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A New Netflix show asks the question couples everywhere face: Buy a wedding or a house?

March 10, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

Emily and Braxton are a couple in their early twenties grappling with the decision of whether to buy a house together or throw a wedding. The house seems preferable to Braxton, who appears to be tired of living apart from his sweetheart. They each reside in their respective parents’ homes.

After seeing the options for each—massive showers vs. doughnut walls, backyards vs. wedding bands—the couple ultimately decide to spend their $30,000 on a wedding day. They still live with their parents.

Emily and Braxton are just one of 10 couples on Netflix’s new show, Marriage or Mortgage, which pits a wedding planner, Sarah Miller, against a real estate agent, Nichole Holmes, to vie for a couple’s $30,000—which they can spend on either a wedding or a house. It debuted today on the streaming service. (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.)

The show brings up a popular, perhaps daunting, question: If you had to choose between buying a house you could live in for the rest of your life or a party that lasts one day, what would you put your tens of thousands in savings toward?

“If a couple can afford to do both, by all means, go for the bash and buy a house,” Holmes tells Fortune. “But that is not the experience of these 10 couples. It was pretty emotional at times.”

The latest wedding show from the streaming service pits a real estate agent against a wedding planner to vie for a couple’s savings that they can spend on either a mortgage or a wedding.
Courtesy of Netflix

The show does a standout job in finding a diverse set of endearing Tennessee couples, based in and around Nashville, for the competition. Some are older, some are younger; some are mixed race, and some are gay. They all seem like genuinely happy people who have faced no shortage of challenges in their relationships. The scene, Nashville, offers its own obstacles. Its wedding market is thriving, and the median home price is increasing as the population expands, thanks to its growing tech and health care industries.

The couples all come in with about the same budget, and it’s an important number: $30,000. The average cost of a wedding in the U.S., pre-pandemic, hovers around $28,000, not including the engagement ring or a honeymoon, according to The Knot. To many, that’s a hefty chunk of change to save up by your mid- to late-twenties, the age when the average person says “I do.” By comparison, Zillow prices the average home in the country at just shy of $270,000. If you’re looking at a typical mortgage with a 10% down payment, that means the home buyer will need $27,000 to put in an offer. It’s clear to see how these are two competing uses for the nest egg that a couple may save by the time they are in their thirties.

The financially practical option is to purchase a home. It’s an investment in the true sense of the word, as the couple will build equity and will see a return on that investment when they sell it. Unlike renting, money isn’t going into a black hole that you can’t recoup. But it’s shortsighted to assume everyone would make the rational financial choice. As humans, we make emotional purchases, too. Add to that social pressures, especially on women, to have a “big fat wedding” and feel like a princess, and it’s easy to see how a couple, on Netflix or in real life, may be swayed.

The average cost of a wedding in the U.S. hovers around 28,000 dollars, not including the engagement ring or a honeymoon, according to The Knot.
Courtesy of Netflix

“A wedding is symbolic of commitment, and what better way to have that before taking any other steps in life,” Miller says. “I am such a traditionalist on customs that most younger couples might have forgotten about—what their parents and grandparents believed in. Have your love bound together first.”

What the program doesn’t present are the intricacies of either decision, especially when it comes to the wedding ceremony and reception details. Wedding topics seem focus on just three key parts, leaving viewers to wonder if they considered line items for other popular categories such as the photographer, flowers, bartending staff, and even attire.

The wedding planning operates under two false assumptions that plague plenty of couples not on the show: one, that a marriage equals a wedding; two, that a wedding is an investment. To start with, couples can easily get married without the fanfare of a party with 150 guests. A marriage license in most states will put you back, give or take, $25. That leaves $29,975 for a down payment. It’s more common than most people think for couples to be legally wed prior to an actual wedding celebration, meaning any of the couples could say “I do,” purchase the house, and hold a wedding down the road.

There is something to be said for making the marital commitment in front of your supportive community of friends and family, and Miller reminds couples consistently that a wedding is more than a party. She may attempt to sway them with helicopter rides and custom suits, but always comes back to the inherent idea that it’s about having those who believe in the couple’s love with them on that day.

