Diamonds aren't forever: Why cheaper engagement rings may mean a longer marriage

How much did your engagement ring cost? It may be a sign of how long your union will last.

One study reported that men who spent less than $500 or more than $2,000 had a higher rate of divorce than men who spent somewhere in the middle.PeopleImages / Getty Images

Several months before we were engaged, my fiancé Patrick inquired about what sort of rings I liked. I knew why he was asking, so I cut to the chase and sent him a detailed and terribly unromantic email describing my dream engagement ring to a tee (along with links to sites), and then put in bold font: Do not spend a lot; if you do I will say no.

I was joking of course, but not about my desire for him to stick to a sensible budget, since we were living more or less paycheck-to-paycheck at the time.

Patrick did end up spending a tad more than I would have liked, but it wasn’t outrageous and the ring is just what I would have picked for myself (probably because it came from one of the links I sent him). Three years later, as we’re finally about to walk down the aisle, I stumbled across research that has me wondering whether being financially shrewd about the engagement ring (and now about our wedding) won’t only help our bank accounts, but also help our marriage’s odds of lasting.

You can’t buy love … but the wedding industry would beg to differ

The research, co-authored by Andrew Francis-Tan, a visiting associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and Hugo M. Mialon, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the department of economics at Emory University, examined the association between wedding spending and marriage duration using data from their survey of over 3,000 ever-married adults in the U.S. The motivation of the research was to uncover whether spending a fortune on a ring and a wedding, (as we’re frequently inclined to do, often to our own regret) impacts the longevity of a marriage.

“Wedding industry advertising has fueled the norm that spending large amounts on the engagement ring and wedding is an indication of commitment or is helpful for a marriage to be successful,” says Mialon. “In either case, the general message is that wedding spending and marriage duration are positively correlated.”

But that’s not the case.

There’s a sweet spot for how much a ring shouldn’t cost

In their research, Francis-Tan and Mialon found that men who spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring had a higher rate of divorce (of about 1.3 times) than men who spent between $500 and $2,000.

Men who spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring had a higher rate of divorce than men who spent between $500 and $2,000.

But the pendulum swings the other way, too. Spending less than $500 on an engagement ring was found to be associated with higher divorce rates in the sample of women surveyed.

This information could lead one to surmise that between a ring between $500 and $2000 is the best amount to spend, if you want to lower the odds of divorce, but that’s not the best way to look at this analysis, which Tan-Francis asserts “does not prove that high expenses on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony cause divorce, only that high expenses on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony are positively correlated with divorce, holding constant a number of demographic and relationship characteristics, including income.”

It’s not about the price tag, it’s about what you can afford

What this research lays a case for is that splurging on “forever” diamonds and extravagant weddings won’t improve your chances of staying together, and could, in some ways, hurt them. Why? Possibly because you’re focusing less on forming an enduring union than you are on celebrating the beginning of one, and maybe even digging a debt hole in the process.

“What could explain the observed negative association between wedding expenses and marriage duration? Perhaps those couples who tend to have lavish weddings are simply those couples who tend not to be the best match for each other,” says Mialon. “On the other hand, it is also possible that having an expensive wedding burdens couples financially (conditioning on their income) in a way that may later strain their marriage. In the paper, we present some evidence that those who spent a lot on their wedding were more likely to report that debt resulting from wedding expenses caused stress in their marriage, and there is sizable literature in economics and sociology linking economic stress and marital dissolution.”

Not only might the impact of big spending strain a marriage, it creates opportunity for arguments.

“The more elaborate an event is, the more opportunities there are to fight over money and who pays for what,” says Tracy Brisson, a wedding officiant and the owner of Savannah Custom Weddings & Elopements. “That resentment can carry over into the beginning of a marriage.”

A ring that doesn’t distract you from reality

A statement engagement ring was never something I’d yearned for, but I did find myself upping the filters on Instagram to make my ring look sparklier when first sharing it on social media. When showing off the ring in person, I went on out-of-character rants about how much I loved simple, vintage-inspired styles and how much I disliked gaudy baubles. It was almost like I was defending my ring from those who may silently judge it as “not enough.” I couldn’t understand why I was behaving this way when I knew the ring was exactly what I wanted, and that it had been far from cheap. What was my problem? Well, it probably had little to do with the ring.

“I think all of us, when we get engaged, have to take a painful look within and recognize our childhood fantasies about the fairytale that happens when you find ‘the one’,” says Dr. Fran Walfish. “What comes with finding the one is a reasonable amount of disappointment. It’s not that we’ve ‘settled’, it’s that we’re reaching a point where we’re realizing we have to decide what is priority, and that we can’t get every single thing we want in a partner.”

Had I been presented a more decadent ring, immediately followed by a luxurious whirlwind wedding (rather than waiting, as we did, to plan a smaller affair), perhaps I would have been more distracted from what I really needed to be focusing on: enforcing a strong and healthy partnership.

Focusing on what really matters

“Lavish spending and focus on materialism may be a distraction from other issues in the relationship, and the planning of a wedding/engagement takes up a lot of time and energy invested towards the event which may be a welcome distraction for couples who do not have a solid foundation or have serious concerns about the relationship to begin with,” says Christie Tcharkhoutian, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“Oftentimes planning a wedding, especially an extravagant one, can feel like a full-time job that consumes couples with a focus on the guests, the photos, the luxuries and what they would appreciate or what would make them happy. This takes away from the crucial time a couple needs to prepare for the wedding and ask the necessary questions that would indicate they want to spend the rest of their lives with each other,” she adds. “Many couples I see in therapy opt to try pre-engagement counseling, [so] whether they choose to splurge on their engagement ring [or not], they have asked each other all the right questions and worked through the doubts and are able to enjoy the season without using material aspects to cloud their judgment or distract from what the true meaning and reasons for marriage are. A relationship built off of intangible intimacy rather than a lavish lifestyle is much more likely to not only last, but thrive into a loving partnership that lasts for a lifetime.”


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