Did the pandemic kill the big wedding?

After a year of freedom from expensive weddings, many guests are now saying “no”.

ByAngela Lashbrook

Rachel Brenner, a graduate student in New York, is anxiously facing a deluge of fall weddings, bachelorette parties, and other wedding-related activities. “I’ve been hesitating to RSVP to any of them,” she says. The expense will be significant, she says, and she’s uncomfortable traveling right now because, well, we’re still in a pandemic.

There’s no doubt about it: After a year of postponed and cancelled nuptials, this autumn has seen a wave of weddings as people scramble to book dates before the next potential round of quarantine (I had one friend tell me that she had two weddings to attend on September 11, the only date left for multiple “last-minute” bookings this year).

But as people confront the growing stack of invitations pushed through mail slots or popping up in email accounts, many of them are re-evaluating whether or not they even want to participate. The luster of an open bar and dancing to grandma-friendly hip hop with a newlywed friend appears to be wearing off. What’s left is a pandemic-fueled, all-encompassing wedding hesitancy that’s swept up even the most enthusiastic.

Wedding hosts, too, are jumping in on the trend, as the pandemic trends of “minimonies” and elopements shows no sign of abating into 2022. “I don’t really have an interest in going to every single wedding or feel like I need to explain that to people,” says Suzanne Zuppello, a writer based in New York. “I think COVID solidified it and probably took away any guilt I may have felt previously.”

Almost half of 2020 weddings were rescheduled for 2021, according to The Knot, the online authority in all things weddings. And while there’s certainly a strong contingent of brides and grooms who are going all out on their upcoming nuptials with huge guest lists and astronomical budgets, plenty of couples are sticking with the 2020 trend of the smaller, more intimate wedding.

During the worst of the pandemic, those who decided not to postpone were, of course, limited in how they could (safely) go about hosting their wedding. Elopements and “minimonies” surged in popularity, with over half of couples opting for small ceremonies over postponing, according to a survey conducted by the Knot and Wedding Wire.

“We are seeing a huge shift to more intimate weddings of 80 and under,” says Kimberly Morrill, owner of the Portland, Oregon-based wedding planning company Your Perfect Bridesmaid. “As more and more couples experience intimate weddings, and their benefits, through their friends and family, I think more and more will choose to go this route in the future.”

Could the pandemic have birthed a more austere wedding culture? Smaller nuptial celebrations, which typically have fewer than 50 guests, take some weight off brides and grooms, who don’t have to work to accommodate as many varying tastes and preferences; it also gives them the option to spend less altogether, or spend more on elevating the experience for a smaller group of people. “By limiting their guest count, couples are able to stretch their budget further. They are essentially choosing quality over quantity,” says Morrill. “They aren't spending less — it’s more a matter of their dollars going further.”

Smaller weddings aren’t only beneficial to the two people getting married. It also decreases the chances that people are being invited who don’t feel close to the couple, but who nevertheless feel pressure to attend — a significant issue for young people in particular, who don’t have excess funds to spend on events they want to go to, let alone those they don’t.

A 2018 survey from the financial services company Credit Karma found that nearly 40% of American millennials have gone into debt to please their friends. Twenty-seven percent of survey respondents report discomfort saying “no” to participating in activities with friends, even if they can’t afford it; this includes weddings and related activities like bachelor and bachelorette parties. Further Credit Karma research has found that nearly 20% of Americans have gone into debt to attend a wedding: 35% of millennials, specifically, have overspent on attending bachelor and bachelorette parties, and 30% of them have struggled to afford to attend the weddings themselves.

Jeffrey Hamilton/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Considering the egregious cost these parties often impose, this hardly comes as a surprise. It costs, on average, $430 to attend a wedding in the United States, according to The Knot, and among those who had to fly, that number balloons to $1,440.

Brenner, the graduate student, says cost is a central reason why she’s nervous about attending weddings this year. “I was glad that we cancelled the bachelorette earlier this summer for the wedding I was in, since I didn’t want to swing the cost of being in the wedding with any more expenses,” she says. Coupled with her concerns about safely traveling to and attending wedding-related events, this upcoming wedding season is much more stressful than in the past, and she isn’t sure if she’ll attend all of them. “I feel super guilty about it,” she says.

