Are Millennials Abandoning the Traditional White Wedding?

Boston’s millennials and their parents are increasingly opting out of the traditional $40,000 white wedding in favor of eloping.

Photo by Comrade

In the blissful afterglow of getting engaged last year, my fiancée and I glibly made a decision that would shape our nights, weekends, and lunch breaks for the next 15-odd months: We decided to have a wedding. At the time, it seemed obvious—at least to me—that this was the thing to do. We’re not traditionalists, we don’t really like being the center of attention, and we really hate spending money, yet when my bride-to-be floated the idea that, well, maybe we should just skip down to City Hall, or haul a few coolers of beer to a park for an improvised commitment ceremony and a picnic, I balked.

This was a surprise to both of us, mostly because I’ve never really cared about weddings, or even liked them much. I’ve been to some great ones, sure, but the stuff around the wedding—the impulse for pomp and frilliness and buying suits you’ll never wear again, not to mention the artifice of first dances and cake cutting—has always left me cold. Yet faced with the idea of doing, well, nothing, I found myself in shock. “It’s a party! We throw great parties,” I said. (Not to brag, but we do.) “This will just be a party. We can skip all the stupid stuff.” I knew we’d have to deal with annoying traditions and expectations, but for us, it felt like the right thing.

The funny thing was, almost as soon as we started planning our wedding, I began to notice a trend: More and more members of our generation (yes, we’re millennials, nice to meet you) are saying to hell with the traditional white wedding. They’re looking at the six-layer cakes, enormous tents, 200-person guest lists, and home down-payment-size tabs and saying, no thanks. Instead, they’re eloping. They’re taking the T to City Hall, flying to Vegas, trekking to Yosemite to get hitched at sunrise, taking opulent trips to Paris, and tying the knot in 15 minutes flat. “For Millennials, Eloping Is the New Lavish Wedding,” swooned Glamour last year, while the sagacious New York Times recommended, “Want a Fabulous Wedding? Consider Eloping.” Wedding planners and bridal magazines only confirm that the trend is gaining steam.

Why is this happening? Well, for a host of reasons. The average wedding in Boston, you may have heard, runs just north of $40,000. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, where you’ll find all manner of quaint, bucolic settings, you can toss on another $15,000, easy. For a real humdinger, learn to love that sixth figure. And don’t forget, weddings are no longer just the wedding: They’re a long weekend of events, rehearsal dinners, scavenger hunts, after-parties, secret smaller after-after parties, and, finally, Sunday brunch. Planning all of that yourself—the alternative to shelling out a month’s salary (or two or three) for a professional planner—means you’re basically taking on a second job. Oh, and you’re definitely going to have strong feelings about napkins, which is both a cliché and an inescapable reality.

It’s not just the money or the time, though. Many couples nowadays have been living together for years and don’t feel that a big to-do is really necessary. Some just look at the three-ring circus that weddings have become and feel that all the hoopla doesn’t add up to something as authentic (our favorite word) as they want for something as significant as getting married.

As my fiancée and I were hunkered down in front of our laptops sorting spreadsheets and weighing quotes and performing the ugly calculus of who gets invited and who doesn’t, I looked across the chasm of possibility and wondered: Should we have bucked the trend and followed that first impulse to forget about the wedding and skip right to the marriage—the part we really were excited about? In the throes of late-stage planning, the simplicity of it seemed like bliss. Jesus, I thought, did we make a huge mistake? I decided to find out.

It’s worth explaining, before we go too far, that elopement these days doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to. By that I mean, if you’re envisioning two lovestruck kids bucking their disapproving parents and secreting away to the Chapel of the Bells in Las Vegas, you’re using old information.

So, what does it mean? According to the cheeky descriptivists at Merriam-Webster, which saw the corruption of the term worthy of a short essay, “[e]lope appears to have become shorthand for ‘small destination wedding,’ ‘wedding that is not financially insane,’ or ‘wedding that allows us to not invite all the people we would rather not invite.’” In other words, we’re playing fast and loose with the meaning these days, using it for just about anything that falls under “small, non-traditional wedding.” Sure, some people still skip town under cover of darkness and surprise everyone later, but others plan their elopement meticulously in full view of friends and family.

