My Turn: Love on a Shoestring: Our $150 Wedding

You might call me a minimalist, or just plain cheap, but when I set out to plan my recent wedding I didn't want anything elaborate. My husband-to-be, Richard, agreed, although he did harbor a wish for a Vegas drive-through wedding with an Elvis impersonator as our witness.

We both love nature and simplicity, so we could have driven 65 miles south to Colorado and married, just the two of us, in the mountains, with a license that said parties to the marriage in the space provided for the wedding officiant. No minister, no witnesses necessary. If we'd done that, we could have had a $50 wedding. But we wanted, as Richard said, "someone there to say a few inspiring words." So we decided to splurge.

Splurging, of course, is relative. The average U.S. wedding now costs more than $27,000. Granted, I have been out of school for a while, but $27,000 is more than I spent on my entire college education, including two graduate degrees.

How has a nearly $30,000 price tag become acceptable for a one-day event? It seems to me the money could be far better spent for a down payment on a house, a few years' tuition at a state university or a spiffy new hybrid with some left over for gas.

To place it in a larger context, what might $30,000 mean to a school or medical clinic on the Wind River Indian Reservation or in the Mississippi Delta? What would it mean to a family living in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans?

Multiplying the average wedding's cost by the nearly 2.3 million weddings estimated to occur in the United States this year means that Americans will spend about $64 billion on weddings. Compare this figure with the gross domestic product of Lithuania ($49 billion), Nepal ($40 billion), Luxembourg ($31 billion) or Iceland ($11 billion).

In the late '70s I lived in Appalachia, where I learned of an old custom. Guests used to bring thin layers of molasses cake to a wedding. The bride's mother or aunts stacked the layers upon one another, cementing them with apple butter or jam. You could tell how popular a couple was by the height of their "stack cake." When I lived there the stack-cake custom had gone the way of the local version of a shivaree, when neighbors would collect the bride and groom on their wedding night and run them down the railroad tracks in a wheelbarrow. But the uncomplicated Appalachian weddings I witnessed—simple ceremonies in a country church with cake and mints in the basement after—are just as memorable to me as splashier weddings I've attended since then.

We know other couples who, like us, have married out of the mainstream. One couple married on horseback in the backcountry near Grand Teton National Park, one by a mountain lake near Laramie. Another had a quick living-room wedding after Christmas to accommodate visiting relatives. The rise of "Internet ministers" has made this type of wedding more common. Three acquaintances of ours have availed themselves of an online ordination process that authorizes them to perform legal marriages.

While nearly $30,000 may buy more glitz, it can't buy more joy or romance. Our own wedding in the woods was intimate, dreamy and definitely one-of-a-kind. We snow shoed a short distance into the trees and found a pine alcove for our chapel. Our Unitarian-Universalist minister read some inspirational passages we had chosen, we exchanged our own vows and we kissed. Two friends photographed the ceremony with a digital camera and surprised us by popping open a bottle of champagne they'd carried into the woods in a backpack. Throughout the ceremony, light from the sun and clouds patterned through snow-laden trees. The usual Wyoming wind was absent.

Afterward we enjoyed a simple dinner at a cozy café, complete with wood stove, in Centennial, a town of 100 at the base of the Snowy Range. A few weeks later, we ordered a special cake from a bakery and e-mailed an open invitation to our friends for a potluck dinner, minus gifts. We have a marriage certificate and an online photo album to share with family and friends. The final rundown: Marriage license: $25. Dinner for five: $60. Minister's snowshoe rental: $15. Flowers: $25. Champagne: $10. Cake: $15. Online photo album: free. Total: $150.

We even had a flower dog.

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