This guest post from Laura Mezoff Christy is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.
Some of the biggest transitions in life also tend to be the most expensive. Births, funerals, weddings, buying houses, and leaving for college all have pretty hefty price tags. Some of the expenses associated with life's big moments are unavoidable. But we're also conditioned by our culture to believe that the expenses are unavoidable, and that if we pay more, the experience will be somehow “better.” In fact, I believe that avoiding some of the major expenses during large transitions can have major rewards that extend far beyond your bank balance.
I'll admit that I have a strong leaning towards doing things myself. (Though I'm not a fan of the acronym “DIY” because it makes me think of glue guns and bad wallpapering jobs). I was raised by a family of frugal people, and married a man who is quite possibly more frugal than I am; he brought along a serious set of hands-on skills that have served his frugal nature and our bank account in innumerable ways. So, we do a lot of things for ourselves, even when mental health professionals might advise otherwise. Our unfinished-after-five-years home renovation project is a painful reminder of this.
But I think when it comes to the major events of life, doing things ourselves has saved tens of thousands of dollars, kept us out of debt, and (perhaps most importantly) made some of life's big transitions more personal and meaningful than they ever would have been otherwise.
When my husband and I got married, we had very little money, and although we did get some financial help from my parents, we didn't choose to do anything expensive. We preferred to do something that was intensely personal to us. After all, we were asking friends and relatives to come from across the country to celebrate our marriage. Many of these people knew only one of us, and some were relatives that hadn't seen us in years, and we very much wanted the event to reflect who we are as a couple, and we wanted the wedding to be an expression of our creative energy.
In the lead-up to the wedding, we designed and made our own wedding invitations. We also designed our own wedding rings, and then used a lost wax casting method to cast them in gold and silver. The wedding rings were a major time sink, especially since neither of us had much experience with casting processes or metalworking. But we sought out advice, researched endlessly, learned a lot from our (numerous) failures, and generally had a really great time creating our rings together. Among other things, we prepared a slide show (Powerpoint presentation) of our recently completed year of international travel, which we presented to our guests the evening of their arrival.
My now-husband has a penchant for working on old vehicles, so we also fixed up a decrepit late 1960s Land Rover that we drove 300 miles to the wedding. At 50 miles per hour. Leaking oil all the way. (If you're familiar with old British vehicles, you will probably realize that this is a commentary on the vehicle, not my husband's mechanical skills.) Since it was largely an expression of his creative talents, I mostly contributed by fetching wrenches and laughing about the absurdity of it all. A limousine could never have produced us with as much enjoyment (or as many memories) as our old Land Rover did.
In the spirit of the event, family members pitched in and made huge creative contributions. My father printed wedding programs on his late 1800s Chandler & Price printing press. My mother-in-law, and skilled chef, made our wedding cake. My sister and brother-in-law contributed their artwork that graced the site of the wedding ceremony (a 400-year-old roofless stone church in New Mexico), and the reception site. My parents contributed musically to the ceremony, and an uncle played music until 3:00 a.m. around the bonfire following the reception. (The bonfire itself was an expression of our preference for being outdoors over the traditional post-reception dance.)
A wedding ceremony is often about 20-30 minutes long. Or less. But many people spend months planning and many tens of thousands of dollars preparing for the big event. It was important to us to put effort into the wedding, and we imbued it with a lot of significance, but we didn't want to spend years paying for a 20-minute event.
We spent several months preparing, but I hate most forms of shopping, and I didn't want all our preparation for the wedding to involve a lot of consumerism that would only result in a huge credit card bill, and a bunch of junk that wouldn't have any long-term value to us. When my mother convinced me (wisely) that I'd be nuts to design & make my own wedding gown in addition to all the other things we were making, I spent several depressing days slogging through windowless malls with my mother and sister in tow, trying to find a gown to purchase. I remember that as one of the least pleasant parts of the wedding preparations. On the other hand, I have fond memories of spending some really pleasant hours with my sister, working together on preparing our wedding invitations for mailing.
A death in the family
It's certainly becoming more accepted these days that weddings need not be “traditional” (whatever that means), and many couples are taking unique approaches to personalizing their weddings. But this approach doesn't have to stop at weddings. People are starting to realize that funerals can also be highly personalized.
There's an evolving consciousness around re-humanizing the burial process, and there are new and evolving opportunities for things like green funerals, biodegradable coffins, cemeteries that double as nature preserves, and coffins made by monks. But even these services aren't necessarily a requirement, particularly for people who are interested in taking a hands-on approach to burying a loved one.
When my husband's beloved grandmother passed away in early 2010, her family came together to honor her and to participate in the act of burying her.
- Her daughter and son-in-law built her casket from wood they had harvested themselves.
- Her children dressed her and prepared her body for the funeral, and her son-in-law and grandsons sealed her casket.
