The Cost of Calling the Whole Thing Off

by Danielle Witt

In 2010, I made the hardest, best decision of my life: I broke off my engagement. On the day I decided to do it, I felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders. And when it was done, I experienced a kind of happiness I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Thankfully, calling off a wedding is becoming more socially acceptable. Runaway Bride references notwithstanding; a reported 10 to 15 percent of all weddings are canceled, though the numbers are difficult to substantiate. When I began to consider calling the whole thing off, I found a surprising lack of online information or discussion about the realities of breaking an engagement and canceling a wedding. The following is what I cobbled together from my own experience and the few books I found at the time, including There Goes The Bride. It not only guided me through the process, but it also consistently reinforced my decision, reminding me that while calling off a wedding is financially and emotionally difficult in the short term, it prevents more difficult financial and emotional challenges in the long run.

The Dress/Tux/Suit

Thankfully, I had not yet purchased a dress. At the time, I claimed it was because I wanted something custom-made and couldn’t make up my mind. In retrospect, I realize it’s because part of me knew not to commit too much on the front end. But if you’ve bought one, a dress can be a very costly — and nonrefundable — item. If the dress hasn’t been made yet, you may still have time to cancel the order and get some of your money back. If you already have a dress in hand, you still have options. There are plenty of forums and boards for recycled and upcycled wedding dresses (PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com, WeddingRecycle.com), not to mention consignment stores and charities that will gladly accept the dress. The market for tuxes and suits is smaller, but you can still shop it around, or hold onto it for another event, as those tend to have more use than an elaborate white dress.

The Gifts

If you’ve received gifts, return them. Think of the “Gilmore Girls” episode when after Lorelai calls off the wedding to Max, Rory and Sookie beg her to keep one of the wedding gifts, insisting that there must be “some statute of limitations” on returning wedding gifts. There isn’t. Is it annoying to mail back gifts that might have already been opened, or even used? Yes. Should you send back those expensive bed sheets that have already been opened and used? Probably not, but I also believe it’s uncouth (and gross) to register for sheets. The point is, these gifts are to celebrate the upcoming union that is decidedly not happening. It might be tempting to keep the ice cream maker, but it’s very bad etiquette to do so. There are no real legal ramifications for this (in theory, but you can sue for practically anything in civil court), but if someone has already gone through the trouble of sending you a gift, you have the moral obligation to return it.

Did I follow this advice exactly? Not entirely. And I think of that whenever I use my incredibly powerful Cuisinart food processor. But it came from the woman who was to be my mother-in-law, who refused to call me by my name and instead referred to me by my ex-fiance’s first wife’s name. There was no way she was getting that food processor back.

The Ring

This can be the most financially and emotionally fraught, simply because, in most cases, there is no clear contractual agreement in place stipulating terms of forfeiture. In some states, the ring itself serves as a contractual agreement; by accepting the ring, you have agreed to a binding contract. If you so choose to end that contract, you have a legal obligation to return the ring, as you would return fees or property for any other forfeited contractual agreement. In most states however, the ring is considered a conditional gift and is treated as such. If you choose not to give back the ring, you can be sued in small claims court, depending on the value and your state’s threshold for small claims.

Etiquette demands, however, that whomever got the rug yanked out from under them gets to keep the ring. If the ring-wearer calls it off, they give it back. If the ring-giver calls it off, it’s the wearer’s to keep. If both parties call it off, it can either be a negotiation, or sold to cover the costs associated with canceling the wedding (vendors, venues, etc.). If it’s an heirloom ring, the right thing to do is to return it.

For me, the answer was very simple: I gave it back. I didn’t like the ring in the first place. I wasn’t consulted in its procurement or design whatsoever, and I resented that. If I was going to be wearing something for the rest of my life, I at least wanted a say in it. It wasn’t a bad ring; a white gold band with a diamond solitaire. It just wasn’t a ring I liked, and I didn’t want a reminder of him. It didn’t help matters that the day I gave it back, my ex-fiance threw it across the room and attempted to set a pile of my clothes on fire.

Vendors and Venues

These are, by far, the priciest part of any wedding. When making your agreements in the first place, read the contracts very carefully. Even if you are not intending to call off your wedding, be sure that there is a cancellation clause included, just in case. Is it the most romantic advice to give? Not hardly, but it’s financially prudent. Depending on the clause, you may get back all of your deposit, part of it, or none at all, depending on the timing. If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s why we got wedding insurance!” think again; wedding insurance policies cover death and disasters, but they don’t cover a change of heart.

If you’re too late to reclaim your deposit, don’t panic. Ask your vendor if they can be flexible. They are human beings with feelings, and will probably be willing to work with you. Some caterers might be willing to amend the contract and cater your friend’s wedding or another party instead. If your venue is very popular, you could sell your contract to another couple. There are websites that will buy and sell your entire canceled wedding. Don’t know what to do with all of those mason jar centerpieces? Go on Tradesy, Wedding Recycle, and the boards at Wedding Bee, Wedding Wire, and Ruffled to sell all of that decor you want to unload. Your chalkboards, bunting, and banners can all find new homes for a portion of what you initially paid.

The Wedding Industrial Complex

As I mentioned, there are surprisingly few resources available to those who are considering breaking off an engagement, and fewer telling you what to consider when canceling what is arguably the largest party you will ever plan. The wedding industry is just that: an industry, and one with few regulations. Whether it is fueled by potential profit, the sunken cost fallacy, or social norms (or all three), we’re not encouraged to take a step back and truly consider a marriage once the ring is on. Instead, the focus is solely on the “big day”, the “happiest day of your life,” and with few resources out there saying “if you think you need to pump the brakes on this thing, I support you.”

The resources to help me end my engagement were not nearly as ubiquitous as the resources available to help me plan my wedding. I felt alone, and that loneliness was exacerbated by the constant barrage of wedding-themed media and advertising bombarding me daily. Some of this was of my own design; it was up to me to unsubscribe from countless wedding blogs and annoying emails from TheKnot (“Only 203 days left to book your florist!”). But with targeted and promoted ads on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, no one’s safe. Despite showing no interest in matrimony, the targeted Facebook ads on my 32nd birthday were an assault of platinum, conflict-free engagement rings. Facebook must have realized I wasn’t biting, because a couple days later my ads encouraged me to support euthanasia and “death with dignity,” so I suppose Facebook assumed that the birthday engagement ship had sailed. That it even showed up in the first place, when my boyfriend received none of that on his 32nd, is both a revelation of the industry’s overall message and a depressing commentary on gendered advertising.

With marriage equality now the law in all fifty states, I wonder what the wedding industry is going to become in the next few years. Will the marketing become less gendered (engagement rings for all!), or perhaps more siloed across sexual orientation lines (engagement rings for some, miniature American flags for others)? Will Facebook ads start targeting more men for marriage? It will be interesting to see. In the meantime, I’m enjoying my current Facebook ads promoting the Olive Garden food truck. They may not be as shiny, but they are far less anxiety-inducing.

This story is part of our Wedding Season series.

Danielle Witt lives, works, and agonizes over the cost of things in Washington, D.C., and tweets at @uncorkeddc