Clark and Andrew Crowley-Bunyard, for instance, gave their nearest and dearest a heads-up when they decided that they didn’t want a wedding. They’d been dating for two and a half years and living together for more than one when they decided in early 2016 that they wanted to wed. “I think it was really clear for both of us that we didn’t want what is kind of in fashion right now: three days, rehearsal dinner, all day Saturday, big ceremony, big reception, Sunday brunch,” Clark says. They’d watched friends go through the crucible of planning those kinds of weddings and were talking about something simpler—a cocktail party, or maybe a brunch. Even so, they soon realized, they’d have to break their rules for keeping things modest almost as quickly as they had made them.

Then, one night when he was away on business, Andrew sent Clark a text suggesting that they should just get married during a trip to Paris that was already in the works—and that was it. “I was, like, kind of kidding,” Andrew says. In no time, though, the couple hired a wedding planner and a photographer, and rented a vintage pale-green Citroën to zip around the city in. They tied the knot at a small hotel, where a champagne-filled ceremony took less time than a drunken groomsman’s speech. Then they spent the rest of the day eating, drinking, and sightseeing, which kicked off a decadent weeklong vacation in the city of love. The whole thing cost about $10,000, they told me—a hefty sum for a vacation but a fraction of what they would have spent on a full-blown wedding. And when they got home, their friends and families threw them not one but three parties to celebrate. (Also see: Having your cake and eating it, too.)

While friends were understandably jealous of the couple’s trip, many were equally envious of the price tag. “It was salt in the wound,” Clark says. “As a generation, it’s become near impossible for us [millennials] to buy a home—everybody has astronomical student debt.” So when it came to throwing a huge event, “it didn’t make sense to me to have that be the thing where we put our money, energy, and time.”

Cost turned out to be a significant factor for a lot of the couples I spoke with. Bostonians Linaris Falcon and her husband, Josue, decided in the winter of 2013 that they wanted to get married that fall—only they didn’t tell anyone. They considered a traditional wedding but decided instead to take a trip out west and get married on the road. “Money was the biggest thing,” Linaris says. She watched her friends throw $20,000 and $30,000 weddings and rush through the whole affair, saying hi to everyone for no more than a moment before getting pulled away for pictures. “I was just like, ‘It’s not worth it,’” she says.

Instead, they stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Albuquerque, dressed up, and got hitched in a little chapel. (Linaris did tell her sister, because she wanted someone to go dress shopping with.) Afterward, they hit the highway, driving to the Grand Canyon and Vegas, where they tattooed wedding bands on their fingers instead of buying traditional rings. They announced the big news to their loved ones by posting their marriage license on Instagram—which, unsurprisingly, rubbed some people the wrong way.

Linaris’s mother called immediately, asking why she had kept it a secret. Friends wondered the same thing. Even so, Linaris and Josue believe they did the right thing. “We wanted to keep this just for us,” Linaris says. “A wedding is so personal, so intimate. It really is just about you and your partner making some kind of vows to each other. And I kind of get embarrassed about doing those kinds of things in public.” She regrets that her mother wasn’t there to zip up her dress, but “I like our story,” she says. And to smooth things over, they threw a party when they got back, in a rented art gallery in Everett.

Talking to these couples, I started to wonder whether my fiancée and I had been suckered by the social pressure around how we’re all supposed to get married. Here were all these rational people who didn’t seem to feel like they’d missed out at all by skipping their opportunity for a grand celebration—they actually often told me it felt like getting away with something. Then I got a note from someone who was wrestling with whether to go through with her elopement plans. She’d been with her partner for years, so marriage seemed almost like a formality. Plus, money was tight, and they’d have to pay for the wedding themselves. To them, eloping was the most rational thing in the world, but…they just couldn’t quite pull the trigger. “You don’t get married for you—it’s for your friends and families,” the bride-to-be, who asked me not to use her name, told me over the phone. She wasn’t sure if she and her soon-to-be husband could pass up a wedding, even if their families were okay with it. She worried that one day she’d regret it. All of which is to say, even while people are forging a new way, it ain’t easy to fight tradition.