- For her graveside funeral, her family members gathered greenery from the farm where she'd lived her entire life, and placed it on top of her coffin.
- Her son led the beautiful ceremony, and her grandsons lowered her coffin into the grave in the family cemetery.
- After her burial, everyone returned to her home where family and friends had gathered to spend time with her hundreds of times before. People brought hand-made food, flowers, guitars and banjoes, to celebrate her life in a way that really honored the special life she'd lived.
It was a deeply moving and beautiful event, precisely because it bypassed the corporate funeral industry, and instead was created specifically to honor the person that she was. Since the funeral home was only involved with transporting and keeping her body until burial, there was nothing about her funeral that was generic or uninspired.
Made by hand
Neither our wedding nor grandma's funeral were predicated on the assumption that consumerism needs to be central to every event. However, our society is set up to employ consumer services and products at every turn. The pressure to consume doesn't really have any boundaries in our modern world, so it becomes our job to set our own boundaries. I see this personal “boundary setting” as an important part of conscious spending. It often takes some conscious effort to shrug off the notion that an expensive funeral does a better job of showing love for the deceased person, or the idea that an elaborate wedding will provide a firmer foundation for a relationship.
Obviously, however, each person (or family) has to find a level of personal involvement that works for her. And this level of involvement will vary depending on the event in question. For example, I know that lots of women do it, but you wouldn't catch me doing a DIY at-home birth! For some people, placing a loved one in a coffin would be an intensely undesirable experience, while others might find it to be the very best way to honor their deceased loved one. It is important to note, however, that our direct involvement with the details of an event will have a direct impact on our experience of that event. It will also, inevitably, affect the price tag.
In Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World [Get Rich Slowly review] Mark Frauenfelder asserts that, “ It's not easy to see through the consensual illusion that buying stuff will make you happy.” I would venture to add that this illusion is heightened when life's major events loom on the horizon — in no small part due to the power of targeted advertising. And after all, who wants to get all sweaty on their wedding day? But is it possible that getting sweaty has its own rewards?
Be the architect of your own future
I'd like to leave you with a final story:
When two close friends, A & J, decided to get married, they chose a beautiful mountain-top overlook in a state park in West Virginia for their wedding site. While the views from the site were stunningly gorgeous, the structures on the site itself were less than picturesque. Since A & J are both architects, they decided to design and construct a temporary arched structure under which to conduct their ceremony. (And, since they are architects, they designed a structure that was very complex and fairly time-consuming to install.)
The site was publicly accessible, so they weren't able to erect their structure until the day of the ceremony. Uncooperative weather delayed their early morning construction plans, and by the time the rain stopped there were only a couple of hours left before the ceremony was scheduled to start, and there was much work to be done. Suddenly, all their friends sprang into action to help erect the structure in time for the ceremony. Most of their friends were architects (or in related fields), and we had gathered from many different parts of the country (and some from overseas) to celebrate their marriage. Many of us had never met before, but we all understood how hard A & J had worked on the design and fabrication of the structure, and we all wanted to see them get married under the arch that they had designed and created.
We all worked feverishly for several hours, resolving construction issues, and battling the uncooperative wind. The minute the structure was finished, we all rushed back to the hotel to change our clothes, and returned to the site in time for the ceremony. Their ceremony was beautiful, completely unique to them—and finished just in time for the rain to start again.
Was it a typical wedding? No. Were there a few confused relatives who just couldn't understand why they'd chosen to do such an “unconventional” things for their wedding? Absolutely. But I've attended a lot of formulaic weddings, and despite the large sums of money thrown at them; they've been utterly forgettable.
I was really touched to see this disparate group of folks pull together to make their mutual friends' wedding day a truly special event. I felt honored to get my hands a little dirty to help make their day special, and my lingering memory of the day was of that of the camaraderie that emerged out of a rushed and difficult construction project.
I'm sure that A & J would have preferred if their construction project had gone up without a hitch, but to me, the hands-on approach to their event was what made it so special. Having a wedding coordinator working behind the scenes to make the entire event seamless couldn't have had the same impact. You're not likely to see their wedding in the pages of a Martha Stewart magazine — but not because it wasn't beautiful (it was) — rather, because it was so unique to them that it couldn't be marketed to a mass audience. To me, that's the mark of a successful event.
In the process of spending ever-increasing sums of money on major life events, we've often sterilized them of the very things that make them unique to our individual lives, while simultaneously taking on staggering amounts of debt to pay for them. Though the statistics vary widely, the Wedding Report put the average cost of a wedding in 2010 at about $24,000 (up 63% from 1990). A recent MSN money report put the cost of a funeral at around $10,000. While it's important to celebrate the milestones in life, it shouldn't necessitate enslaving ourselves to debt. Though there are lots of ways to live a full life while staying out of debt, my method of choice seems to be rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty.