The Beatles may have sung “all you need is love,” but in South Korea a couple wanting to get married also needs cash, a lot of it - nearly $200,000, or more than four times the average annual income.
The sky-high costs stem from a combination of cultural traditions that mandate expensive pre-wedding gifts between families, such as mink coats and diamond rings, along with a decades-old custom that the groom must fork over money to provide a home.
The average cost for a wedding in 2011 rose about 270 percent from 1999, while the inflation during the same period rose 45.5 percent. Total costs far outstripped the average annual household income at around 48.3 million Korean won ($42,400), according to government data.
Thus, young couples seeking to unite in wedded bliss are forced to borrow from parents or take out loans. With candid discussions of money a cultural taboo in Korea, many are reluctant to speak about the high cost of exchanging vows.
“Korean society is very tightly knit, and people here are very concerned about how others view them,” said Harris H. Kim, a sociology assistant professor at Ewha Womans University.
“The wedding works as a status symbol, like a marker of where you stand in the society,” he added.
One 27-year-old woman working in the financial industry, who like many others asked to remain anonymous, said her parents paid nearly 90 percent of her 140 million won ($122,900) wedding costs.
“We had to use our parents’ money, which probably came from the sacrifice of their own retirement savings,” she said.
A 30-year old kindergarten teacher who would only give her surname, Kim, said her husband, whose income is 40 million won, took out a loan for 45 million won in addition to financial aid from their parents for a wedding with 600 guests. The couple didn’t know half the people, who were their parents’ friends.
Gift-giving also takes a hefty chunk of the cash. Traditionally, the bride and groom’s families have exchanged gifts - good silk for new clothes and simple jewelry - as a way of thanking the other family. But these days the silk has turned into fur or luxury handbags, while the jewelry has morphed into a full set of gems.
But the biggest part of the wedding budget comes from soaring housing prices, according to data from couple.net, a matchmaking company. The money spent by happy couples for housing last year was 2.5 times higher than in 2000, making up nearly 70 percent of the total cost of a wedding.
“I’ve had many customers in the last five years who directly asked for a spouse who can at least afford to rent a house,” said Sungmi Lee, a manager at couple.net.
Although most couples choose to spend the money, many are less than happy about it.
“None of that expensive jewelry is actually useful or beautiful, and you know you’ll just regret using the money for that after you’re actually married and need money for your married life,” said Kisun Lee, a 29-year-old consultant.