The $500 Wedding: An Assessment

by Romie Stott

I’ve been married twice, once for three years and the other for five and counting. I spent less than $500 on each wedding, mostly on food. To each, I invited fewer than 20 people. I managed to keep wedding presents down to a useless picnic basket, four soup spoons, and a bottle of wine. I still haven’t been on a honeymoon.

Did that make it easier to divorce when I did the first time, and more likely to do it again this time? Probably. I’ve heard an argument for a big wedding that has nothing to do with it being your “special day” — that it should be so lavish, so expensive for friends, family, and loose acquaintances that you’d have to stay together or face abject humiliation and communal wrath. It’s the loan shark theory of weddings: Sure, there’s no-fault divorce, but we’ll break your legs and ransom your sister.

My divorce was easy, friendly — no kids, not much communal property, grad school acceptances on different continents. The hard part was telling other people, people who we’d asked to take our relationship seriously. I lost a family — his family — and crossed an ocean while he sat through court dates. We used advanced economic theory to divide the DVD collection.

I can’t imagine this would have been possible if they’d been wedding gifts — if they’d been wedding china, wedding linen, monogrammed fancy towels. I can’t imagine, if I’d asked my parents to bankroll a $10,000 wedding reception, or had set up a payment plan for a $20,000 ceremony, that I could have gone to grad school. I can’t imagine, years later, that I could have asked my friends to donate time and money to a wish-and-a-prayer micro-budget feature film. “Didn’t we already give you a week of vacation time and a $700 plane ticket for your destination wedding in Maui?” they might ask. “How did that work out?”

This is all academic, of course; I’m an artist and most of my close friends are artists. None of us, until the last few years, have been above the poverty line, and those few (me included) have student-loan-enabled negative net worths. If I’d worked out a way to splurge on a wedding too fancy for holey T-shirts, most of my friends could not have attended: Any cost beyond bus tickets would have been ruinous. My best man for the first one, my bridekick, was a temporary college dropout in a high-unemployment recession; he worked part-time as a grocery bagger and sometimes stole rotisserie chickens. That wedding, we held in a park; it was mostly grass and a duck pond with cars whizzing by.

The second time was more complicated — our friends and families were spread across half a dozen countries, still mostly poor artists, some chronically ill. The most joyful celebration I could imagine was one that said, “Don’t worry about it; I got this, and if you’re in town tonight you can order anything on the menu.” It took place in a tapas restaurant at a public table on a slow night midweek. The waiter guessed it was my birthday. It was pretty great.

As I’ve mentioned, we’re artists and a sometime scrappy film crew. We are too steeped in critical theory to hold a ceremony without interrogating its meaning as we seek to create a new paradigm with connections to the meaningful traditions of the past (representing the communal eternal) but a subversion of heteronormative pro-deist iconology. Yes, we are those people. You knew we existed, because there are jokes about us and we sometimes write letters to the editor of Harper’s. Please trust me when I say our hearts are in the right place and this overly complicated approach to life sometimes paves the way for truth and simple cataclysmic beauty. At the very least, it’s a way of showing, when you have no money, that you are taking this seriously.

So we gathered, 13 of us, around a table, citizen judge and jury of peers. (The groom and I were counted as jurors — who’s more your peer than you?) We ate and drank and told jokes and read bits of poetry. We passed the rings around the table — matching, handmade, silver, $75 each — and each person said a blessing, a wish for what the marriage would be, Sleeping Beauty fairies with no Maleficent. Our legal officiant and across-the-hall neighbor, with whom we’d carpooled, said that day she’d seen an eagle, right in the middle of the city, right in the middle of the road. She had to stop and wait for it to fly away. A sign, she thought, we had Earth’s spiritual endorsement.

I silently found this idea charming but implausible, with much the same skepticism I felt years before, when the officiant at my first wedding — the sort of minister who has actually attended divinity school — brought up the story of Adam and Eve. Yet this wedding, this second marriage, has lasted so far. Maybe it’s not implausible that a large bird of prey would visit an urban area to signal cosmic approval through eye contact with a bird-loving health care provider. Maybe that’s not any stranger than sitting next to someone and saying: You and me, one combined organism, forever, in a way we can’t fully comprehend.

In their own way, both of my cheap weddings worked out — the first one through its non-catastrophic soft landing failure, and the second by feeling as real and important and magical as any fairytale. I recommend them. If you can, get an eagle to endorse your officiant. And always remember to tip your waiter.

This story is part of our Wedding Season series.

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and LIT. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. Her online portfolio is at

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