Jessica Clough has heard it all before.
She knows the rate of success (or rather, rate of failure) for young marriages. She’s heard all of the divorce statistics, the personal stories about long distance relationships that have failed, and unsolicited accounts of financial struggles faced by young married couples by complete strangers. None of it is deterring her from her dream wedding to her fiance Mike on June 21, 2014.
Clough is only 21, still in her final semester of undergrad at Western Michigan University. She met her fiance, 23, at a party when their sorority and fraternity were paired up for Greek Week three years ago, and their engagement followed two years later in 2013 (“We need to come up with a more creative story of how we met,” she jokes). The pair are proof that despite national trends indicating otherwise, young people are still taking the big leap towards the altar.
During a time when women the average age for a first marriage for women has moved to the late twenties, young brides-to-be like Clough have become exceptions to the rule. In 1960, the average age was 20 years old. Today, that number has moved up to 27, a bump from 23 in 1990. A recent influx of studies has shown that marrying later pays off for women – literally.
The average annual personal income for a college-educated woman in her mid-30s who married after 30 is nearly twenty-thousand dollars more than that of her counterpart who married in her early twenties. The numbers mirror the reasons given by many women who cite a desire for higher education, career stability, and financial security as motivation to wait to walk down the aisle.
Clough says it’s not that she and her finance don’t want those things – they just don’t see how marriage will hinder the process. She believes her decision to finish school while being engaged doesn’t give her any fewer opportunities than someone who graduates unattached.
“I would be lying if I told you I didn’t ever considering dropping out of school and taking a year off to go with him so we could be together, but I didn’t,” she said. “Getting married is something that takes a lot of maturity and to me, giving up a degree that has a lot to offer me and my family in the future to follow my then boyfriend isn’t mature.”
Though her fiance graduated a semester earlier than her and has a good-paying job in Memphis, she is not relying on him for financial security. She is in the process of of interviewing with Fortune 500 companies in Memphis, where she plans to move.
“I would never compromise my dreams and aspirations to get married, nor would I even want to get married to someone who did just so they could get married to me. Marriage takes two people giving their all to each other and to me, you can’t give your whole self when you compromised yourself already.”
The struggle to maintain independence when planning a life together is one many young women juggling wedding planning and school face. Like Clough, Danielle Ledford, 21, has had to overcome the obstacle that distance has placed in her marriage. She married her husband Zak, also 21, in December of 2012. Zak’s service in the United States Marine Corps has caused them to be apart for months at a time, and resulted in her moving from Michigan to North Carolina to build a home for themselves while he was deployed. She is currently attending a community college there and is planning to transfer to a University when her husband gets his new assignment location.
She says some family and friends were hesitant about the couple tying the knot, which she understood due to their age. However, she thinks transitioning from boyfriend and girlfriend to husband and wife brought new responsibilities that caused them both to grow up.
“If I weren’t married, I’d be living with my parents or in a dorm. Now, I need to pay bills on my own, take care of the house, go to work as well as school, and go grocery shopping – all on my own, when Zak is deployed.. I now need to think about what I am spending my money on and actually think if I really need it or if I should hold off and wait until we have extra spending money,” said Ledford. “It is a lot more than just playing house.”
Financial struggles are common among young marriages. As individuals, young millennials have found themselves graduating into an economy that doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for them. Student loans, rent, and utility bills stack up quickly for those who don’t have much experience budgeting, nor a lot of extra money to spend. The prospect of having to finance a life for two isn’t as daunting as it seems to outsiders, according to Tonya Guidry, 20.
Guidry has been engaged to her fiance James, 23, since December 2013, and the two plan to have a small, intimate ceremony in late June. The two met while attending a college bible study course, though they’ve attended the same church since they were young. Their religion does not allow for them to live together prior to marriage, so they will begin their life together after saying their “I dos.”
While she is currently enrolled at Macomb Community College in metro Detroit, Guidry’s fiance has “a very concrete and steady job with benefits, retirement fund, and can provide plenty for us to live off of without counting my income.” She says a perk to sharing their lives is integrating costs.
“He wants me to finish school and get a career in the field that I wish to. He is actually helping pay for part of my schooling once we are married so that I can finish and complete my goal,” she said. “I want to be a teacher, which doesn’t pay much. It is nice to know that I won’t have to worry about not being able to do my dream job.”
Clough, Guidry, and Ledford all say that the support of their families have lessened financial stresses as well, particularly when it came to wedding planning.
In a society saturated with images of lavish weddings complete with Pinterest-perfect decorations, dresses, and cakes, the average wedding cost has come to about $25,000. For cash-strapped students, the support of family has meant they can afford to make fewer sacrifices for the weddings (and honeymoons) of their dreams.
“Were planning the wedding to be beach front on Little Traverse Bay, and the reception will be held in the golf club his family belongs to up there, so both were very budget friendly and meaningful to the both of us,” said Jessica Clough, who’s fiance’s family is funding a “good portion” of the wedding. She says that both her and her fiance are the first of their generation to get married within their families, so their families are “experiencing the same wedding fever we have.”
She adds that the pair were coming to terms with the idea of postponing their honeymoon due to a tight budget, but both sets of her fiance’s grandparents offered honeymoons in the timeshares they had.
“We’re relaxing on Longboat Key immediately following the wedding, and his [Mike’s] other grandmother gave us her timeshare in Paris for next spring as another honeymoon.”
She acknowledges that they are extremely fortunate because of their family’s contributions.
“We’re a little spoiled.”
Danielle Ledford says her wedding was made possible by dividing the cost into three parts, with the couple paying a third on their own and each of their respective families pitching in.
“We initially set a budget of $9,000.00 and split it evenly three ways, but since we had to push our wedding up sooner than expected, my parents stepped up and took some of the burden away since his family could not get the amount we agreed on at that time.”
The couple did not plan a honeymoon due to Zak’s deployment, so their budget allowed for more at the actual wedding.
“I don’t think we had to sacrifice anything we wanted due to budget.”
Guidry does not anticipate having to give up anything she wants for her big day either.
“We’re both very lucky and our parents are covering the cost of our wedding. The only thing that we had to pay for was the invitations and my dress. Making the invitations only cost us $70 and my dress only cost $200, so it wasn’t a very big cost to us.”
To many, marriage is a financial investment as much as it is an emotional one. The return on investment for young couples isn’t too promising; the highest rate of divorce in the United States is of those who marry between the ages of 20 to 24, according to the CDC. Similarly, 20 percent of marriages end in divorce within five years. Clearly, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever. While young women like Clough, Guidry, and Ledford are fortunate to have supportive families who believe in their union, the question of whether a young marriage will last can cause tension between some couples and their families.
Victoria Vanderzeil, 20, and her fiance Edward, 18, have been together for over four years, but have found their engagement hasn’t garnered support from all of their family members, particularly when it comes to putting money down on the wedding.
“My sister explained to me that the bride’s family is supposed to pay for certain things and the groom’s family is suppose to pay for other things, which has caused some drama,” said Vanderzeil. “My parents have decided not to pay for anything – not out of disapproval, but because my dad will be retiring – so that cost falls on us.”
She adds that the guest list for the pending nuptials have become an issue as well.
“My mother is refusing to attend due to her dislike of some of the people that will be invited to the wedding.”
Despite the obstacles she is already facing, Vanderzeil says she is looking forward to actually being married, which she says won’t likely happen until 2016 after she’s graduated from Michigan State.
“I’m ready to have people take our relationship seriously,” she said. “When you are young and you tell people you are in a relationship it’s seen as temporary.”
The other women echo these sentiments, each noting that assumptions made by strangers can put a damper on their engagement. Instead of celebrating, they find themselves explaining.
“When my mother-in-law was telling all of her friends that Zak proposed she always had to start out by saying, ‘Danielle’s not pregnant,’” said Ledford. “That’s usually their first assumption when they hear how young we are.”
Guidry has faced similar whisperings from members of her church.
“People assumed that I could be pregnant, that we are acting out of feelings and not thinking about our decision, or possibly that we are rushing our marriage so that we can live together sooner,” said Guidry.
“Overall, James and I have gotten many strange looks and reactions when we tell them we are getting married,” she said. “Both of us also look younger than we are, so that doesn’t help us very much either.”
Clough says that she has gone as far as to stop referring to her husband-to-be as her fiance around certain people, choosing to simply call him her boyfriend instead.
“ I know I should always own up to my choices and by no means does this mean that I’m not confident in my choice, but there are days that I just can’t handle being told divorce rates, or marriage horror stories, or why I should dump him and hang out with this random guy they think I’d mesh well with.”
She is most bothered by what she believes to be a double standard between people’s perceptions of men getting married young when she compares it with her experiences as a woman.
“The number one reaction I get when people see my ring or hear I’m engaged is ‘How old are you?!’ since apparently when you’re engaged it’s suddenly socially acceptable to ask a woman her age,” she said. “[I’ve had] people question my commitment to him, because I chose to stay and finish my degree while he’s in Memphis.”
She says she constantly receives links to stories discouraging young marriage or discussing the failures of a young couple from those who believe they are doing her a favor. A recent viral post entitled “23 Things To Do Instead Of Getting Engaged When You’re 23” made multiple appearances on her Facebook wall. She notes that Mike, her fiance, has not had to put up with similar responses.
“I think it is just because he’s in the corporate world where marriage is more common so people aren’t as concerned about his age,” she continues. “But I definitely see it as a double standard, like his intentions must ALWAYS be good while I’m just some gold digger mooching off his salary.”
She is determined to not let the naysayers get to her. Despite the statistics, the women all believe in their relationships.
“Do we doubt it sometimes? Yes. But for every time of doubt there other person was there to remind us why we made this commitment to each other,” said Clough. “We both have been there for each other during hard times to support each other, and celebrated during the best of times.”
Ledford says the first year of her marriage has gone smoothly, despite missing her husband when he is deployed. She does not regret her decision.
“When you find the right one, why should you wait?,” she said. “I can understand waiting so you can finish and graduate school, but you can still get engaged. That does not mean you are going to get married tomorrow. In my case I had no reason to wait, we knew we wanted to be together and get married.”
Guidry says she is can’t wait to finally be able to integrate her life with her husband.
“I am looking forward to most is being able to wake up next to him each morning and get to know him even better,” she said.
She recognizes that because they are still young, they have growing to do as individuals.
“Some things may be difficult and some might change, but I also believe it will be an interesting learning moment for both of us to grow closer to each other.”
For Vanderzeil, the concept of true love is more than a Cinderella story of happily ever after.
“I think because we have been together for so long and because we don’t overly romanticize relationships, we don’t have to worry as much about,” she said.
“Relationships aren’t about finding the one and only perfect person, they’re about finding the one you can argue with and still love.”