It would, however, be remiss to call a wedding an investment, despite that word often being thrown around in that way. Yes, a wedding allows you to create memories, which do hold sentimental value, but that’s not the definition of an investment. You can’t later sell your wedding for the same as or more than you paid, as you can a house. As Holmes says, “You aren’t making a profit off releasing turtledoves or carriage rides off into the sunset.” For instance, even if you were to sell your wedding dress online, you’d get about 50% of the retail price, according to Tradesy, a peer-to-peer resale marketplace. Many houses, especially in growing areas like Nashville, will sell for the same as or more than what the homeowner paid.

A scene from “Eight Years in the Making,” part of Netflix’s new “Marriage or Mortgage” docuseries.
Courtesy of Netflix

Both Miller and Holmes do find ways to sweeten their arguments just before the couples decide between a wedding and a house by offering discounts and freebies from vendors. It’s unclear how often this really happens when the cameras are off, but maybe that’s the liberty of a Netflix production. These deals are likely the only way many of these couples could ever hold their dream wedding for $30,000.

Their requests seem in line with wedding content presented in magazines and on social media—but the insider knowledge is that most of those weddings likely cost close to six figures or more. A $6,000 wedding gown may be a drop in the bucket for a bride with $100,000 to spend. That’s very different when it’s 20% of the total budget and she needs to feed 150 guests. Similarly, Holmes somehow manages to get a homeowner to offer an appliance budget for the pricey Smeg line. The entry-level refrigerator alone is $2,000. If that happens in real life, I want to work with her.

The show serves as a financial counter to Netflix’s other wedding series of the moment, The Big Day, which follows couples in India and the planning of their nuptials, with thousands of guests, multiple events over the course of days, and sometimes even two weddings in different countries. In this three-episode collection, the challenge the couples face is how to come together despite differences in religion or tradition, with two couples doing away entirely with a customary Hindu ceremony. But money is no object to these couples, as their respective parents have saved for years or even decades to throw this massive event.

It does have all the flash of a quintessential dream wedding: over-the-top decor, packed dance floors, friends flying in from around the globe, and families sparing no expense. One bride’s parents planted dozens of mustard plants a year in advance so that the ceremony would look like a scene out of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, an immensely popular Hindi film. Another family hired two Bollywood stars to make cameos at the entrance to a pre-ceremony party. And another bride and her future sister-in-laws get personal fittings with acclaimed designer Gaurav Gupta at his studio in New Delhi. Who footed the bill? The groom’s parents, who also gave the bride a pearl-and-diamond necklace to wear with her gown.

Netflix’s “The Big Day” showcases lavish Indian weddings from the planning stages to, you guessed it, the big day.
Courtesy of Netflix

A thought expressed by many a couple on both shows is that they “deserve” a dream wedding, whether or not they can afford it. This sense of entitlement is rampant among to-be-weds, and it prompts the question: What effect does televised entertainment like this have on someone thinking about his or her future? Anecdotally, it feels like a perpetuation of misconceptions about weddings, marriage, financial literacy, and homeownership. It calls to mind an entire cottage industry for wedding loans, with companies like Upstart touting wedding funding (with sometimes very high interest rates) and Maroo offering to help couples finance their weddings with layaway-like payment plans.

“I am not in this industry to make my couples broke or in debt,” Miller says, echoing a sentiment shared by wedding planners everywhere. It’s one of the perks of hiring one: to serve as a guide, especially around cost. “Be smart about planning, and come in with an open mind. You will be surprised what you might be able to afford,” she adds.

Luckily, on Marriage or Mortgage, there’s almost a 50-50 split between home purchasers and wedding planners. In fact, one couple proves you really can have it all: Denise and Nicholas opted for a house, and the scene pans to Holmes and Miller stopping by with a housewarming gift months later. Before they toast with the show’s hosts in their new space, Nicholas casually drops the word “wife,” and Denise flashes a wedding band. The couple eloped in their dream outfits, captured by a photographer, and now live in their dream house.

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