I could hardly believe it.
Refusing to get back to work until the sugar hangover from my delicious fruit smoothie had passed, I lay paralyzed in a fructose-induced coma on my sister’s couch; my eyes glued to the TV.
Feeling groggy and heavy, I didn’t want to exert a single neuron in my pained head, so I scrolled straight past the documentary row and hit play on the first option in the ‘reality TV’ section on Netflix. To my surprise, the show I selected sent my brain into overdrive; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The show in question was ‘Marriage or Mortgage’. Essentially, two women, a wedding planner and a real estate agent compete over a couple’s budget; one plans their dream wedding, hoping to seal the deal, the other finds their dream home, hoping they’ll choose her business.
Granted, the show does what it says on the tin. It’s a light-hearted watch for those looking for a breezy reality TV fix. It’s not designed to spark a thoughtful debate about American economics, nor should it be. And yet it does flag some important questions, not least the all-important “why is it that so many Americans are conditioned to such extent that traditional milestones considered for centuries to be a part of the ‘American Dream’ are unattainable for many?”
Being the talker that I am with practically any TV show, I waited for my sister to get home. We binged three episodes and collectively meandered from moments of pure incredulity to shouting “No, no, nooooo!” at the TV.
We called it a night after episode three, floored by the couple’s final decision. This particular couple who had been together for nine years had managed to save up $30,000 and secure a $350,000 pre-approved mortgage. They clarified their absolute priority was to start a family, and thus were eager for a new home, where they could fit a washer dryer and avoid the weekly lug of dirty clothes to their mother’s house.
Estate agent Nicole Holmes finds the pair a bright three-bedroom, a two-and-a-half-bath single-family home which ticks the couple’s ‘fireplace’ requirement, all under budget; convincing the sellers to throw in a credit to buy new appliances.
A no-brainer, we thought, only to be amazed by the couple’s choice to go for the wedding. They spent over $6,000 on the dress alone and blew the rest of the budget on a splashy wedding that included a custom ranch-dressing fountain for their guests.
We were stunned.
Now I’m all for a big, beautiful wedding. I appreciate it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it’s about building memories, etc…To put things into context, the other day I sobbed at an advert to a pension fund which showed two elderly people on a date. So trust me, I love love. And frankly, as an attendee, sign me up; big wedding fan, I’m not here to rain on your parade!
This being said, even I couldn’t wrap my head around the level of uncertainty clouding this couple’s decision. I would have assumed most people would prioritize improving their daily environment and future lives over forming a ‘perfect’ memory?!
I struggled to empathize with wanting to spend $30,000 on a day rather than a home. But for this particular couple (and presumably many more on this show), getting married seemed more important than finally getting out of a cramped one-bedroom apartment and into a beautiful three-bedroom house!
I appreciate it’s a matter of “My mind’s tellin’ me no, but my body, my body’s tellin’ me yes”. But seriously? In today's climate, it’s arguably easier than ever before to make this decision. With a global pandemic postponing weddings across the world, the importance of having a comfortable, safe home in which to live is flamboyantly apparent.
There will always be tiered cakes, chocolate fountains, and food trucks you can hire for $1,500 a night, but will interest rates remain historically low? I’m all for a champagne reception, but a wedding isn’t a marriage. I can’t for the life of me understand how this is a difficult decision. Yet, the majority of the couples on the show (yep, sat through it all) choose wedding.
Of course, you can make anywhere your home; undoubtedly, you’ll be able to build your cozy nook anywhere. But owning your own home is one of the rare reliable means to build your wealth; according to data from the Federal Reserve, the median net worth of a homeowner in 2019 was 40 times that of a renter.
Yet saving up for a down payment can take years of hard work and financial sacrifices. It takes the average renter buying a median-priced home in America around 6 ½ years to save for a 20% mortgage down payment. And even these are amongst the privileged; millions of people across the country struggle just to pay rent.
So, in an era of financial precarity, the ‘marriage or mortgage’ debate seems redundant. Reality TV is reality TV, I’m not expecting answers. But this show highlights an important and depressing reality; the American dream appears ever more outdated. It isn’t something one can just assume they’ll have one day. It’s time to make smart decisions.
The average American is around $90,000 in debt, including consumer debt, credit card debt, and student debt, hindering potential buyer’s ability to qualify for a mortgage and driving the prospect of homeownership further out of reach. Not to mention these debts are monthly expenses which make it even harder to accumulate savings, hence why affording a down payment in the first place is a primary barrier to homeownership.
Couple this with the fact it’s increasingly difficult to qualify for a mortgage if you’re one of the 36% of Americans involved in the growing gig economy, and the ‘should I spend $3,000 on a veil?’ question arguably seems absurd.
In a recent survey, almost 90% of respondents said they believe their lack of financial literacy has lead to social issues, and 65% voted wanted schools to provide financial education. So in addition to the ever-so-welcome dose of entertainment, I hope the ‘Marriage or Mortgage’ show at least serves as an overdue call to action in favor of increased financial education.