Whenever anyone talks marriage, or even elopement, the elephant in the room is always the so-called wedding-industrial complex—the moneymaking machine that couples tend to blame for ever-soaring costs and undue pressures. So what do industry pros think of people bucking the big day? They think that wherever there’s marriage, there’s money to be made—though most put it far more delicately.

As it turns out, while some folks are going full DIY, elopement planning has become a lucrative niche for the wedding biz. Mandy Connor, owner of Newbury Street’s Hummingbird Bridal and Events, tells me that elopements—the mindset more so than the act—now make up about a third of her business and can cost as much, if not more, than a traditional wedding. The couples that pick elopements tend to be a little older and don’t want to be the center of attention, she says, but they want “the best of everything and are willing to do that for a much smaller crowd.” A couple with a budget of $50,000, she says, is looking at inviting 150 guests to a pretty standard wedding or 30 to “the most elegant, over-the-top luxurious wedding that these 30 people have experienced.” She’s done a decadent dinner for 40 at Menton where, she says, “the hardest decision was picking which champagne to serve.”

For others, eloping—or having the kind of small ceremony associated with that term—is about relieving some of the pressure. Dana Curran, co-owner of the wedding-photography studio Henry + Mac, says she sees couples choosing elopement as a direct response to how big of an event weddings have become. She shoots as many as 10 elopements a year: “Everything from two people at the courthouse to a few where they get married alone and they make some plans for the afternoon and do portraits and bop around the city.” No matter how they celebrate, Curran says, what’s most important is for couples to figure out what they actually want out of their wedding day.

Several years ago, she says, when she tied the knot, Curran and her then-fiancé thought about eloping but pulled back from the brink. “I had to switch my brain from ‘I’m spending all this money’ and ‘There’s all this attention on me’ to ‘This is the one time in my life where I can throw a party for all the people in my life who have made me who I am.’ It’s sort of a lifetime investment.” But while she and her husband followed through with a more traditional wedding, she believes the elopement trend, whether you even choose to elope, is good for everyone, if only because it punctures some of the expectations about what you’re supposed to do. Is it possible, then, that instead of blowing up traditional weddings, elopements just might be the thing to save them?

On a recent weekend, I spent four hours in a hot, dusty barn in western Massachusetts with my fiancée and soon-to-be mother-in-law, crawling around with a measuring tape and trying to determine whether the barn would actually hold all 125 or so people who are allegedly going to show up at our wedding. On the drive home to Boston, my fiancée gently texted all of the people who hadn’t yet mailed their RSVP card, cross-referencing names on a tiny spreadsheet on my phone, before making another to-do list of tasks for the weeks ahead. We also discussed many of the couples I’d been chatting with who seemed so happy about their decision to skip this age-old tradition that has taken over a large part of our lives. Were we crazy not to follow suit? If we could go back in time and forget the wedding, would we?

The thing about going down this path, just weeks before we actually say, “I do,” is that it could easily have spiraled into regret. But I ended up thinking a lot about what Curran said to me: You have to figure out what you actually want from your wedding.

We, in our own way, are traditional people. We like rites of passage, ceremony, marking big events. Not weddings, per se, but the idea of sharing important moments with the people who helped us get here. For all the stress, absurdity, and expense of planning a wedding, it turns out, I wouldn’t want to take the escape hatch, lovely as it’s been for other people. Because even though I still don’t really care about the cake and all the pageantry, there are only a few days when you can get everyone you care about together in one place. (One of them occurs after you’re dead, which doesn’t do you much good.) And if that happens to come at the cost of all of the insanity that goes with having a wedding, well, that’s okay with me. Bring on the family, the spreadsheets, the friends, and—sure, why not?—the bill.