Degree In Sight

The average cost for a wedding today tops $27,000 according to the American Wedding Study 2006, conducted by the Conde Nast Bridal Group--more than half of a median family's annual income. That proportion has stayed steady since the 1950s, says Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage" (Viking Press, 2005) but increasingly, as more couples pay for their nuptials themselves, people are going into debt to fund their big day.

Sociologist Chrys Ingraham, PhD, author of "White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture" (Routledge, 1999, 2008) blames the "fetishization" of weddings on a belief system that relies on romantic gender norms to create and maintain the illusion that all is well in life. She says that women are socially conditioned to believe in the big white wedding dream from an early age thanks to wedding dolls and fairy tales ending with the princess in a white dress next to her handsome prince.

"'And they lived happily every after' has become part of the culture, part of religion, part of family ideology," says Ingraham. "It's so linked in to some essential pieces of culture that we end up going for it because of our romance with the idea of it."

People may be willing to overspend on weddings because of their symbolic and cultural importance, says David Stewart, PhD, a consumer psychologist and dean of the Anderson Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Riverside.

"Society sort of tells you that you're entitled to have this [day] and that it's okay to put aside your rational self when you're planning a wedding, because it's all about emotion and love," adds Cele Otnes, PhD, a business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But beyond this society-sanctioned spending on love, wedding spending may be boosted by couples who are looking for ways to mark their nuptials as distinct, to somehow "divorce-proof" their marriage, Coontz says.

"There seems to be this desperate misplaced hope that if you can do something unique with your wedding, you'll sidestep a lot of these new issues and make your marriage last," Coontz says.