When Achelle, a New Yorker who works in the beauty industry, got engaged to her husband in 2016, she estimates she already had about 90 percent of the wedding planned. And not just planned out in her head — we’re talking cake selected, venue deposits down, ready to walk down the aisle planned. “Why wait when you know you want to spend the rest of your life together?” she says.
The pair had been dating for about two years when they broached the subject of marriage with their families in 2015 over the December holidays. “We had this whole conversation of, well, when do we want to get married?” she recalls. They wanted to wed in the summertime, but summer was just six months away. Putting it off until summer 2017 seemed more feasible from a planning perspective. “If you want to get married in the summer in New York, it’s so hard to book photographers and videographers, and work around family schedules to get everyone together,” she says.
But they didn’t want a long engagement. “A lot of it was spawned from me being a little bit older and being ready to have kids,” Achelle adds.
And so they planned. She says they got officially engaged — as in, he got down on one knee and gave her a ring in May, just four months before the wedding, which they held in August 2016. (Ultimately, they were able to find a venue and hold the wedding eight months after that initial conversation with their families.)
While Achelle says planning a wedding prior to engagement is “definitely not for everyone,” it turns out, more and more couples are doing it. Based on a 2018 survey, The Knot estimates 17 percent of couples planned all or part of their weddings before getting engaged. Josh Spiegel, the president and creative director of Birch Event Design, says he began to notice the trend about two years ago. “It’s the idea that venues book out really quickly, and couples want to lock their venues down and line up their vendors as soon as possible. The longer you wait to book, the longer you may have to push off your celebration,” he explains.
Jen Glantz, a “bridesmaid for hire” and the author of several books on weddings and engagements, says she’s also observed a spike in pre-engagement wedding planning. “I’ve worked with clients who have the dress before they have the ring,” she says.
Once upon a time, this might have been written off as overeager Bridezilla behavior. We’re all familiar with the sexist caricature of the wedding-obsessed woman who scares away potential partners with her fixation on the trappings of holy matrimony. (If somehow you’re not, this New York Times story entitled “Married To The Plan. Still Looking For The Groom” from 2013 can surely help you get acquainted with her.) But in reality, those women are the outliers. The real reason most people are getting a leg up on planning comes down to much less headline-worthy issues: money, busy schedules, the reality that most couples are already cohabitating anyway and engagements are rarely a total surprise. There’s also the competition, especially in very status-conscious cities, for the top venues and best photographers.
While Achelle says it was obvious during their process that she and her husband were definitely getting married, she says that in terms of the proposal, he “kind of kept [her] hanging on for a little bit, because he wanted to maintain some element of surprise."
For Stephanie, who lives in New York and works in finance, putting down the deposit on their venue in Dallas, where she’s originally from, prior to getting officially engaged was a no-brainer. As a long distance couple, she and her now-husband had talked at length about marriage. “We were much more open about like, hey, we have to be married by this time so you can move and get a job,” she says. “It was just a lot more about logistical planning with respect to our lives, not just the wedding.”
But, like Achelle, she says she and her partner did it primarily out of necessity to secure a good venue. “In Dallas, if you want to get married in a church, most churches you have to be a member. We didn't live in Dallas, so we obviously weren't members at any churches. The one church we wanted to get married is very hard to get into. Moms book this church years in advance for their daughters,” she explains. She reserved the church five months before getting engaged, and was married nine months after that. While she saved the rest of the planning for once she had the ring, she says no one in her life (including her husband-to-be) thought it was at all strange that they booked the venue earlier.
“People in Dallas have always been doing that. Moms book out country clubs for their daughters. It’s a lot more of a culture down south,” she posits.
So what’s the point of having a traditional, down-on-one-knee, photo-op engagement when you’re already, for all intents and purposes, engaged? Obviously, every couple is different, but if we know one thing about millennials, it’s that we love to celebrate. The thinking seems to be that just because you’re already planning the wedding doesn’t mean you should forgo the big, beautiful proposal. This may not make total sense to older generations, who grew up during a time when things were done in a very specific order — engagement, marriage, house purchase, baby — but, for the most part, women who have done this say their family and friends have been supportive. “I think my dad was a little hesitant when he was waiting to pop the question,” admits Achelle. “But everyone was really supportive because we had been dating for so long and they really loved our love story and realized that we’re adults.”
Glantz, who is not engaged but is in a serious relationship, says of her own situation:
“We’re moving toward that point where it’s like, how does this all work without us actually talking about it? The things that used to be kept in secret, like what kind of ring do you want? When are we getting engaged?, are now becoming a joint conversation. Which, to be honest, I think is about gender roles. Before it was the guy who planned the engagement and the woman who planned the wedding, and now both of those things are becoming more couple-focused.”
As couples better communicate as equals, the old ways of doing things can feel somewhat strange and obsolete. Think about it: Wouldn’t you be kind of weirded out if someone you had never talked about marriage with just up and proposed to you?
Another thing that’s changed is that more couples are paying for their own weddings than ever before. According to a 2019 survey by Wedding Wire, the average couple pays for 45 percent of their wedding costs, with the rest filled in by family members. It takes a long time to save up that kind of money, especially when you consider that the average millennial wedding costs $31,000. For most couples, it’s not realistic to be able to cough up several thousand dollars in a year or less, so they begin saving in advance of their engagement. Some couples are even splitting the cost of the engagement ring, which costs $5,000 on average.
“If they can get together the details of the finances behind the wedding, and come together on those key decisions, a lot of times it makes a couple feel as though they're okay with taking that next step and this is going to work out,” observes Glantz.
In addition to saving up money, millennials are wedging their Big Days in between work stuff, friend commitments, and, well, other people’s weddings. Much ink has been spilled about millennial burnout and over-scheduling, but suffice it to say, these factors are real, and they’ve even begun to affect the way we plan our weddings.
Okay, but… what if, somehow, you don’t end up getting engaged? There are always those stories that make us feel like wedding-obsessed control freaks for so much as glancing at a copy of Brides before our partner gives us the 2.5 karat permission to do so. Michelle Grote, a former hotel manager, recalls having a client sign a contract to have her wedding at the hotel “with the hopes of finding a husband by her contracted date." "She booked two years out and in the course of that time I was told 3 different names for her 'fiancé,'" Grote says. "Finally we were 10 days from the wedding when her final payment was due and she came clean. She tried to cancel but due to the contract she owed so much money she ended up just having a dinner party for her girlfriends."
Achelle admits that there were certain things she held off on doing until she had the ring, not because she had any doubts that the wedding was going to happen, but because it felt like a bad omen not to. “I was superstitious. Like, I really didn’t want to get the dress [until I had the ring], but then they had to do the alterations very quickly because it was a custom design,” she says.
Superstitions aside, The Knot reports 13 percent of engaged couples don’t make it down the aisle. There’s no data like this available about couples who plan their weddings before getting engaged, but there’s no reason to believe it would be all that different. For most couples, pre-planning their wedding isn’t a sign that they’re less serious about marriage — in fact, given the implications it has about communication, it might mean the opposite.
“I think what is happening is we’re disrupting the whole timeline of engaged, planning a wedding, getting married, and having kids,” says Glantz. “Now we’re going to have kids whenever we want, we’ll have a party whenever we want. People are mixing and matching this whole timeline to fix their budget and their needs. It’s no longer a straight line.”