For richer or poorer

Newly married millennial couple on cash with student debt graduation capFrom the Family Foundations archives

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Thirty years ago it was all different. There was a ring, a white dress and an “I do.” There were chicken and mashed potatoes, an open dance floor and an overjoyed couple ready to start their lives together as husband and wife.

Now, as 20- and 30-somethings prepare to say “I do,” William and Kate’s extravagant royal wedding is more top of mind — not the modest celebrations of ages past. More than 2 million weddings take place in the United States every year, fueling a $48 billion industry that continues to grow at a steady clip. What many once considered a simple yet profound public declaration of loved has transformed into an expensive party with the sacrament of marriage buried under yards of tulle.

Engaged Catholic couples already know that Christ is the center of any wedding ceremony, but in the face of a lengthy to-do list and a fixed timetable, many faithful brides and grooms find themselves losing sleep over chair covers, photography packages and an expanding budget.

The costs are staggering, and the stakes are high, so what’s really needed and what’s not? How should Catholic couples navigate through the weeks and months prior to the big day as they prepare for a lifetime together?

Joe and Lauren Flaugher know firsthand how easy it is to be swept up in the wedding planning process. The CCL members met on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., and said “I do” in their campus chapel on a Sunday afternoon in June 2011 before 250 guests. Every aspect of their special day was meticulously planned, and expenses quickly piled up.

“My family wanted to make this special and sometimes got caught up in the extravagance that was a wedding,” Laruen, 24, an elementary school teacher, said. “Many things were not necessary.”

Her family took on the bulk of the planning roles after helping coordinate Lauren’s sister’s wedding only a few years prior, which Lauren admits did influence many of their wedding decisions. As a true family affair, the couple wanted to invite as many people as possible, and they worried up until the final moments about having enough seats at the reception. And even though Lauren wanted to focus her attention and budget to the flowers and reception venue, music and catering became top-line items.

Through it all, Lauren was adamant about following a detailed agenda to ensure the wedding was organized and efficient.

It was during an Engaged Encounter weekend that Joe and Lauren’s outlook changed from wedding planning to marriage preparation and they first started considering NFP. They began reflecting on the bigger picture, outside of glossy bridal magazines.

“We did get caught up in planning for the wedding, but this retreat allowed us to take a step back, reconnect as a couple and focus on our relationship together with God,” said Joe, a 25-year-old who works in banking.

The couple’s recommitment to their faith was evident to every guest as they prayed together to Mother Mary and gave each other the Eucharist during the wedding Mass.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the planning, but remember that these are the moments you will remember the rest of your lives,” Lauren urged engaged couples. “Try to stop and breathe as much as possible to enjoy the process and be grateful for that time you have together.

Country-club prices

Eoin and Liz Dempsey, now both 31, of Barrington, Ill., had a relaxed perspective during their engagement. But even though they carved out time to take CCL classes, which they found beneficial, and managed to keep their stress levels in control, the reality of wedding costs were difficult to keep in check.

Eoin, an attorney, and Liz, a former nurse and current stay-at-home mom to their three young children, found that many high-cost items were inevitable.

“I think it’s a tough balance,” Eoin said. “From our perspective, it was important that people had a good meal and felt welcome, but because of that, our reception was definitely one of the biggest expenditures.”

Eoin and Liz were blessed financially by their parents during the wedding planning process, but even though they weren’t directly responsible for the country-club bill didn’t mean they went overboard with their wedding choices.

“I always thought it was crazy that a woman could spend thousands of dollars on a wedding dress,” Liz said. “I bought a dress that was $300 even though I know my dad would have paid more.”

The couple did not want to be fixated on every detail of their wedding, but they paid careful attention to select aspects that were important to them, like the music at the wedding Mass to make the ceremony more prayerful. Looking back, they now see that their big day could have been simplified even more. For instance, they hired an Irish band to entertain guests during cocktail hour, but Eoin and Liz were taking pictures during this time and never heard a single note.

Now seven years into their marriage and still using NFP, Eoin said it’s easier to see the sacramentality of marriage than when they were planning their own nuptials. “We have a better understanding of our relationship and the commitment we made at the altar that day. For weddings we’ve attended since our own, we understand what they are actually getting into. But if they’re like how we were at that point, they have no clue.”

Both Eoin and Liz credit their pre-marriage preparation for keeping their priorities in line in the midst of a demanding wedding planning process. Even though they had been together since eighth grade, they discovered new things about each other.

“Marriage is a sacrament, so prepare for it like you would for first Communion and Confirmation,” Liz recommended. “What you’re preparing for is a lifetime with someone who will be your partner for life.”

