took the $20,000 that many couples are pouring into their wedding and instead, poured it into investing? Gina had already shown interest in learning more about the stock market and companies I cover on Industry Focus. Now, we had this perfect opportunity to turn long-term investing into a shared experience. Every candidate for our portfolio could get a robust bull and bear discussion, and we would have at least $20,000 principal invested by year-end. Our three-year anniversary was just last week, and we spent the entire walk home from dinner chatting about the international expansion at Netflix and the food safety problems at Chipotle -- just the tip of the iceberg.
With the wedding still months away, the planning process will only get more hectic. But my hope is that 10 or even 20 years down the road, we will see the Foolish returns on the investments we made over the years, remember the hours spent talking about these amazing companies, and laugh to each other when we think about how wedding stress was the catalyst that laid the groundwork for our financial future.