NPR Story
12:54 pm
Thu January 26, 2012

Planning Your Insanity-Free, 'Practical Wedding'

Originally published on Fri January 27, 2012 11:21 am

Couples planning their weddings are forced to make scores of difficult decisions — matching the guest list to the budget, and juggling their own values and the expectations of family and friends. Wedding-planning books and blogs can add more pressure than guidance — they make newly engaged couples feel like their weddings must be showstoppers, never mind the bad economy.

Even the hardiest of partners can feel a little lost. Author Meg Keene certainly did when she started to plan her wedding. "I came home two weeks into wedding planning in tears," she tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden. "I researched budget options, and the first thing I came across was the $2,000 'budget' invitation package."

That's when she knew that keeping her wedding affordable — and sane — was going to take some doing. She started a website inspired by her experience, and her new book, A Practical Wedding: Creative Ideas for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration, focuses on helping newly engaged couples focus a little more on the meaning of marriage, and a little less on the flowers and cake.


Interview Highlights

On the origins of the wedding industry

"The wedding industry as we know it now sort of emerged in the 1920s, which is interesting because everything was changing culturally. And there was more money being spent on weddings, and things were becoming a little bit more formal, a little bit more outside the home.

"But the interesting thing is the wedding industry emerges as this advice industry in a moment in time when, suddenly, your daughter is running off and she's getting married with lipstick and alcohol and a skirt that's knee-length.

"So moms, I think, are wanting some advice to help them through this muddle. And the wedding industry pops up, and there they are, ready to help you out and provide, you know, very expensive advice to help you through the process.

"[And it continued to thrive through the Depression with] the slogan ... 'love knows no depression,' which I think has been repurposed as 'love knows no recession,' which arguably is not true at all, but — I mean, love may know no recession, but I think weddings definitely do."

On the soaring cost of getting married

"I think there has been sort of a runaway wedding inflation. We did the math on re-creating my parents' wedding. My parents got married for about $4,000, but it's still a pretty fancy wedding. They got married at the big Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco and had a reception at the Marines' Memorial Club. Four-thousand dollars in today's dollars — that's 15,000 inflation-adjusted dollars.

"I recently appraised what it would cost to re-create their wedding: $80,000 ... to do exactly the same wedding. They paid $100 for the church, which, you know, [taking] inflation into effect to $500. It now costs $5,000 for the church. And I think you don't get the organist with it. ...

"The minute the word 'wedding' is attached, you're in trouble. ... Solving that problem can be as simple as, you know, having the hoedown, having the potluck. You just have to sort of bust through the expectations because there's this idea that ... if you have a potluck, you're doing it wrong.

"But I think ... hopefully, if we have a positive view of marriage, this is just the beginning. It's not the capstone. Hopefully, there's many, many happier days to follow. This is just a really important day where you celebrate the start of something important, vowing to spend your life with someone — and having a really great party."

On putting your money into the things that matter

"I always say that you should start with the basics, and then build out from there instead of starting with, you know, the most extravagant wedding you can imagine and trying to subtract. So if you start with sort of the vows, some nice clothes, some food, some people you love, and then build from there, I think you're going to end up at a far more reasonable place. And I think that often just allocating your money to the places that you care the most about can be really helpful. ...

"One of our favorite weddings that we went to was a potluck wedding, and then they put all of their money into getting a swing band. So we remember it as a super fun wedding with fantastic dancing. ... I mean, the food was great. It was community food. But if they had spread that money around, and they had had like, oh, not that great food, not that great dancing, not that great anything, it might have just been a little bit more stressful and not had something that was great.

"That said, you could have a potluck wedding and no band at all and just have an iPod and still have a fantastic wedding. But I think that focusing your dollars on the things that you're most passionate about often really has a big payoff."

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Transcript

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

December is a popular month to pop the big question, which means there are lots of newly-betrothed couples now realizing weddings don't just happen. You have to plan them. There are scores of important decisions to make, from whom to invite to how to pay for it. And a quick scan of wedding-planning books and blogs seems to make one thing clear: Your wedding should be a showstopper, and that comes with a budget to match, never mind the bad economy.

