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Marriage or Mortgage: How Do You Choose? (Or Can You Have Both?)

Marriage or Mortgage: How Do You Choose? (Or Can You Have Both?)
Casey Morris
Home.com Editor

Earlier this year, Netflix debuted a new reality show, “Marriage or Mortgage.” The premise is that engaged couples meet with a real estate agent and a wedding planner, each of whom offers them a glimpse at a different dream future.

In one scenario, they get to buy a dream home. In the other, they get their dream wedding.

Perhaps predictably, the show stirred up some hot opinions, including from a Wired writer who called it “maddening.”

And it kind of is. The first episode alone was dumbfounding, as a couple moving to Nashville (one of the hottest markets in the country) decides whether to spend their savings on a house so that they can stop living in an apartment or have a wedding. They appear practical and frugal, and it seems inevitable that they will choose homeownership.

But they choose the wedding (one that is substantially scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

At a time when interest rates are still near historic lows and homebuyers often have to go well above asking price to catch a seller’s attention, the choice is a bit mystifying, though the draw of a dream wedding is understandably strong.

Any reality TV series is going to be designed for shock value and controversy, so perhaps its results aren’t a good barometer. But the underlying choice — marriage or mortgage — is one with which more and more millennial couples must contend.

Wedding or house: Does it have to be either/or?

Not necessarily. If you and your betrothed have built a sizeable nest egg, or your families are contributing to the wedding or down payment costs (or both), you may not have to compromise.

But couples on a limited budget may have to prioritize one or the other. And that can be tough to do.

The average cost of a wedding in the U.S. was $19,000 in 2020, according to The Knot. But looking at the 2019 average of $28,000 might be more instructive, since many couples had to pare down their nuptials due to the COVID pandemic in 2020.

Either way, though, a five-figure price tag can be difficult to meet, especially if you also want to buy a home.

The pandemic fallout drove home prices to a national median of $434,200 as of the second quarter of 2021, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

And competition for homes has been fierce. The market has shown some signs of cooling recently, but it still favors sellers. It’s not uncommon for homes to end up in bidding wars. Given the current conditions, prospective homebuyers need every dollar to compete.

So, right off the bat, young couples have to make two of the biggest financial decisions of their relationship: Do we put our savings toward a wedding or house?

There are ways to have both — as long as you’re willing to compromise.

Reimagine your perfect wedding

The pandemic has forced a lot of people to reassess their priorities and values. Maybe pre-2020, your dream wedding was a big event with 200 guests and lots of dancing. But is that still what’s important to you? You may find that celebrating with a smaller circle of close family and friends sounds more appealing (and safer), allowing you to save money and have both a wedding and a house.

“I think the pandemic has proven that people can make small weddings work, and the intimacy of a small, low-risk gathering can significantly outweigh the stress of a large wedding,” said Leonard Ang, REALTOR and CEO of iPropertyManagement.

“I would implore people to take advantage of the current circumstances (low-interest rates, raging pandemic) and buy the home of your dreams while you get married in a small setting,” he said. “You can always have a large reception-like gathering longer down the road.”

But let’s say a big wedding is what you want. There are still ways to make it budget-friendly, beginning with taking a clear-eyed look at your must-haves.

“People often focus on little extras that are very expensive and don’t add much to their wedding,” said Khari Washington, broker and owner of 1st United Realty & Mortgage.

Washington recommended looking for cost-effective alternatives that can make the wedding more enjoyable for everyone:

  • Scope out venues that are inexpensive even for large groups
  • Since outdoor ceremonies are often short, forego chair rentals and have guests who are able to stand for the nuptials. Of course, you’ll want to provide seating for guests who need it
  • Skip the expensive (and often bland) luxury dinners in favor of tasty, less expensive foods that everyone loves
  • If you’re planning a destination wedding, consider affordable beach, lake, and mountain spots in the continental U.S. rather than costly, far-flung locations

Consider a microwedding

A microwedding can have all the trappings of a larger wedding — the walk down the aisle, the cocktail hour, the first dance, the bridal party — just on a smaller scale. Typically, microweddings are limited to 50 guests or fewer, which can cut down on more than just financial headaches. 

Imani Francies, a finance expert with USInsuranceAgents.com, said there are a number of benefits to having a microwedding, including “a more comprehensive and high-quality event with a more reasonable timeframe and a smaller guest list.”

She added that smaller venues require fewer decoration costs, and a smaller wedding budget leaves more money available for your honeymoon (and your new house). A microwedding is also a solution to thorny family dynamics, since there’s “less concern about reuniting with distant relatives,” Francies said.

