We are a middle-class family with six children, two girls and four boys. We were comfortably well-off until I lost my job two years ago. For six months now I have been back at work, but while I was unemployed we used up our savings and ran up debts. Our house is mortgaged but we have some equity in it, and now that I have settled into my new job we could borrow up to fifteen thousand dollars against the equity and pay off some of the high-interest loans.
Our eldest child, Janet, has been going with a fine young man for some time, and they are planning to marry next spring. Neither has any savings, and his family is even worse off than we are. The problem is that Janet and my wife want to take the practice of our relatives and neighbors as the model for what we will do in putting on the wedding. They originally wanted an affair that would have cost more than twenty thousand dollars, but when I showed them we simply could not spend that much, they reluctantly said the fifteen thousand we could borrow on the house would do. But using that money for the wedding would make it far harder to pay off our other debts, so that austerity measures affecting all of us would be necessary for a long time. Besides, if I am out of work again or we run into other financial problems, we probably will not be able to borrow more and could even lose our house.
My brother has offered to make us an interest-free loan of three thousand, and I think we should take it and not spend more on the wedding, which still could be a respectable party if all of us pitch in and put on the party ourselves at the parish hall. Janet thinks that would be grossly inadequate. Her mother agrees with her. And even the younger children are enthusiastic about the idea of a catered affair at a country club and accuse me of being a tightwad.
If I give in, I will not be taking care of the family finances as I really believe I should, especially in view of the impact on the younger children. But if I refuse to give in, it looks as though Janet is going to be very alienated from me, and my wife also seems likely to resent it for a long time. That will be hard to take, especially because our financial problems during the past couple of years already have caused a lot of stress between us, making our relationship difficult for the first time in our married life.
Should I accept further damage to our difficult financial situation in order to make the rest of the family happy, or accept the damage to our family’s relationships in order to take better care of them?
The questioner asks whether he should give in to his wife’s and daughter’s financial demand. This question presupposes two others. The first is: How much should the family spend for the wedding? In answering, false standards of what is appropriate must be set aside. The second question is: How should the questioner deal with his disagreement with his wife? He should again try to reason with her. If she insists on spending more than he judges appropriate, he could refuse his consent to any borrowing and/or spending that requires it. But perhaps he should give in. To decide that, he must consider the reasons both for giving in and for refusing his consent, and judge which set of reasons makes the better case.
The first step is the one you are taking in asking the question: Set aside the emotional pressures being exerted on you and ask yourself what you should do. Rather than treat money as if it were a human value in itself, people should regard it as far inferior to good human relationships. But money is necessary for many human goods, and the issue here does not pit money against relationships, but relationships against other human goods for which the money also happens to be needed. To be specific, if you provide weddings costing fifteen thousand rather than three thousand dollars for each of your two daughters (assuming that Janet’s sister will want a wedding comparable to hers and that there will not have been much inflation in the meantime), that will be twenty-four thousand dollars less available for the needs of the family as a whole.
Marriage is a great human good, but a costly wedding is not especially likely to contribute to a good marriage, and everything essential for a wedding that begins a good marriage can be supplied at minimal cost. The standards for weddings in many cultures impose great hardship on families, but unless such societies’ practices promote true human goods their unreasonable standards should be recognized as sinful social structures. Family celebrations can be real instances of familial communion, and so can be good in themselves, but their value is almost entirely in the spirit that participants bring to them, rather than in their material magnitude. Celebrating a marriage is appropriately one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of family celebrations, since it concerns the whole family, the parents’ fulfillment of their role in bringing a child to maturity, and the family’s continuation into the future. But it does not follow that your family’s wedding celebrations should meet the material standards set by families financially better off than yours or whose sense of values may be distorted—much less, as is common in our consumerist society, the standards proposed by businesses that profit from weddings. Rather, it follows that, in keeping with your financial condition, you should do more for your daughters’ weddings than you would for a christening, a birthday, a graduation, or an anniversary. Applying these criteria to your situation as you describe it, I think you will be doing enough, and perhaps more than enough, if you accept your brother’s offer and celebrate the wedding within that budget.128
Having clarified the matter for yourself, talk about it again with your wife. Major expenditures affect the good of the family as a whole, for which you bear primary responsibility. But your daughter and wife seem to have made up their minds without even consulting you. Point out, gently but firmly, that you have reasons, which your wife should consider, for your position. In making your case, the central and most obvious points to emphasize are the unfairness to the younger children of contracting more debt and the riskiness of extending the family’s credit to the limit. Therefore, you should argue that what Janet and others involved stand to gain from a costly celebration cannot justify giving up and risking what the family as a whole stands to lose or may lose. The argument is a straightforward application of the Golden Rule. Your wife may point out that in fact the younger children are on her side. While conceding that, you can reply that the younger children are in no position to be good judges of their own true interests.
