I’m Not Afraid of You, City Hall

The cost of eloping in the UK.

Photo credit: ps50mm, CC BY 2.0.

I never wanted a big wedding. I feel the same way about weddings as I do about, say, taking up golf or moving to Australia; not bad things in themselves, but definitely not for me.

One thing I do dislike, though, is the pressure concentrated on the wedding day itself. In the words of Sloane Crosley, “Weddings don’t get damaged, they don’t get mediocre: they get ruined.” For me, this evokes an anxiety similar to New Year’s Eve and significant birthdays, which I refer to as being held at funpoint: you must have a great time, or else.

The idea that your wedding should be the best day of your life feels as misguided as the notion that your school years should be the best years of your life. The darker implication is that it’s all downhill from here.

So why get married at all, especially after happily living in sin with my partner for the best part of a decade? For one thing, contrary to popular belief, the idea of “common law marriage” has no legal standing in the UK. Unmarried, my partner and I were not on the hook for each other’s debts (sweet!), but also had no legal right to inheritance, for example. Not to be morbid, but we wanted our relationship to have the rubber stamp of approval in case it ever became important in a crisis.

We were also approaching our ten-year anniversary, and getting married seemed like a nice way to mark the occasion. Having bought a house earlier this year, we were confident that we were in this for the long haul—and also confident that we were too broke to plan much of a party. This, combined with our shared indifference to white dresses and floral arrangements, made elopement an increasingly attractive prospect.

We didn’t have to elope. It’s possible to do a small wedding on a budget and still have a great day. I thought Dewan Gibson’s wedding, as detailed in his recent Billfold article, sounded pretty awesome:

Over the years, though, I’d seen several friends set out to host a modest wedding only to be guilt-tripped or peer pressured into increasingly elaborate plans, or to find that their family’s financial contributions came with strings attached. One couple confessed that, although they had a nice time on the day, they later wished they had scaled down the reception and spent the extra money on an extended honeymoon.

We also could have had a small ceremony with just a few guests. However, our families are geographically pretty scattered — so much so that we were six years into the relationship before our mothers even met each other. It seemed unfair to expect people to travel so far for the ceremony we really wanted, which was to get married with about as much fanfare as settling a parking fine.

Since we couldn’t invite everyone, we toyed with the idea of inviting absolutely no one. We did need witnesses, though, and recruiting strangers for this purpose on the day sounded a bit too stressful; I’m not good at talking to new people at the best of times. After a chance viewing of the 30 Rock episode where Liz’s awful ex Dennis and his new wife are the only people she can find to attend her spur-of-the-moment wedding, we decided to recruit one friend each to act as our witnesses. One was sworn to secrecy, and the other only found out on the day that he was going to a wedding.

We were married at the local town hall, wearing outfits we already owned and inexpensive rings from eBay (wedding rings, much like wedding dresses, somehow all look alike to me). Afterwards, we went to a nearby bar for drinks; I don’t know how much these cost since a witness kindly insisted on footing the bill. Later we had coffee and cake, and then went home on the bus to make some surprise phone calls.

Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of our expenses. I have only included costs incurred specifically by the wedding; for example, I’d bought my dress several years before with no original intention of getting married in it, so it’s not listed in the costing below.

WEDDING ESSENTIALS

Giving our notice of marriage: £70, or £35 per person. (This is a legal requirement in the UK and must be done at least 28 days before the ceremony)

Registrar fees: £135

Administration fee: £35 (I assume this charge included our copy of the marriage certificate, since we didn’t pay for that separately)

GROOMING AND APPEARANCE

Groom’s luxury shave: £20 (We were going to buy this for our male witness too, but he’d already shaved)

Bride’s shoes: £25 from an outlet shop

Rings: £65

ADDITIONAL COSTS ON THE DAY

Transport: £12 (two bus trips and a taxi)

Lunch: £33 (some had a better lunch than others; see below)

Post wedding drinks: ?? (Paid for by witness)

Coffee and cake: £12

GRAND TOTAL: £407 (or around $520)

For context, when I googled “average British wedding cost,” the figures ranged from £20,000 to £30,000 (or about $26,000 to $39,000). In the interests of balance, I also came across an article at The Money Pages that claimed the median average cost — as opposed to the mean average — was only £8,000, and nearly a quarter of those surveyed spent £2,000 or less. (That research was done by a dubious finance company, so it’s possible those surveyed were in a lower income bracket to begin with.)

You may have noticed that our no-frills elopement still had quite a few non-essential frills. I could have worn shoes I already owned; my husband could have done his own shaving. I bought a ring because I somehow thought it was compulsory, but later discovered I could have gone without. Strictly speaking, everything but the cost of the marriage itself could have been cut, which would have saved £167. Nevertheless, I was happy to pay that price for the added sense of occasion and to show our witnesses some appreciation via the medium of food and caffeine.

Even the basic cost of the marriage could have been cheaper, in fact: our city’s town hall does discounted £50 wedding ceremonies once a month on Fridays. I’ve rarely felt such a sense of civic pride as I did when I saw that one of the FAQs on their website is “What’s the cheapest way to get married here?” Our anniversary fell on a Thursday, though, and we’d already booked our honeymoon flight on the Friday, so it wasn’t to be. If we’d taken the ultra-budget ceremony and dispensed with all other non-essentials, we could have done it for £155, or just over $200.

I also wanted to mention the costs incurred by our witnesses, since going to weddings can be expensive. One witness came out of it quite well, with a free lunch and a bargain outfit; she texted me on the morning of the wedding to say she had found a designer dress in a charity shop for under £5 and decided it was her destiny to wear it that day.

Our second witness didn’t know we were getting married until a few hours beforehand. We’d told him to dress smartly for the mystery occasion, but he wasn’t happy with his original outfit and insisted on going to buy a suit. The dash to Topman, combined with a queue at the barbershop, resulted in both men missing the lunch my husband and I had planned to buy for everyone (they had a quick sandwich on the way instead). This witness also paid for our post-wedding drinks, so in all he is probably just as out of pocket as he would have been for a conventional wedding. Sorry, friend.

Now that it’s done, I have no regrets about how we chose to do things. Our loved ones took the news very well, but I did feel a little sad not to have had more friends and family present. However, if the past weddings I’ve attended are anything to go by, it’s rare that the newlyweds have much free time to spend with their guests on the day. Was it the happiest day of my life? No more so than the day we got the keys to our own home, or any of the adventures we’ve had together over the years. Besides, I like to think the best day of my life is still ahead of me.


Kitty Armstrong is a pseudonym, but the marriage is real.