Paying for Other People’s Life Choices

Last summer I travelled from London to my hometown of Los Angeles for the wedding of an old friend. The round trip on Delta cost me $775.

Though I found a good fare for flying a popular route at the height of summer, the trip was still a financial hit. But, I reasoned, how often do you get to see your friend get married in the (gorgeous) backyard in which you used to have playdates? Not often, I thought — this was worth it.

Before the wedding, my mom asked me if I had gotten a gift. “Are you kidding?” I said. “I paid nearly $800 dollars for a ticket and sat on a plane for 12 hours…my presence is the present.”

I don’t know if my friend noticed my lack of gift, but even if she had, I’m not sure I would have felt the embarrassment that modern wedding etiquette might imply. That’s because from your mid-twenties onwards, it’s basically impossible not to keep a mental accounting of the money and time you spend celebrating the life choices of other people.

A cursory scroll through Instagram during wedding season indicates that witnessing the start of other people’s marital bliss is a primary reason people my age travel. If you happen to live in a different country from many of the people you grew up with — or hang around expats who treat destination weddings as de rigueur — your wedding travel bill quickly becomes a yearly cost calculation.

At 26, single and ambivalent about marriage and children, I’ve more than once contemplated pulling a Carrie Bradshaw and registering for her marriage to herself with a pair of silver shoes from Manolo Blahnik. Cost: $485. That’s why I was so excited to see the decision of New York-based writer Erika Anderson to turn a 36th birthday and housewarming party into a marriage party to herself, complete with an Amazon wedding registry.

Yes, silver shoes that cost more than two of my monthly student loan payments are entirely fatuous. But then again, in 2016 — when couples aren’t usually moving from their parents’ house into their first adult apartment — aren’t silverware sets and crock pots equally so? Mauve shift dresses from J. Crew that you unequivocally will not wear again? Trips to Palm Springs before the actual wedding? Engagement gifts for a shower that’s six months before the wedding and lingerie-themed presents for the bachelorette party?

Regardless of your feelings on the institution of marriage and the not-so-subtle patriarchal traditions lurking in many wedding ceremonies, one thing is certain: weddings give people free rein to ask for money either in the form of gifts, funding additional celebrations, and/or actual cash. For a culture that seems to shy away from talk about money, weddings seem to really bring it out in people in astonishing amounts.

For proof of that, see the British newlyweds who sent a message to a wedding attendee asking for a top up of the guest’s initial £100 gift, saying they were “surprised that your contribution didn’t seem to match the warmth of your good wishes on our big day.”

Or consult the thoroughly mercenary piece of etiquette that suggests a gift should not be purchased on the basis of thoughtfulness or what a couple might like — but rather what the plate of food costs at their reception.

At this point I know what you are thinking: This chick is just bitter about weddings. Not so! I like weddings, I really do. They involve booze and dancing to Motown songs and public displays of emotion and these are all things I really enjoy. I’m just not so clear on why weddings make it socially acceptable to dip deeply into the bank accounts of other people. And I’m equally unsure why the cornerstones of heteronormative life — engagement, marriage, babies — seem to be the only occasions that confer this financial sucking privilege.

It seems like to balance this inequity one of two things needs to happen. First, we need to lower our expectations of how and what we must spend to celebrate the life choices of our friends. If you do not have the money to spend $65 on getting your hair done — as a friend of mine didn’t recently — your repeated attempts to politely back out of the hair salon trip should not be met with “But it’s my wedding — it’s all worthwhile!” (And brides, if that hair appointment is absolutely necessary, it is not your guest who should be paying for it.)

People’s ability to spend money on your life choice has no bearing on how much they care about you. I knew attending my childhood friend’s beautiful backyard wedding would mean a lot to her and her family, as it did to me, but buying her a gift on top of that felt simply like an attempt to not appear cheap — which, given that my plane ticket cost more than my rent payment, I most certainly was not.

The other option? We take a page out of Bradshaw and Anderson’s books and start treating other life milestones with the same money-spending fervor. Next month I’ll celebrate five years since I moved to another country. It feels significant and is without question the most life-changing decision I ever made. Should I ask for gifts? Probably not. But I can’t guarantee you’ll get an opportunity to pay me back at my own wedding, because I might never have one.


Rosie J. Spinks is a freelance journalist loosely based in London. Her writing appears in the Guardian, Lucky Peach, Fusion, WSJ Expat, Sierra, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @rojospinks.

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