Even the hardiest of couples can feel overwhelmed. Meg Keene is here to help. She's the author of the new book "A Practical Wedding," which sprang from her website of the same name. She's passionate about an insanity-free wedding experience that focuses on the meaning of marriage at least as much as the flowers and cake. So we'd like to know: What choices did you make or are you making to make your wedding meaningful? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Meg Keene joins us now from member station WBUR in Boston. Her book is "A Practical Wedding: Creative Ideas for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration." Welcome, Meg.

MEG KEENE: Thanks. I'm so glad to be here.

LUDDEN: So I take it your own experiences led you to write this book.

KEENE: They did. I came home two weeks into wedding planning in tears...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEENE: ...and we had - my husband and I had worked producing theater in New York, so we thought we had it. You know, we knew how to produce events on a shoestring. But there I was, sobbing after I'd found a wedding planning blog and I'd researched budget options after being incredibly depressed to realize that even though we were spending more than I had made my first year out of acting school...

LUDDEN: Ooh.

KEENE: ...on our budget, apparently, we were a super-budget wedding. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEENE: So I researched budget options, and the first thing I came across was the $2,000 budget invitation package.

LUDDEN: Two thousand for the invitations?

KEENE: Correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Oh, no.

KEENE: Cue the tears.

LUDDEN: OK. So you go back and you research for your book a bit about the wedding industry and its origins. How - when did it emerge?

KEENE: The wedding industry as we know it now sort of emerged in the 1920s, which is sort of interesting because everything was changing culturally. And there was more money being spent on weddings, and things were becoming a little bit more formal, a little bit more outside the home. But sort of the interesting thing is the wedding industry emerges as this advice industry in a moment in time when, suddenly, your daughter is running off and she's getting married with lipstick and alcohol and a skirt that's knee length.

So moms, I think, are wanting some advice to help them through this muddle. And the wedding industry pops up, and there they are, ready to help you out and provide, you know, very expensive advice to help you through the process.

LUDDEN: That is interesting, and it was also interesting to read that it actually continued to thrive through the Depression.

KEENE: Ah, the slogan was love knows no depression...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEENE: ...which I think has been repurposed as love knows no recession, which arguably is not true at all, but - I mean, love may know no recession, but I think weddings definitely do.

LUDDEN: And do you have a sense of how has this industry responded to the recession that we're in right now?

KEENE: Well, the industry, I think, is in some ways, trying to, you know, still sell the $2,000 budget invitation package, but things are really changing. And we're seeing a lot of simpler weddings. I'm seeing a lot more elopements. And we're just seeing people trying to sort of scale it back to manageable or to reasonable and to sort of - the book is a lot about looking at: What kind of wedding did your grandmother have? Maybe that's appropriate, you know.

LUDDEN: Right.

KEENE: Your grandmother probably had something fairly small. All the things being sold as traditional are probably things your grandmother doesn't even know about. So...

LUDDEN: Right.

KEENE: ...I think there's a way to sort of relook at this and wonder what we got ourselves into in the last 15 or - years or so.

LUDDEN: We have some emails that allude to just what you're talking about. Lindsey in Denver says: My fiance and I are planning a small wedding in the mountains. We're only inviting 25 people, close family and friends only. We're taking everyone to dinner afterwards, maybe visiting some hot springs, then renting a cabin where we can all party without the formality and awkwardness that comes with so many weddings.

Charles in Laramie, Wyoming, said: My beautiful wife Diana and I got married in 1986 outdoors in the mountains outside of Laramie. We had fun. We made our own food, baked our own wedding cakes and hosted a celebration for more than 100 guests. All told, I think it cost us 800 bucks.

OK. Let's take a caller as well. Rebecca is in Kingsport, Tennessee. Hi, there.

REBECCA: Hi. I wanted to tell the story about my husband and I. It's been 14 years now since we got married. But we were poor, and we were teenagers, and we were expecting a child, and didn't have any money at all to spend on a wedding. So went to the justice of the peace in a small town, and it was actually inside a mobile home, a trailer with tenants on the background. But it was just the two of us and - but I had to bring his family in to be witnesses. But it was beautiful. And we have pictures of us standing in front of the school bus that says Justice of the Peace and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEENE: Oh.

REBECCA: ...we've just - well, now we've got three daughters, and they love to go through and look at those pictures, although I imagine their weddings really be much more expensive than that.

LUDDEN: Oh, that's a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing.

REBECCA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So, Meg Keene, you've written that DIY is actually traditional.

