With the average cost of a traditional wedding approaching $20,000, a lack of money rather than love may be the reason so many young couples are living together instead of getting married, according to a University of Michigan researcher.
"Financial barriers to marriage are a significant issue for many young, working- and middle-class couples as well as for the poor and near-poor," said Pamela Smock, associate director of the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and a contributor to a special issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family on the future of marriage released in Washington today.
"Despite the retreat from marriage, it remains a highly valued status," said Smock, a sociologist who specializes in the study of family, gender and social inequality.
While scores of studies clearly show that those who are economically well-off are more likely to marry and to stay married, new findings by Smock and Bowling Green State University sociologist Wendy Manning suggest that low-income couples are not the only ones who put off tying the knot because they're in a financial pinch.
According to Smock, studying cohabitation is essential to understanding the decision to marry since most people now live together before they marry.
With funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Smock and Manning conducted in-depth interviews with 115 young adults. All of them were either living together at the time of the interview or had recently cohabited. The majority earned less than $20,000 a year, while only 7 percent earned more than $40,000.
Asked what would need to be "in place" in order to marry, nearly three-quarters of those interviewed cited at least one economic factor, Smock reported.
"Having enough money was a common consideration, along with the view that marriage signifies that one is no longer struggling economically, in essence, that marriage comes when one has already achieved a certain economic status," Smock said. "Most commonly, this status includes home ownership, getting out of debt, financial stability and essentially not living paycheck to paycheck."
Smock and Manning also found that having enough money to afford a "real" wedding was a concern for many cohabitors. Going downtown to the courthouse is not considered a real wedding, Smock noted. Some of the couples interviewed said they were delaying marriage until they could afford a church wedding and reception, and many expected they would need to pay for their weddings themselves—without help from their parents.
The researchers also found that nearly one-fourth of men and women believed that the decision to marry hinged on the male partner's ability to fulfill the breadwinner role.
"Despite the prevailing view that cohabitors are less invested in tradition than those who do not cohabit," Smock said, "many make a direct and conscious connection between willingness to marry and the male partner's ability to provide."
The findings lend support to the view that high expectations for marriage are part of what lies behind the retreat from marriage, Smock says. "We expect so much from marriage that we avoid it until it is clear that our expectations will be met," she said.
"I'm putting my money on marriage," she said. "Whether cohabitation becomes more like marriage or marriage more like cohabitation, something like marriage is here to stay."