“I am currently in the midst of a six-week period that will include four weddings, none of which are in NYC where I live,” says Meg, a writer who requested that only her first name be used so she doesn’t hurt her friend’s feelings. But she feels uneasy about it, especially given that a wedding now comes with significant health questions. “At times, that made it hard to agree with my friends’ choices to plan big weddings this year — it felt hard to agree that something that struck me as unnecessary even in normal times could be worth people taking health risks for now.”

It’s hard to create boundaries around not participating in what someone else anticipates as the best day of their lives.

Let’s not forget that weddings were infamous super spreader events in 2020, such as one Long Island, New York wedding that infected at least 34 of its 100-plus guests. And though vaccines have made weddings much safer, breakthrough cases and another uncertain COVID winter mean many people aren’t attending weddings as confidently as they did pre-pandemic.

It’s hard to create boundaries around not participating in what someone else anticipates as the best day of their lives. There’s a lot of misunderstanding, guilt, and anger that can fester around someone’s impending nuptials; any regular reader of Reddit’s popular subreddit r/relationships will be familiar with the many ways that resentment can build around weddings. But attending a wedding you don’t particularly want to go to means you’re wasting your own money and the hosts’, while declining one wedding invite a year could result in $58 billion in collective savings, according to Credit Karma and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some wedding hosts are working to make weddings easier and cheaper for their guests to attend by having a series of small, dispersed events instead of one big ceremony that people have to travel great distances to get to. “We definitely expect to see smaller, more intimate ceremonies stick around even after the pandemic, especially since we’ve seen a lot of couples really fall in love with the idea of having multiple celebrations,” says Melissa Trentadue, manager of community at the wedding planning website Zola. “In general, couples now seem to be more intentional and focused on where they’re finding meaning and value in their ceremonies, including by choosing a smaller guest list.”

“There's a lot of pressure on people to turn one day into something bigger,” says Rebecca Smith, an editor based in New York. But she’s happy that things are changing in her social circle, and that many couples who are hosting weddings in the coming year are going the dispersed-event route. “What I'm excited about is it seems less like people are trying to have a huge mess of a wedding and be in some competition of who could have the fanciest wedding.”

Wedding grandeur, and the often heteronormative traditions weddings reinforce, are getting called into question, as well. As painful as the pandemic has been, some folks are grateful that it’s forced many wedding hosts and guests to question just how much we actually need to blow tens of thousands of dollars on a single day — particularly one that typically reinforces patriarchal paradigms. “I think in some respects the pandemic confirmed what I already felt about weddings — I already knew that I didn’t want to have a big wedding and that certain aspects of wedding planning seemed kind of unquestioned and overly elaborate,” says Meg. “The pandemic confirmed this didn’t feel that necessary to me.”

Some people are looking at weddings from the opposite angle: they regret not going to more of their loved ones’ weddings when they could. Danny Groner, a director of publicity in New York, says the pandemic has actually caused him to value weddings more than in the past. Prior to 2020, he says, he often avoided weddings; part of this was financial anxiety, and part of it was a resistance to what he felt was “the good times ending” with his friends.

But he regrets not going to more weddings now that most of his friends are comfortably married off. “Only once I got married at 35, and experienced that myself, did I realize just how important that day is,” he says. “I spent the first hour or two of my wedding essentially crying unexpectedly, because every time I glanced at the door, another person from my past or present walked in. And that's really the only time of your life where everybody shows up for you.”

The pandemic forced almost every corner of society to bend and change in difficult ways. Weddings, which for many people are one of the most beautiful days of their lives, are one example of how many of us have been compelled to change our perspective and realize that the status quo — in this case, the wedding industrial complex — isn’t working. But this isn’t to render weddings themselves unnecessary, nor are people boycotting all weddings in protest. Rather, people took the painful past year to re-evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Declining to attend fifteen second-cousins’ weddings a year may be one significant way people can reduce their stress, save money, and build up excitement for their best friend’s wedding, instead.