Wedding Manifesto v1.2

Apologies for having been quite quiet for the past while. Much of it had to do with planning a wedding and getting life back to “normal” afterwards. As I reflected on that experience, I decided to write up some advice for people planning weddings or helping people that are. Crossposted at DiD. Since this is a manifesto in progress, your thoughts on topics for inclusion, changes, etc are all very much welcomed. Sorry for the technical mishap and resulting problems with readability in an earlier draft.

Wedding Manifesto

As we planned our wedding we came under pressure to spend obscene amounts of money on a variety of silly things–I suspect this is the American way. The pressure was real, came from many places, and thankfully was almost entirely resisted. If it can happen to us–it can happen to you! I’ll outline some of the things we did and why, including resources. My approach to weddings is that it’s critical to save your budget for things that will make your wedding match your goals. Since the budget is limited, spending on things you care about will necessitate ruthlessly cutting things you don’t. I’ll talk more about this throughout. My experience with wedding is a bit limited (though I’ve been to 30 or so I’ve only planned one).

What’s the Point?

When you organize a political event, start a new project, or decide how to manage an initiative, you probably start by thinking about what you want to accomplish. What are your goals? A wedding, for all its differences is still an event and you should start by clarifying your goals. Would you like friends from different parts of your lives to get to know each-other? Your families to acquaint? The friends and family assembled to understand more the nature of your commitment to each other? Give people a sense of how your life works?

What do you view as important? Classiness? Environmental simplicity? Your ethnic heritage? Labor rights? Silliness? Fashion?

Think about your goals before you think about the details. Most do it the other way around and that often leads to spending lots of money on things that don’t meet your goals. If you have it in your budget, spend lavishly on things which facilitate your goals and be relentlessly thrifty on things which don’t. At the end of the day you will be married. You need to figure out what else you want to happen.

The Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC)

There is an entire industry devoted to profiting from your joy. Profiting from your joy isn’t necessarily bad–you are joyful and businesses exist to profit so sometimes it can work out. The big problem occurs when they manipulate you to increase their profits. The easiest way to avoid such manipulation is to avoid conventional wedding professionals. Some are terrific but many aren’t. Typically they have spent years learning their trade and are better at getting you to spend a lot than you are at resisting their charms. They have a lot more practice (several hundred weddings) than you do (this is probably your first, possibly second, certainly not 253rd).

From the photographer who wants you to spend an extra $1000 for some fancy doodad that will “help you remember this day forever” to the wedding dress boutique salesperson who is paid on commission and says “don’t you think you look a bit sexier in the other dress” rather than “is the other dress really worth $2000 more, they are quite similar”, you should know that they are very clever and have had lots of practice. The WIC uses gender assumptions against you, they use self-consciousness to profit, and build up expectations to unreasonable levels. Don’t do business with people who make you nervous, seem manipulative (even if it’s just a bit), or are not on board with your ideas.

Books

As my partner says:

“Don’t read too many wedding books or websites. they’re bad for your health, seriously, they warp your wedding planning from being about what you and your partner want to being about what they want you to want. It’s a mess.”

Most wedding books are part of the broader wedding industrial complex. Books which build up the idea that you are trying to achieve your perfect day should be discarded. Books that make your feel stressed or inadequate are bad for the soul. Books that don’t focus on how your wedding can reflect who you can slowly move you towards someone else’s vision.

Two books we liked (I’d like to add some non-Jewishly-specific books, please recommend):

The New Jewish Wedding
The Creative Jewish Wedding Book: A Hands-on Guide to New & Old Traditions, Ceremonies & Celebrations

Our friend WB writes:

The best non-Jewish wedding book I know is Miss Manners On Weddings. Despite what some people might assume about Miss Manners, the book is subversively anti-WIC, It’s very good about discouraging versions of the “everybody tells us our wedding has to have outrageously-expensive thing XX” line of thinking.