A microwedding can be a great way to have a memorable, intimate wedding without sacrificing your opportunity to own a home.

Homeownership is a key factor in wealth creation, and in establishing generational wealth. Additionally, money troubles are a leading cause of divorce, so prioritizing financial stability by buying a home early may do more for your marriage than

Plus, Francies said, the reduced costs and stress of a microwedding may mean you and your partner have fewer financial disagreements. And who wants to fight about money when you’re getting ready to say “I do”?

If you’re struggling to keep the guest list small because lots of friends and family want to see you get married, you can also take a hybrid approach. Keep the in-person invites to your most intimate circle, and give others a virtual option. Some people may be disappointed, but especially with the Delta variant surge, many will understand the need for small events.

“Inviting your guests to witness your wedding virtually via livestream is a budget-friendly way of offering a way for your guests to be part of the ceremony and day,” said JinJing Liang, CEO of virtual/hybrid wedding streaming platform Lovecast. Your off-site guests can join live to watch alongside your physical guest as you exchange your vows, cut your wedding cake, and take your first dance. This way, you can offer a unique experience for your guests while not paying high fees.”

Think about your long-term goals

Ritualizing your commitment to one another and celebrating your marriage with loved ones is important, no doubt. And while it is only one day, it is a significant one — perhaps one of the most significant in your life.

But it’s important to consider the long-term impact of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding celebration vs investing that money into a home.

Sean O’Dowd, CEO of real estate business CloseConcierge, said he and his wife married at a courthouse in 2020 for $200. Their decision was due in part to the pandemic and in part by their desire to build a strong financial foundation for their marriage.

Rather than invest in a traditional wedding, they opted to keep their “I dos” minimal and focus on real estate instead. O’Dowd and his wife, with whom he owns CloseConcierge, purchased a home for themselves and a six-unit apartment building as a rental property.

“Twenty years from now, did we want to be able to say we had a large wedding or did we want significant equity in properties and cashflow from monthly rentals? When we framed it like that, it made it easy.”

Sean O’Dowd, CEO of CloseConcierge.io

“What helped us was thinking about our long term goals,” O’Dowd said. “Twenty years from now, did we want to be able to say we had a large wedding or did we want significant equity in properties and cashflow from monthly rentals? When we framed it like that, it made it easy.”

Compromise on the wedding and the new home

Many people spend years envisioning their weddings, even long before they’ve met their spouse-to-be. Wedding planning is a great opportunity to get on the same page about what you both want your special day to look like and to make sure your wedding reflects your current values.

You might have always assumed your wedding would involve a big bridal party, dancing, and weekend-long festivities. But talk with your partner about what they want, and what type of celebration is best-suited to your relationship — and your finances.

“Couples should make their own separate lists of what is important, share them, and then make a master list. Compromise is essential,” Washington said. “Compromising wedding details won’t be the last major thing a couple has to compromise on, so listening and really caring to make a partner happy is important.”

In fact, you may need to compromise when you buy a home as well. You’ll want to agree on the big picture elements, such as location, square footage, and the type of property. But one or both of you may need to bend when it comes to things like buying an older home vs a newly renovated one, cosmetics, and landscaping.

Finding a happy middle ground on wedding planning can be a great training ground for making decisions about your future home.

Use your wedding to fund your new home

It’s becoming more common for couples to register for help with their honeymoon, but you can do the same for a new house, too. Some couples include a home fund alongside traditional asks, so that guests have options how and what they give.

Setting up a fund for your new home is simple, and popular registry platforms such as Zola and Honeyfund allow you to establish cash registries.

If you choose to include a cash fund, include a note on what buying a house means to you. Are you both first-time homebuyers who want your own piece of the American dream? Is this the home where you hope to start your family?

Telling people what a new home means lets them know that by giving a gift toward your home purchase, they’ll really be helping you build your future.

Some guests may not be comfortable with cash asks, but giving context for why you went that route may ease their minds. Because many couples are getting married later, they don’t need the same items as when people married in their early twenties, straight out of their parents’ homes.

But they do need a home to call their own, and anyone can understand that.

Mindful spending for happily ever after

Ultimately, the decision of whether to pay for a wedding or house comes down to each couple’s priorities. Some, like Sean O’Dowd and his wife, are happy to have a small wedding in favor of moving up their homeownership timeline.

But for others, a traditional wedding is essential to starting their marriage the way they want.

You can do both, as long as you are clear on what you have to spend and what matters most to you.

Remember that a wedding is a short-term experience and homeownership is a long-term investment in your financial well-being and the health of your marriage. When you’re caught up in the wedding planning and househunting, make sure not to sacrifice one for the other.

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