‘A Diamond is Forever’ and other fairy tales

‘A Diamond is Forever’ and other fairy tales

The more a couple spends on their wedding and engagement ring, the less likely they are to stay together, according to a new study out of Emory University aptly entitled ” ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: the Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration.”

De Beers famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” was coined in the late 1930s, when only 10% of engagement rings (in the Western world) held a diamond. The campaign linking the dazzling, durable gemstones to the promise of marital stability became the most successful advertising slogan of the century: by 1999, over 80% of engagement rings contained a diamond.

The diamond engagement ring is just one example of the flurry of spending that surrounds marriage. We’re all familiar with the industry that sprang up to capture those dollars. These researchers examined the relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration.

It’s no surprise that an expensive fairy-tale wedding does not contribute to a marriage’s long-term success, but I was surprised that relatively high wedding expenses negatively correlated with marital duration. Relatively high spending on an engagement ring likewise is inversely related to the length of the marriage.

In hard numbers, they found that spending $2,000 or more on the engagement ring, or $20,000 or more on the wedding, is significantly associated with a higher rate of divorce. (Among the female survey respondents, the rate of divorce was 3.5 times higher for women who spent $20,000 on their wedding vs. couples who spent $5,000-$10,000.)

(For comparison’s sake, The Knot says the average couple now spends $28,858.)

Spending less than $1000 on the wedding significantly decreased the divorce rate, although inexpensive isn’t always better: spending less than $500 on the engagement ring was associated with an increase in women’s divorce rates.

"A Diamond is Forever" and other fairy tales | Modern Mrs Darcy

Of course, a study like this quantifies correlation, not causation, and we can only speculate about the “why.”

According to the recent MMD reader survey, a whopping 85% of you are married. You’ve already made these choices. (I’d love to hear what they were, incidentally.)

But I think it’s still worth speculating about causation, for the singles and the married among you.

The study also found that spending correlated with an 82 to 93% decrease in the odds of being “stressed-out about wedding related debt” compared to couples who spent $5,000-10,000. It’s been well-documented that financial stress is a significant factor in divorce rates, and stress resulting from heavy wedding spending is certainly one reason for the negative correlation.

But there’s more, and it’s not about the money.

The study also found two significant factors correlated with decreased rates of divorce: couples who had a relatively high number of guests at their weddings and couples who went on a honeymoon (though it didn’t matter how much or little it cost) were much more likely to stay together.

We’re in a stage of life where we go to a lot of weddings. We’ve been to lavish affairs, the sort that skew The Knot’s average upward: country club events with hundreds of guests, open bars, and sit-down dinners.

We’ve also been to potluck celebrations that were done on a budget, but still must have come in over the study’s $1,000 limit for significant divorce prevention, despite the fact that at several of these events we personally—as friends of the bride and groom—made Costco runs for cheese tray goodies, bound up farmers’ market flowers into bouquets, and baked wedding day brownies for the reception on various couples’ wedding mornings.

Based on the data and our (possibly misleading) personal experience, I’m going to speculate about three key factors: financial stress, priorities, and community.

Financial stress is bad for relationships, period. There are amazing stories of couples who struggled through financial crisis only to emerge stronger on the other side: they are amazing because they are rare. If debt often causes stress, and expensive weddings are often financed, then there’s a Latin phrase that says it’s not going to end well.

In relationships as in the rest of life: priorities matter. I’m fascinated by the study’s finding that there’s a sweet spot for engagement ring spending: an expensive ring predicts a short marriage, but so does a gumball-machine quality one (or no ring at all). The marriage isn’t about the ring, but human nature is to spend our money on the things we care about. The purchase of a ring speaks to our good intentions; the purchase of an affordable one speaks to wisdom.

Likewise, marriages that last begin with honeymoons, because the couples prioritize taking the time for themselves and their new relationship—whether it’s for a month or more or just for a night. It’s not the trip itself that’s important. I know couples who have been married decades who honeymooned in Europe; I know couples who have been married for just as long who honeymooned at the local state park, and just for a night or two.

Finally, the people who join us on the journey matter. The study found that successful marriages have relatively large numbers of wedding guests. I would like to think its because couples who have a solid future ahead of them deliberately chose to make their family (and they would have family, be they biological, borrowed, or otherwise appropriated) and their friends (and they would have friends) a part of their special day.

They would believe the day was special enough to include the people they loved, and they would have people they loved to include in their special day. Marriages are private affairs, but they’re not conducted in isolation. People require friendship and support and community in all their relationships; marriage is no exception.

Will and I have been married for fourteen years. According to the study, we’re not in the sweet spot, and we can’t do anything about that. But what we can do is focus, every day, on the things we have control over: our finances. Our priorities. And our support network.

Money is just a tool; these are the things that lie beneath the surface.

I’d love to hear your thoughtful commentary about weddings and engagement rings, lavish affairs and potluck gatherings, and the finances/priorities/community trio in comments.

Recommended reading: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan weaves together stories of four unique marriages, plus the true story of the single woman who created the De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever” campaign. Laura Vanderkam’s All the Money in the World examines how we can thoughtfully use money as a tool to serve our greater purposes. My favorite chapter is the first, entitled “What Else Could That Ring Buy?”, and I thought of it as I read through each and every page of the Emory University study cited above.

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  1. Laura says:

    Apparently, my husband and I did everything right. 🙂 It was reassuring to read all this, with our 8th wedding anniversary right around the corner.

  2. Rachel says:

    So interesting! It looks like my husband and I made the ‘right’ choices as far as engagement ring and wedding costs, and the ‘wrong’ choice as far as the honeymoon (we were students and got married during a 3-day weekend between semesters–no time!). If the occasion ever arises for me to give advice to a couple nearing engagement, I always say that I wish I hadn’t gotten a ‘real’ wedding ring, and had instead spent that money on a honeymoon. We spent something like $1600 on my ring, and to be honest, we only went with the traditional diamond engagement ring because we felt like we were supposed to (“well, we’re getting engaged, and this is what engaged people do.”). I don’t have a particularly strong sentimental attachment to it, and I think I would have been perfectly happy with any old ring at all. If I could go back, I would absolutely choose to spend that ring money on a honeymoon–we’re still looking forward to and saving for our honeymoon, 7.5 years and 2 kids later!

  3. Jillian Kay says:

    We had 65 people at our wedding and that felt huge to this introvert! I feel like my data should be weighted 🙂

    I wonder if the amount of money the bride and groom spent personally was taken into account. It seems like there would be a difference between a wedding that cost $28k and was paid for by the parents and a wedding that cost $10k and was paid for by the couple.

    10 years last week!

  4. 'Becca says:

    I’m happily unmarried, so we spent zero on a wedding but celebrated our 20th anniversary and paid off our house this month!

    Weddings in my family tend to be relatively modest, and marriages tend to be long and amicable. Both sets of grandparents eloped and were together more than 45 years before death did them part. My sister-in-law wore as her wedding dress a prom dress that she bought on clearance for $11–and although she and my brother spent a lot on their wedding rings, they chose sustainably made and meaningful rings (I forget the details) which reflect their shared values, so that seems like a good sign.

    Thanks for posting this interesting study!

  5. Sara K. says:

    From my own personal experience, most of those correlations don’t apply. I’ve been married (and divorced) twice. Wedding #1 was small with mostly family plus a few friends. My ring was maybe a few hundred dollars (don’t recall an exact amount), reception was catered, but nothing too fancy, and we did not have a honeymoon. That marriage lasted about 5 years.

    Wedding #2 was bigger. My engagement ring was about $3,000 and my wedding band $4,000 (both platinum hence the price tags). We spent a week honeymooning in Gatlinburg, TN. Marriage lasted 3 or 4 years.

    If I ever do have the privilege of getting married again I will do several things different.

    1. No diamond. It isn’t my favorite gemstone anyway. Maybe a nice sapphire or emerald. Or maybe not even an engagement ring at all! I watched a documentary about De Beers on Netflix, and they mentioned that the diamond was a relatively new trend for wedding jewelry. I like the idea of going against the trend back to the way things used to be 🙂

    2. Private ceremony. I’ve put my family through two weddings. Instead of focusing on a “special day”, I would much rather focus the energy on building a solid foundation for a lasting marriage. I don’t like the “it’s all about me” attitude either.

  6. Megan says:

    How interesting! I’m sending this to my husband and mother! My engagement ring was inherited, so free. My wedding band was $50 which felt like much more at the time. Our wedding was around $8000 and we had around 100 people there, maybe more. We did a weeklong cruise, debt free, for our honeymoon. Happily married 11 years!