Invitations

If you are snail mail oriented you might send out save-the-date cards and invitations. To us, that seemed a little bit silly since most people in our generation do better with e-mail. Turns out doing it with PaperlessPost costs about $0.05 per invitation. Much cheaper than the $0.44 stamp and the printing/envelope that can be a couple bucks. Send out 150, do both save-the-dates and invitations and you can be looking at about $500. For us it wasn’t worth it.

Paperless Post

WB again:

We used paper for two main reasons. 1, we really enjoy stationery and paper goods, so our invitations were a chance for us to share our love of paper goods with our guests. 2, we had a number of guests from a significantly older generation, and we worried that they would find paperless invitations and save the dates confusing, disorienting, and alienating; in order to make them feel more welcome, we used traditional paper for everybody.

They really enjoyed the aesthetics of the invitation. Given the amount of utility they derived from this, it sounds like they made a great decision. We sent paper invitations to older folks who we thought wouldn’t understand our normal approach. In our case, that ended up being about a dozen people.

Registries

For us, it was hard to balance focusing on getting married with a lot of people being excited to note the occasion with gifts. On the one hand, it seemed like it’d be cool if everyone just gave to a charity and came to celebrate but on the other hand it was great to get lots of stuff that makes it easier to cook, serve, and host, since those are all things we like to do. Lastly, it was hard to balance being happy to receive things which will enrich our life with not wanting to be nor appear to be (or be) materialistic. Lastly, we have heard a lot of feedback that we should have a wedding registry. One guest said, “look I am getting you a present, you can either tell me what you want/what kind of thing you want, or I can decide. Put up a registry since I am going through a crystal vase phase.”

Typically people go to one or more retail establishments and go around with a scan gun, laser-beeping things on to their registry. For their part, the stores usually encourage people to register for many more presents than they have guests. Sometimes stores encourage more registry items then invited guests. As a result, these registries end up having lots of items. If the registry has too many items (as it often ends up having) then there will be some unbought items remaining. This sometimes leads people to feel sad when they didn’t receive something that a few weeks earlier they had never heard of, let alone need. It’s a very good way to get couples to demand more stuff than they intended. It’s so much fun to go around and scan things–a sort of twist on on the 1980s hit, supermarket sweep. I think zapping is fun, if you do as well, go to a laser-tag place (do they still have those?).

We initially tried to avoid having a registry all together but after much feedback from family and older friends we built one. Our goals were:

  • to be very clear that we don’t expect gifts and that the main thing is that folks should come celebrate with us
  • to have items in many price ranges
  • to avoid an array of choices which would overwhelm folks (see Schwartz)
  • to help people understand why we were excited about the things on the list
  • to help people coordinate so that we wouldn’t get multiple identical gifts
  • We ended up using alternative gift registry and borrowing artful language from our friends JN and EM. In addition to gifts, we listed some organizations that we would be honored to have folks support with us in mind. On the gifts front, we vaguely prioritized our list and tried to have roughly two items under $50, two between $50 and $100 and two over $100 most of the time. When someone bought something (more specifically, indicated that they would), we deleted that item and added the next one on our list. This was a bit confusing for some guests but was generally well received. AGR gives a place for text where we described a bit about why we put an item on the list. If we had something specific in mind we posted a link (victorinox makes reasonably priced chef’s knives that outperform ones 4 times the price). When we didn’t know much about the subject we said so: “Composter–We’d like one that turns food scraps into dirt.” For the most part this system worked for us.

    Alternative Gift Registry
    Our text (thanks JN/EM!)

    Families

    If they are helping you fund the wedding, it is important to have a sense from your parents about how they think the money will work. Some of my friends have split it evenly 3 ways (couple, one side’s parents, the other side’s), others have picked it up entirely themselves. In some cases the bride’s parents have picked the whole thing up (traditional American approach), and in some cases the parent’s split it down the middle. It’s helpful to have a clear idea from the outset so you can start to have a vague idea of the budget. They can pay for things directly or fund an account that you write checks from (the way we did it).