If your wife remains unconvinced, you might suggest that, even though she does not see the matter as you do, she should go along with your decision as head of the family (see LCL, 629–33). Put this gently, not truculently, making it clear that you are trying to serve the family’s interests, not just impose your will. If the family’s financial problems perhaps are in some respects your fault, admit your failings and ask for forgiveness, but point out that the problems’ causes are irrelevant to the question of how to deal with them. If your wife generally accepts your authority, she may accept your judgment.
And if she does not? Very likely she has previously taken the position that the two of you should not proceed in any important matter without consensus. If so, without compromising the point about your role as head of the family, you can remind her that she has insisted on consensus in the past, and that, to be consistent, she should not make a unilateral demand now. In the absence of consensus to spend more than three thousand dollars on the wedding, she should not insist on borrowing and/or spending more; in particular, she should not insist on taking out a home equity loan to pay for the wedding.
But suppose your wife continues to demand what she and Janet want. I presume taking out a home equity loan would require your consent. If so, you can refuse and so unilaterally either limit the budget for the wedding to three thousand dollars or agree to spend somewhat more, but less than fifteen thousand. Should you use that power? Using it can be justified in principle, since you have that authority and would be exercising it in the family’s best interest. Of course, that will mean your wife will be forced against her will to accept the outcome; but your giving in will mean you are forced to act against your better judgment. The question is: Will the likely long-term effects—on your marital relationship and your relationships with Janet and your other children—be so bad that it would be better to accept the bad effects of giving in? To answer this question, you must consider the reasons for and against giving in and judge which set of reasons makes the stronger case. If you conclude that, considering your wife’s attitude, it is more reasonable to give in, that too will be a proper exercise of your authority.
Whether your wife accepts your decision, or you and she finally compromise, or you refuse entirely to give in to her, the tensions in your marital relationship generated by the family’s financial problems need to be addressed. The conflicts you have been experiencing, for the first time in your married life, may point to deeper trouble. In any case, you should work together to overcome them (see LCL, 721–25).
Finally, be grateful that Janet’s fiancé is a fine young man. Encourage the couple not only to do carefully what your diocese requires by way of marriage preparation but to look beyond their honeymoon and do everything they can to prepare themselves for marriage. They should think through their vocation’s responsibilities, try to settle issues that might lead to serious disagreement, and prepare spiritually—for instance, by helping each other remain chaste, praying for each other and praying together, reading the liturgy for marriage including the Scripture readings and discussing these materials’ implications for their marriage, and worthily receiving the sacraments.
And just as the young couple should not be distracted by the wedding from their marriage preparation, you and your wife should not be impeded by your disagreement from working together to support Janet and her fiancé in setting out to live a good and holy life together.129
128. Denise and Alan Fields, Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget, 3rd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Windsor Peak Press, 1996), 5, report that the average cost of a formal U.S. wedding (based on industry estimates for 200 people) is $15,425, not including wedding rings and honeymoon; their book provides many suggestions for reducing costs.
129. Other family disagreements can be handled in the way outlined here. Still, I wish to emphasize that my answer should not be mistaken as license for any husband and father to reject other family members’ claims on family resources so as to monopolize them in serving his personal interests as distinct from those of the family as a whole.