  7. Anung says:

    I completely agree with this. My ring cost a little over a thousand, but we waited 2 years to save for it. Our wedding is in the $13,000 range, but thats mostly because I have a huge family. Both my parents have 7 brothers and sisters and all but one on each side have 2+ kids.

    We spent a little more then we initially thought we were gonna because we wanted someone else to take care of some of the details. I didn’t want to have to cook and decorate on top of everything else.

    I get tired at all these weddings when its “all about the bride”. This is supposed to be a celebration of two people’s union.

  8. K says:

    I’m not entirely sure where we’d sit in the scheme of things – our wedding cost about $15,000, but combined cost of wedding/engagement rings was about $600, because we were in a pretty tough place when he proposed and his sister offered him an engagement ring that she had from a failed engagement about 5 years earlier – so the ring is worth at least $3,000, but we didn’t spend that money… We’re planning on getting our wedding rings remade in white gold (they’re silver currently) when we are better able to afford it. We’re also thinking about getting a new engagement ring at the same time, and giving his sister back hers if she wants it.

    • K says:

      One thing I can’t help thinking as I look at this and the comments is… Everything was cheaper 20+ years ago. I’m assuming the study has adjusted for this (I haven’t read it yet), but there seems to be a lot of people who are at their 15+ wedding anniversaries saying they spent less than $10,000… which is probably closer to $25,000-$30,000 now, if you take into account how the costs of everything have increased… It would probably still be similar in comparison to the couple’s yearly income, but it’s still a thought…

      • K, I think this is more about “perceived costs” rather than truly comparable prices. A dozen years ago you could still have lovely invitations you printed yourself (or had printed fairly inexpensively). Now? Letterpress and/or hand calligraphy seems to be what everyone wants. (I adore LP and calligraphy.) A few things that have really changed the scene: the recent recession combined with the rise of Pinterest and the Maker movement. Handmade is big, but if you aren’t actually making it yourself, it costs quite a bit. So I think that perceptions are skewed at both ends of the scale, if that makes sense.

        I should add generally that it’s easy to start comparing our own numbers here and feeling weird. My personal belief is that if you can afford it, or if your parents are dying to afford it on your behalf, you can do whatever you want. No Brownie points for doing X for the least amount. We splurged on flowers and calligraphy and a full bar, and a big rehearsal dinner to include the 80 out-of-towners, not just the wedding party. Again, we paid for it all ourselves, and I’m happy to have done that because we had no financial burdens whatsoever after the wedding. But some families may not swing that way, and that’s fine. I do feel apprehensive about going into debt for what’s essentially a big party, or when a wedding becomes a spectacle rather than a celebration.

        I write for Vera Wang but found my dress at a David’s Bridal sale for $250. It doesn’t mean that I’m “keepin’ it real” but just…that I found a dress I liked that fit my budget, and I was SO happy to cross that one item off my list so I could throw money at the florist. And when I suggested to my now-husband that he didn’t need to get me a ring, he was offended and horrified. It meant a lot to him.

        My only regret is that I didn’t see what a gem my husband was when we met 5 years earlier — evidently I blew him off big-time. I would have had 5 more years with him and probably 4 or 5 kids instead of the 3 we have now.

        12 years and counting,

  9. Amanda says:

    I actually read about this study the other day and joked to my husband that we must be doomed because my ring was $4,000 and our wedding was about $25,000.

    Even so, I like the way you took a look at what the findings actually mean and why they probably came out the way they did. Based on the aspects of financial stress, priorities, and community, our situation really doesn’t fit the profile of being doomed even though our ring and wedding costs seem to indicate otherwise. For instance, nothing about our wedding created financial stress. My husband saved up for a ring he knew I would love and was able to pay for it in full without credit. (I’ve had it for 3 years and I’ve still not managed to see another ring that I thought was more beautiful, and I mean that with no sentimentality; he just got me something that suited my taste perfectly.) And as for the wedding, we were lucky enough that my parents wanted to pay and that they could easily afford to pay for everything with cash, and that was the budget they gave us to work with. So, no financial stress because no one went into any kind of debt over anything. We invited about 180 and around 120 people attended. That’s not a huge wedding by any means, but I wouldn’t consider it small. And every person we invited was someone we truly cared about and wanted there; no one was invited out of social obligation and neither of our parents invited their own guests unless they were people my husband and I were also close to. We both feel that weddings are intimate, and we only wanted people who were special to us to be there. So I would say that there was a definite sense of community.