    Exercise: Set up a meeting where all parents and partners can be present. Say something roughly like: “we will take two minutes so we can all visualize a specific moment in the wedding that we are excited about. We’ll then go around and share our moment, what it sounds like, looks like and feels like. Remember this is a snapshot not a discussion of broader themes.” In our case, one parent talked about the ceremony, another the band, and a third the food. We had worried that they’d have strongly differing views but actually, this helped us see that they were focused on different pieces and prioritized differently. It was a huge relief.

    Getting to Know You/Rehearsal Dinners

    It is important to help people get to know you better as individuals and as a couple. Many friends of your parents, family members, etc won’t know you as adults nor your partner at all. Part of the task of a wedding experience (especially any pre/post events) is to help people learn about who you guys are. For instance, rather than a rehearsal dinner, we did an open mic where we served dessert, wine and beer while people played music, toasted us, roasted us, and through the process introduced us to the people who didn’t know us well from the other side. It was a lot of fun, and fulfilled a goal (help people get to know each other, and us) rather than us trying to fit our goals into the normal way of doing things (an expensive rehearsal dinner).

    The Wedding

    With regard to the actual wedding itself, we tried to focus on what things would tangibly help people enjoy the experience and build community. Cut flowers are expensive, bad for the environment, and usually are produced under bad labor conditions. Since we don’t think they mattered, we just didn’t have any (if cut flowers are important to you, cut somewhere else, and go all out on flowers).

    Bridesmaids/Groomsmen

    We elected not to have them and it turned out well for us. Our friend Will remarked that he and his wife didn’t need any more divisions and public prioritizations among their friends. We primarily thought that causing people to buy dresses they wouldn’t want to wear again was silly. Still, it is important to many people to have wedding parties, if you do this, think back to when you have been on the other end, what would have made your experience better? What did you resent?

    Who is the Wedding About?

    It’s entirely about you and your partner! Nope! Lots of folks will say that the wedding is all about you–normally to sell you something designed to enhance your appearance. Really, the wedding is about your relationship with your partner and your collective relationship with family and friends. If it was all about you, you’d be better off taking the money and going on a very long cruise or something similarly lavish.

    This day, is very important for most people at the wedding. Brides and grooms must resist the pressure to focus exclusively on themselves. Weddings can be hard for single friends or coupled friends who aren’t ready to marry. Weddings can be challenging for people whose relationships are not recognized as readily in society, especially if your relationship is. Be aware of how others may be thinking and feeling–it will mean a lot to them, and ultimately to you.

    Food

    Since most catering isn’t amazing, it seemed silly to spend $100 per person when we could do fine for $20. Our experience is that catered food is rarely delicious for the price. We focused on a cuisine with a tradition of delicious buffet dining and figured that it would be good rather than amazing. Since we didn’t feel strongly that there ought to be meat or fish, we served vegetarian Indian food (and some bland food for those who didn’t like Indian). This cost about 1/3 to a 1/6 of what normal catering would have cost–this freed up budget for other things. The vegetarian-ness also made the food lighter which led to more dancing. I suggest you speak with restaurants you like a lot and see if they’d cater and for what price. Not only will it be more delicious and cheaper than most other options, it’ll also give people insight into your life. For some folks, food is the signature piece of the wedding. If this is you, it’s reasonable to spend like it. If it isn’t, you don’t need to break the bank.

    Delegating

    We had an amazing experience with delegating. Everyone we asked to do anything at our wedding exceeded expectation and did a breathe-taking job. From the Carinne and Seth who who MCed the open mic and organized a band of mostly ex-housemates to Beth who put together a team to make all the desserts to Jon who wrote a 4-part arrangement and trained a group to sing it while we processed to Kavitha who ran point all day–literally everyone nailed it. We considered which skills each of our friends had (cooking, likes to be charming/funny in front of large groups, creating intense emotional space, juggling, singing, connecting people etc) and thought of things to ask of them. This helped our wedding feel like our wedding and our parents/parent’s friends/relatives got to see why we love our friends so much. Highly recommend!