As for wedding planning, Eoin hopes that other couples can also keep a realistic approach. “It’s just one day,” he said. “You won’t remember all of the details.”

Liz and Eoin viewed their wedding preparation through the faith-filled lense of NFP, which Liz said kept her mind on a “higher focus” rather than cake flavors or a stretch limo. While many engaged couples rely on a wedding planner as they count down to their big day, married couples practicing NFP completely surrender their will — and their fertility — to the “Master planner,” Liz said. “You should include God in your wedding decisions, just as you will include Him in your family-planning decisions throughout your marriage.”

Joe and Lauren did not begin practicing NFP until months into their marriage, but the couple believes that an earlier understanding of NFP could have influenced their approach to wedding planning. Using NFP has improved their communication and their ability to assess tricky topics, including budget, Lauren said. “We have put our lives more completely under God’s control. Joe and I continually discuss what choices we would like to make for our family together, and it’s not just our decision, but God’s will as well.”

A snowy lesson

Erik and Maria Pedersen approached their 2011 New Year’s Day wedding with that same mentality. They were living across the country as Erik, 30, attended graduate school in Washington D. C., and Maria, 28, worked as a journalist in St. Paul, Minn., and with a short six-month engagement, time and budget were a premium. Even if the couple, NFP users now living in Baltimore, Md., had decided to overanalyze any element of their wedding, those plans likely would never have come to fruition.

A Minnesota blizzard derailed nearly half of the couple’s guests from attending their winter ceremony in Maria’s rural hometown in the southwestern corner of the state. It wasn’t until Maria was sitting in the confessional the night before her wedding that the reality of the impending weather hit in full force.

“The priest offered to let me use the Catholic high school chapel for the wedding in case we couldn’t get out to my country church,” Maria said, “A lot of different emotions came out at once, but I strengthened my resolve to focus on the sacrament and not the unraveling details.”

As the snowfall waned and the roads turned to ice, guests began to call and cancel, including aunts and uncles, a concelebrating priest and even the cantor. Other guests braved the icy roads, and a personal attendant stepped in to sing. Maria’s cousin, a newly ordained priest who had just returned home from Rome, gave the homily and spoke of Mary and Joseph’s trust in God despite not knowing what was in store for them —an apt lesson for a couple who also started their marriage in the midst of uncertainty.

Their reception was smaller than expected, but Erik and Maria, along with their wedding party clad in green cocktail dresses and green-and-white paisley bow ties, danced through the storm while marveling at the harrowing tales of the guests who were able to join them. Through it all, they never considered rescheduling.

“In my mind we had both been preparing for so long that the wedding seemed like an end-zone. And we got married!” Erick said. “The thought of going through another discussion of what centerpieces would be in season makes me, in retrospect, all the more delighted that it happened just the way it did.”

The Pedersens were very cost conscious in their wedding planning. They took pride in negating cultural expectations for extravagant weddings that dig deep into the pocketbooks of brides, grooms, and their families.

By doing so, they heeded the advice of Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, as expressed in a 2011 pastoral letter. “A church wedding does not require some lavish spectacle and entertainment costing vast sums of money,” he wrote. “Indeed, how often have we seen the most costly weddings end in divorce in but a few months or years! While beauty and joy should surround a Christian wedding, we must remind everyone that it is a sacrament, not a show.” (What prescient remarks, issued months before Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries wed in a nationally televised, over-the-top ceremony and divorced 72 days later.)

In an interview with Family Foundations, Archbishop Sheehan elaborated on the views expressed in his letter, saying that weddings should not be about “one-upmanship” and outdoing others’ weddings. “The point I make is that you don’t have to pay a lot for a church wedding,” he said. “The wedding is not the reception, meal and big party. The wedding is between the two of you and God.”

With a closet overflowing with towels they received as wedding fits and drawers bursting with more kitchen utensils than they will ever need, Joe and Lauren Flaugher know their wedding day was not defined by a photo slideshow or an exhaustive wedding registry.

“Our society allows people to get swept up in the physical materials of this world,” Joe said. “The wedding is really just one day, but the sacrament of marriage is an ongoing sacrament that the husband and wife must commit to every single day.”

Lauren echoed that sentiment, offering this advice to engaged couples: “The only thing that truly matters is that you stay focused on the incredible sacrament that you and your future spouse are about to experience. Know that you are beginning a wonderful journey together.

— Jessica Weinberger is a marketing communications professional and freelance writer who enjoys a strong cup of coffee and the challenge of a blank Word document. She has contributed to Family Foundations since 2008. Jessica lives with her husband, George, near Minneapolis, Minn.