KEENE: Well, you know, people have been doing it themselves for a very long time. You know, I talked a lot about the idea of doing it together because I think DIY has become this sort of crazy, all-consuming, I-need-to-make-it-all contest. But for time immemorial, it used to be the women of the family. But the women of the family sort of pulled together and pulled off a day that was a celebration of an important moment but not the be-all, end-all of our lives. So I think maybe we were on to something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Let's get another listener. Janice in Nevada, Iowa?

JANICE: It's Nevada, Iowa.

LUDDEN: Nevada, Iowa. Hi there, Janice.

JANICE: Hi.

LUDDEN: Tell us about your wedding.

JANICE: Well, we got married in 1977. It was in Willamette Valley in Oregon, and so the weather was beautiful. So we had an outdoor wedding, and then we had a potluck at a Grange Hall in Albany, Oregon. And then we had friends play the music. We had like a hoedown dance. And so it cost - we brought a couple of kegs of beer and paid $25 for the hall, and that was about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JANICE: We got my dress off the rack for $50.

LUDDEN: Excellent.

JANICE: And we've been happily married, you know.

KEENE: And there wasn't any - you didn't feel any pressure, Janice. No one was saying to you, you really should have it down at the hotel and the dinner - for a sit-down dinner, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JANICE: No. I mean, this was about getting married, not about, you know, impressing anybody.

LUDDEN: Which is the point.

JANICE: And, you know, we were in love and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JANICE: ...we didn't really care about making a statement with the wedding. We just wanted to get married.

LUDDEN: And no regrets?

JANICE: No. (unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JANICE: None at all. We had such a good time. It was a really good party (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: Janice, thank you so much for the phone.

JANICE: Yeah. Sure.

LUDDEN: So, Meg Keene, what happens - what's to change? You know, I do hear people talk about how, you know, the wedding is sort of like a capstone. It signals you arrived. You really want to save up...

KEENE: Right.

LUDDEN: ...until you can afford the wedding. How did this shift?

KEENE: Well, I think there has been sort of a runaway wedding inflation. We did the math on recreating my parents' wedding. My parents got married for about $4,000, and they had - but it's still a pretty fancy wedding. They got married at the big Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco and had a reception at the Marines' Memorial Club. Four thousand dollars in today's dollars, that's $15,000, inflation adjusted dollar. I recently appraised that, what it would cost to recreate their wedding, $80,000.

LUDDEN: Eight-zero?

KEENE: Eight-zero.

LUDDEN: Oh, my.

KEENE: ...to do exactly the same wedding. They paid $100 for the church, which, you know, inflation into effect to $500. It now cost $5,000 for the church. And I think you don't get the organist with it. So there's been this sort of movement for - the minute the word wedding is attached, you're in trouble, which can be - solving that problem can be as simple as, you know, having the hoedown, having the potluck. You just have to sort of bust through the expectations because there's this idea that, like, ah, if you have a potluck, you're doing it wrong. But I think if we keep in mind the idea that, hopefully, if we have a positive view of marriage, this is just the beginning. It's not the capstone. Hopefully, there's many, many happier days to follow. This is just a really important day where you celebrate the start of something important, vowing to spend your life with someone - and having a really great party.

LUDDEN: So a potluck, a hoedown. What other (unintelligible), the tips for saving?

KEENE: Well, as I - I always say that you should start with the basics, and then build out from there instead of starting with, you know, the most extravagant wedding you can imagine and trying to subtract. So if you start with sort of the vows, some nice clothes, some food, some people you love, and then build from there, I think you're going to end up at a far more reasonable place. And I think that often just allocating your money to the places that you care the most about can be really helpful.

The last caller talked about a potluck wedding. And one of our favorite weddings that we went to was a potluck wedding, and then they put all of their money into getting a swing band. So we remember it as a super fun wedding with fantastic dancing, and you just feel - I mean, the food was great. It was community food. But if they had spread that money around, and they had had like, oh, not that great food, not that great dancing, not that great anything, it might have just been a little bit more stressful and not had sort of something that was great. That said, you could have a potluck wedding and no band at all and just have an iPod and still have a fantastic wedding. But I think that focusing your dollars on the things that you're most passionate about often really has a big payoff.

LUDDEN: Now, another thing they can add to the cost is when you invite all the relatives and all the friends from your entire life history. Whom to invite is a big minefield. What are your tips there?

KEENE: Well, it's always a minefield, I'm afraid. There's no one simple answer. But I think that you do have to sort of deal with the difference between - and this is the perpetual problem with weddings - is dealing with the difference between how we wish things were and how things really are, right? Like, maybe you still wish you were incredibly close with your best friend from high school, but if you haven't seen them in 10 years, it may just be time to cut them from the guest list.

If you - it's perfectly fine to get married with just your family and your very closest friends. It's also perfectly fine to get married at the courthouse with your family and your closest friends, go out to eat, and then the next weekend, have everybody over for pizza and beer. There's no reason that we have to attach the word wedding to it, have it at a hotel ballroom, and invite everybody we've ever met. If we want to invite everyone we've ever met, you can also do that in the backyard, if it comes to that.

LUDDEN: All right. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We have an email here. Brandy(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Some great advice we received: Choose the one element that's important to you - flowers, cake, photos, dress or whatever - and spend the money there to get what you want - echoing your point there, Meg. The rest has to fit within whatever budget you have left. And let's hear from Cathy in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Hi, there.

CATHY: Hello.

LUDDEN: Tell us about your wedding or plans.

CATHY: Well, we decided - as you've said, I - we lived in Virginia. We do still in the Virginia Beach. And we decided that we didn't want to have a big wedding. And we were both in our late 30s and was both our first marriage. So we were - and we were well into our careers, so I think it was probably good to have a larger wedding, but we decided not to. So we talked to some of our friends and we've found a wonderful dude ranch out in Wyoming, outside Jackson Hole. I found a dress at a liquidation sale, a slob silk dress for $99. I think the alterations were around $250, but still it was a great deal.

We shipped the dress, the champagne glasses, the champagne and a couple of other items that we would need on the other end out to the ranch. We flew out there, and our best friends from Seattle came. So on the day of the wedding - and we spent some time looking around, trying to decide, you know, where would we want to be married in that area, and we ended up behind a large hotel and - in a park. And we actually had a lot of people at our wedding. We didn't invite them. But while we were (unintelligible) married, it was so beautiful that day, there was this huge crowd on the veranda behind us...

LUDDEN: Oh, how sweet.

CATHY: ...and they were all having champagne, and they came out of the hotel with bottles of champagne. They were wonderfully accommodating. When we come back to the ranch, they had moved us from the single's cabin that we were in to a cabin with a fireplace, 'cause only the married people could stay there.

LUDDEN: Oh.

CATHY: It was a wonderful (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: And what was the most meaningful part? What really made it meaningful for you both?

CATHY: I think - I remember every single part of it. I think a lot of brides don't remember half of their wedding. So we're standing out behind that hotel, looking at the most incredible vista, the pastor's two kids we're laying on the lawn. I was there with my best friend, and - my husband and my girlfriend - and it was just extremely, just wonderful. I guess, I don't know, it's just a perfect venue for us. We did...

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Cathy, thank you so much for sharing. It's a lovely story.

CATHY: Oh, thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Meg Keene, you make a point of saying that, you know, we heard about the perfect day here, and the industry promotes its perfect day. But it won't always be, and that's OK?

KEENE: Yeah, that's right. We've - I've actually had a lot of brides write for my website about the idea of maybe their wedding wasn't perfect or wasn't perfect for them and sort of learning to move past that because there's so much emphasis on it needs to be this magical, transformative experience. And I talk a lot about - you just - you never know how it's going to feel, right? And your job is just sort of show up and not to sound hippy-dippy at all, but to just be as present as you can be and just experience what happens.

I didn't feel the way I expected to feel on my wedding day, and I think that was a great thing. So if it's not the most magical experience you've ever had, maybe that's good. You've got a whole marriage in front of you to experience all sort of new things. This doesn't have to be it.

LUDDEN: You write about one where - we just have a minute left here, but there was a basically utter disaster where a huge rainstorm just dumps the - right before everyone - as everyone is arriving. And they kind of make it really fun.

KEENE: She said it was - she realized that everybody she loved was there, and she was marrying her best friend, and how could anything go wrong when all the big things were going so right?

LUDDEN: Thanks so much. Meg Keene is the author of "A Practical Wedding: Creative Ideas for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable and Meaningful Celebration." You can find her tips for throwing a memorable wedding. And you can actually afford at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks, Meg.

KEENE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And Ira Flatow will be here for a look at solar flares and how space weather affects us here on Earth. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.