    Takeaway

    At the end of the day you’ll be married. The rest is just details.

    In a future edition:
    How do you get reluctant stakeholders (parents) on board with this plan?

    13 Responses to “Wedding Manifesto v1.2”

    1. Good for you. Spend as much as needed on a wedding – but no more.


      Jew Guevara · December 17th, 2010 at 12:00 am
    2. I’d like to share some thoughts…
      I married my husband last March.
      I think the best piece of advice I received, and then put to good use (to wonderful ends) was to be a gracious host. So many people came from far away to be with us. It was our job to give them a good time, make them comfortable, and visit with them.
      I spent most of the reception going table to table, checking in, and connecting with people. It really made an impact – we were flooded with compliments on how wonderful our wedding was. We didn’t go all out on decor or food (a simple, but very delicious vegan buffet dinner and vegan cake, which was inexpensive but loved – people ate up every scrap!) and splurged on entertainment (a band that played music, not too loudly, that anyone could dance to, and a photobooth, which was the hit of the party).

      But I digress. Keeping in mind your guests is the most important thing. You don’t have to impress them with a spectacle. Good manners, gracious hosting, enough food, and some wine to grease the wheels.

      Best night of my life.


      ariel · December 18th, 2010 at 2:26 pm
    3. Didn’t BZ already do a post on the Wedding Industrial Complex? I heard it pretty much killed the Egyptian economy.


      B.BarNavi · December 18th, 2010 at 9:38 pm
    4. That was in the title (by request), but that’s not what the post was really about.


      BZ · December 19th, 2010 at 11:33 am
    5. ZT-
      Great post! However, having been at your wedding, I disagree with your characterization of the Indian buffet as not amazing.


      BZ · December 19th, 2010 at 11:36 am
    6. Following a rabbinic campaign started by (at the time board member, and now our own Jewschooler) Rabbi Alana Suskin and Rabbi Josh Ginsberg, JUFJ in Washington, D.C. created a document called Green and Just celebrations which offered tons of tips on how to run a wedding (or any other simkha) which took into account many Jewish values including treatment of workers, hunger, kashrut (as defined by whatever community one lives in) ecological considerations and tons of other things, including conspicuous consumption.

      The original rabbinic campaign document can be found here
      (Although the campaign website sign-on is now defunct).
      And the Green and Just celebrations doc can be downloaded from here


      KRG · December 20th, 2010 at 8:45 am
    7. @ariel. Agreed. I’ll add something like that to the next edition. Gracious hosting is related to the “it’s not all about the bride/groom” principle.

      @BZ. That’s very kind.

      @KRG. Their is a long and proud history of Rabbinic opposition to largess creep in simchas. Most famous, were medieval rabbinic sumptuary laws. Perhaps they should be revived.


      zt · December 20th, 2010 at 12:18 pm
    8. As for gracious hosting vs goals, we eventually starting repeating the mantra that it’s the family’s wedding and our marriage. We decided to focus on the aspects of the wedding that we cared about (ceremony details & music/space for dancing) and let family with stronger opinions deal with the rest. I’m not sure it works in all situations, but it greatly helped us maintain some sanity.

      As for cost and the wedding-industrial complex, we discovered that the biggest compromise was regarding our time. Many of the things you list above are time-sinks and putting these forward as an ideal is also part of the WIC.

      Our wedding going to take place 3000 miles away from where we lived and 6 months after our engagement. We valued not spending the entirety of those 6 months planning. Every thing we did that wasn’t standard would cost us time. A synagogue-based wedding hall wasn’t cheap, but we barely had to think about logistics and food. We said no to every optional add-on (What will your grandkids think if you don’t have a videographer?) and we might have been the first couple to ever request one of each for our color pattern. There are things we would have done differently with more time, but time had real value to us.

