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3 Steps to a Happy, Budget-Friendly Wedding

Happy Money author Elizabeth Dunn had a destination wedding in MexicoBy Elizabeth Dunn
Co-author of Happy Money

Now that the average American wedding costs almost $30,000, some of my friends swear that when they get engaged, they’ll just tie the knot at a courthouse and spend the money on a down payment for a house. As someone who’s usually careful with money, I think this sounds sensible. But as a happiness researcher, I’m not so sure.

Surprisingly, research suggests that owning a home has almost no impact on happiness. Instead, it turns out that people typically get more happiness from buying experiences than from buying material things. And a wedding can be one of life’s great experiences. Of course, it’s easy to get sucked in to spending lots of money on wedding expenses that won’t make any difference for your happiness. Drawing on two decades of scientific research, here are a few tips for squeezing the most happiness out of every dollar you spend on your wedding.

Harness the pleasure of planning. Many couples say that the day of their wedding is a bit of a blur, but a lot of the pleasure of getting hitched comes before you even walk down the aisle. After getting engaged and deciding to have a destination wedding, my fiancé Michael and I flew to Mexico to check out venues. We were able to get discount rates for stays at the resorts we were considering, which allowed us to take an extra vacation during our engagement rather than simply saving our pennies for the big day. Even with the discounts, this “research trip” took a significant chunk of our total wedding budget, but it helped us to envision what our wedding would be like. The pleasure of anticipation shouldn’t be underestimated. Although you’ll probably enjoy looking back on your wedding for decades to come, research suggests that people often get the biggest buzz from positive events before they happen!

Happy Money author Elizabeth Dunn had an affordable destination wedding in Puerto Vallarta

Invest in social relationships. When it comes to happiness, nothing matters more than our social relationships. It’s worth spending money on wedding costs that will enhance these relationships. For example, if your best friend from college or favorite aunt can’t afford to attend your wedding, consider covering their travel costs so the people you care about can be there to share your special day. And think about what you can do to help your guests get to know each other. When our friends and family arrived in Mexico for our destination wedding, they received a glossy booklet with color pictures of each guest and a fun fact about each person—but we didn’t say which fact went with which person (e.g. “She accidentally skied off a roof.” “He was pursued by a grizzly bear in the Canadian wilderness”). Guests spent the week of our wedding doing a “social scavenger hunt,” trying to figure out which fact went with which person—and getting to know each other better in the process. Many wedding expenses, from linen tablecloths to perfect flower arrangements, won’t do anything to bring you and your guests closer. Cut costs on these items and you’ll be able to afford that plane ticket for Aunt Suzy.

Pay for your wedding up front. Thirty percent of couples rely on credit cards to cover some or all of their wedding costs. But paying with credit cards increases the risk of overspending and ending up in debt—and research shows that debt is toxic for marriage (couples with more debt disagree more about common areas of conflict from chores to sex). As well as getting your marriage off on the right foot, paying cash on the spot can make your wedding day more pleasurable. A recent study showed that people enjoy something as simple as a gift basket more when they’ve paid for it in advance.

Of course, even with the most careful planning, some things are bound to unfold differently than you imagine. We chose the perfect spot on a beautiful beach for our wedding—only to have an older man in a tiny red Speedo hover near us throughout the wedding ceremony. At the time, I wasn’t impressed. But now my husband and I still laugh with our friends about Red Speedo Guy. And that turns out to be an important reason why experiences provide more happiness than material things—they just get better with time.

Photo credit: L & A Photovideo

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