    Yes, I can admit that our wedding was a bit over the top compared to most, but I think what makes us different than those in this study is that we went into our wedding with the attitude that marriage is forever. We both agreed we are staying together through thick and thin and this will be the only wedding we have (unless one of us dies and the other remarries, of course) so we wanted it to be our dream wedding. Over two years later, we both agree that the entire day was the most fun we’ve ever had and we have great memories of it and wouldn’t change a thing. So looking at it all from that angle, I’m not at all concerned about what the study says; I know we are outliers.

    We did, however, go on a honeymoon, so I guess we get study points for that. Ten absolutely amazing days in Paris, which was about $10,000, but we paid for it ourselves in cash. So again, no financial stress required. Once again, we had the mindset of “we’ll only go on a honeymoon once, so let’s plan our dream trip.” And so we did.

    So again, I don’t think it’s actually the amount of money you spend but your intentions behind spending it.

    • Anne says:

      Your wedding sounds lovely. And I’m drooling over ten days in Paris!

      “I don’t think it’s actually the amount of money you spend but your intentions behind spending it.” Well put.

    • Mary K says:

      Amanda, I really appreciate your comments. I am planning our wedding right now, and am in a similar situation. My fiance and I are older (I’m 35, he’s 41), neither of us has ever been married, and we are both in solid financial positions, as are our extremely supportive and excited parents. We are not going into any debt at all for our wedding, but we are planning a big celebration. Reading this post (and similar articles) makes me feel anxious and guilty, and I appreciate your perspective. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Dori says:

    We actually chose a sapphire stone for my engagement ring. It had significance for us for a number of reasons, and I have never once regretted our choice. We made a lot of choices like that when planning our wedding – doing/buying things that were meaningful rather than making choices that held no significance for us. I’d do it all over again!

  11. Nolo says:

    I read a study that analyzed the rise in the use of diamond engagement rings. The author concluded that it was as a result of the end of the “Breach of Promise to Marry” laws that existed in many states prior to WWII. Under that law, a woman could sue a man for ending an engagement but, once those laws were rescinded, there wasn’t anything to prevent a man from entering into an engagement and then ending it to the detriment of the woman’s reputation. Enter the diamond engagement ring – a significant investment for the man that would (in theory) limit the likelihood he would end an engagement! It’s the less romantic view of engagement rings….

  12. Nikki says:

    On our first date, I learned it would be Dave Ramsey’s way or not with this guy, so the financial stress has been minimal, with the questions clearly answered for us. He spent about $1200 on the engagement ring (3 months prior to getting out of debt), then we spent about $8000 on wedding and honeymoon about a year later, with a little over 100 guests (and he got back into debt, with what I brought to our marriage). Six years later, we only owe on our house (our second) and are expecting baby #2 any day now. We aren’t perfect, but all our budget talks about the wedding helped prepare us for budget talks of our marriage, which prepared us (more and more) for other talks. Communication is key in marriage, and we are still finding out just how important it is!

  13. Claire says:

    We’re having a lot of guests – grateful for strong ties to family and friends – but that has inherently made it cost a lot more, primarily due to catering for that number of people. It seems a catch 22! Interesting study less than a week out from our wedding.

  14. Idaho Jill says:

    Interesting article, and comments. We celebrated our 16th last week. We got married on a cruise. $1000 (included officiant, flowers, cake, photography) plus the cost of the 4 day cruise ($350 per person). I paid about $25 to upgrade to gardenias as my flowers, and $100 for a 1 hour open bar for our guests. 18 people came with us…they paid their own way. My dress was $300, 2 bridesmaid’s dresses were $45 each. Ring was under $2000. I had ZERO stress about my wedding because the cruise line took care of it all. It was perfect!

    We also got to get on the ship before everyone else (to get my hair done and dressed, etc – plus you still have to be attached to land to make it legal). People were boarding as we were getting married – it was awesome. My mom jokes that we had 18 people with us on our honeymoon :).

    I would love to have a vow renewal at 20 years…but I don’t want another ring. Hubs has said he would get me a new diamond, but I got married with this ring and it will be there forever! Funny aside: I had my rings attached because I was anal about them spinning separately and not lining up (!) but while they were in the shop, I bought a huge (very obviously) fake ring to wear so I wouldn’t feel naked…and I got SO many comments about what a beautiful ring that was! Just goes to show that you can spend $20 and people will never know it’s not real :).

  15. Mandi Richards says:

    My engagement right was my great grandmother’s. Interestingly enough it was a diamond ring (from the 1920s at latest – not sure if it was new or already a family ring at the time – I’ve been told it’s older because it doesn’t have the metal stamped on it) and we took out the center stone and my husband put in a sapphire instead. Not sure how much that cost, but probably not all that much. Our wedding was about 15K, so we’re right in the middle somewhere. My parents generously paid for it all though so it definitely wasn’t a cause of financial strife to my husband at all.

  16. Maggie says:

    Interesting points, but I don’t know. I have found there is a tendency in some Christian circles towards a kind of reverse snobbery whereby a bigger or more expensive wedding is looked down up on without regard to cultural issues, family expectations, and even age. We met “later in life” and married in our 30s, and I definitely think there were different expectations in terms of what kind of wedding reception we would have than if we had married 10 years earlier. What might come across as quaint with two 21-year-olds can look cheap when both partners are over 30 and working. We also had no family nearby to help and because we chose a short engagement and were both working full-time, very little time to DIY. That meant we had to spend a bit more and we are probably outside of the range for a healthy marriage, but we are still going strong. It’s just a bit hurtful when people talk as if we are less spiritual because we had a more expensive wedding and I have a rather large diamond.

    • Mary K says:

      I appreciate your comments. I think I am in the same boat as a 35 year-old planning my wedding, and I have noticed the reverse snobbery you mention (and not just in Christian circles). We are planning and can afford a big, more expensive wedding, but I also feel judged for making that choice.

  17. Wow! That is all very interesting. We’ve been married for 10 years, and actually do fall in the sweet spot on rings and weddings and having a honeymoon. We had 125 people at our wedding. I am not sure if that is a lot or not! Granted, my husband was 21 when he financed my engagement ring … had we gotten married at 30, it might have looked differently.

  18. Jo says:

    Interesting stories 🙂

    We had the smallest ‘wedding’ (it was a Civil Partnership as that was the only thing available to us at that time in the UK) imaginable. I have no idea how much the engagement rings (two, yes!) were as my GF brought them back from Thailand and then we had the stones reset over here. We didn’t bother with new rings for the wedding as neither of us wear them much anyway. We had three friends with us, gave two weeks notice (legal requirement over here) and spent about £500 total on fees, food, champagne etc. I bought a new dress, my GF wore a suit she already had and we spent more money on dinner for five than anything else 🙂 We haven’t got around to a honeymoon yet, two years later. We have been together nearly 15 years though.

    Neither of us wanted a big wedding so this was good for us, though I think I wish I had invited a few more people. My family in particular felt a little left out which I do feel guilty about.

  19. Ana says:

    Hmmm… I have a different perspective you could say, because I sell engagement rings for a living! You could say I’ve “seen it all” because I have sold $100 engagement rings all the way to $30,000. And I will say this, both the $100 ring couple (who needed to marry quickly so he could legally move here from the UK, the couple is maybe 19-20 years old) and the $30k couple (who were celebrating their 25th anniversary and upgrading her engagement ring, he was extremely successful in business and paid cash for the ring) are very much in love. I have no problem with any couple or guy coming in with a limited budget, if they are basing it on financial prudence and what he can afford on his income. What I DO have a problem with is the guy who drives up in his tricked out brand new Ford F150 and saunters in, asking for “the cheapest ring we’ve got” because his gf is “nagging him for a ring.” He ended up with a $350 engagement ring that he spent about 5 minutes picking out. Versus the guy who was my first big sale, spent literally weeks agonizing over every detail of the $13k ring he purchased from me, he scoured her pinterest and described in detail her personality, style and the jewelry she wore to come up with the perfect ring for her, and this couple still periodically comes in to get her ring cleaned and say hi, holding hands and bringing us wedding pictures and baby pictures. Just thought I’d mention that perspective. Also, I do think that an engagement ring should be relative to someone’s income. So, if you have a lower income, you should get a modest ring and not go into debt. However, I have seen the other extreme, high-income men who could afford a nice ring if their finances were in order, but due to some vice like gambling or over-extending their lifestyle have tried to pass off large synthetic stones as diamonds or bought cheap, heavily included “big” diamonds. In our current culture, the engagement ring is a symbol of your marriage, and in my opinion buying it should “hurt” a little, as in the guy should be evaluating his finances for a few months and “tightening his belt” while saving up for it. While not going into debt. Sorry, that was long-winded, but just my opinion.

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