      The main thing we probably would have done differently with hindsite was photography. It didn’t occur to us that a standard photographer would try to photograph how your wedding is supposed to me and not what was actually happening (i.e. leave dancing now so I can get this vital posed picture). If it wasn’t for our wonderful, stubborn rabbi, things would have been worse.

      One nice memory was telling the synagogue caterer that we wanted to bensch. She tried to talk us out of it saying it never works since everyone tries to say goodbye and interrupts the bride & groom during bensching. Our rabbi suggested bensching before dessert because no one leaves before the cake cutting and people can say brachot privately for dessert (we didn’t have a choice in whether there would be a cake). It worked perfectly and the caterer came up to us afterward in amazement. We wondered how many couples she has talked out of bensching in her 20+ years in the business.


      Dan · December 20th, 2010 at 3:42 pm
    9. Dan writes:
      It didn’t occur to us that a standard photographer would try to photograph how your wedding is supposed to me and not what was actually happening (i.e. leave dancing now so I can get this vital posed picture).

      The worst is the photographers who muscle their way into the circle dancing to get dancing shots, and thereby kill the circle.


      BZ · December 20th, 2010 at 8:46 pm
    10. In strong competition for “the worst” are the photographers who stand in front of the ceremony and block attendees from seeing anything. Bonus points if the photographer interrupts the ceremony to adjust where people are standing for the perfect shot (Thankfully not at our wedding solely due to our officiating rabbi)


      Dan · December 21st, 2010 at 11:43 am
    11. Best advice re: being a gracious host that I received was from my now-husband. I was freaking out over something, and he told me to relax. Clearly we would be happy that day because we were freaking getting married to each other, regardless of little details. And that our job was to elevate everyone else to our level of simcha. It really resonated with me, and I spent a whole lot less time fretting over the wedding plans after that.

      The best decisions we made included:

      - Putting my feeling-left-out dad in charge of schtick. It meant a lot to him and he did a fabulous job. There were funny hats, false mustaches, morracas, and Chinese wedding lions. And a rendition of Sunrise, Sunset with props. Oh, it was amazing.

      - Getting a wedding photographer who has a day job as a theater photographer. He had great instincts for drama and knew that the experience of those attending the wedding was more important that the photographs. And he sent us all 1350 negatives, many of which we won’t print, but were great to see nonetheless.

      - Having a post-wedding activity planned. It kept people hanging out and dancing till the very end, and then let us leave quickly when things died down.

      - Getting a DJ who was familiar with traditional Jewish weddings. This was so important. We had a 45 minutes hora, which probably couldn’t have been sustained with your typical DJ. And we wanted a DJ so that our favorite secular songs could be played flawlessly. It was great.

      One thing we would have done differently, if we hadn’t gotten embroiled in schul politics, was get a different rabbi or no rabbi as our mesader kiddushin. We didn’t need a rabbi, since we got married according to US law a week an a half beforehand. We had a rabbi who didn’t listen and work with us when we said we wanted a wedding that matched with our egalitarian values, but also followed the framework of halacha. We ended up with a compromise that no one was very happy with, and I’m still somewhat bitter about. I felt that my halachic agency was taken from me in order to keep up appearances, which was infuriating at the time and still chafes now.


      Shoshie · December 22nd, 2010 at 7:09 pm
    12. You are right on. We had a modest wedding 19 years ago and it felt just right. We invested in the things that would make it a great occasion (great band, minimal flowers, good food) and skipped the extras. Last May we had a similarly low-key celebration for my son’s bar mitzvah. We ordered printed invitations from tinyprints.com. They did a great job for about $1.10 each, instead of the $5 and up many of our friends paid from invitation companies.


      Susanne · December 22nd, 2010 at 7:45 pm
    13. One more thing regarding invitations. We discovered that we could buy a brand new color printer and high quality invitation paper for less than the cost of sending out the many wedding invitations. In my biased opinion, they looked quite reasonable and we got good use of the printer for several more years.


      Dan · December 22nd, 2010 at 11:29 pm

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    "I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik