Crippling Wedding Debt
Sumptuous weddings are a common feature of life in the South Caucasus.
Just 30 years ago, a wedding of 200 people was considered meager here. In the Soviet years, wedding festivities took place in enormous tents set up outside, both in the countryside and in the capitals of all three countries. There wasn’t such a great number of restaurants and banquet halls like there are today. The celebrations usually lasted from Friday to Sunday evening. A rich spread on the table, a dress for the bride and a suit for the groom, musicians, gold jewelry, and a photographer.
After the disintegration of the USSR, when the societal standard of living in the region fell sharply, the economic crisis began to dictate its conditions. In the years of the “transition period” sumptuous weddings became a rarity. However, the last ten years in the region have seen a renaissance in festive weddings: couples now compete not only in terms of the restaurant and clothing, but also with the composition of the entire wedding, photos with a professional camera, and the use of drones, buffets, and flash mobs.
Of course, there are couples who prefer a modest wedding of twenty people, and who use the money they save to go abroad on vacation, but for the most part, newlyweds and their families want “no worse than others”, in order to, as they say, not shove one’s face in the mud in front of relatives and neighbors.
For example, while in all countries the question of unemployment is a pressing one and the standard of living might leave something to be desired, a wedding of “moderate splendor” costs a minimum of ten thousand dollars. The question arises, how does one manage expenses that seem unbearable?
Thirty-seven year old Nino (Georgia) shares her experience. She and her husband got married a year ago.
“The wedding cost 25,000 lari (around 10,000 dollars); this was for 270 people. We didn’t take out money on a loan, we just reached an agreement with the restaurant that we would repay the money immediately after the wedding, when the gifts would be gathered”, explains Nino.
Nino’s story is atypical for Georgia: they celebrated their wedding and got by without large debt. The restaurant met them halfway and waited for the money, which was a great help to the newlyweds. It’s usually difficult for the bride and groom to manage the expenses, and parents try to help them, also taking out bank loans.
Mariam is 27 years old, she has been married for more than eight years. Her children are five and three years old. Mariam remembers that her extravagant wedding in Tbilisi cost around eight thousand dollars.
“I wanted everything to be like in a fairytale: a beautiful wedding, lots of guests. I and my future husband weren’t working, we were still students. Our parents took on the expenses. They took out loans at the bank, which were to be paid off over about four years. When the children and other expenses came along, I understood that this was egotistical on my part to demand an extravagant wedding at the expense of having debt. Yes, it was very beautiful, fun, and enjoyable, but four years of paying back debts!? At that time, I went to girlfriends’ weddings and I wanted the same thing, after all, my girlfriends also took on large debts… I think that today it’s almost impossible to hold a beautiful wedding in Tbilisi without debts”, says Mariam.
A wedding picture of 44 year-old Anaid Gasparyan’s daughter and son-in-law, whose wedding was in April, stands on his desk. Anaid says that the most cherished memory for parents is to organize a true Armenian wedding
“We Armenians want for our children to have a fancy wedding, which means we spend much more money. We love it when people remember our wedding for a long time afterwards”, says Gasparyan, an accountant by profession.
Today, a true Armenian wedding costs a minimum of 5,000 to 10,000 dollars. And the more glamorous can go for 40,000-50,000 dollars. It’s hard for the average citizen to hold even a normal, modest wedding. Many take out loans with high interest rates and then work for several years to clear the debt at the bank.
“We had some savings, the rest we got from the bank, and what can you do”, says Anaid Gasparyan. They spent somewhere around $4,500 on their daughter’s wedding, of which $2,500 was on credit from the bank.
“The groom spends more. For example, my son-in-law’s parents spent $8,000. Five years ago, when we held my son’s wedding, we could organize everything, spending around $5,000, but each year it’s more difficult, prices grow. But I love weddings, this is the most important day of our lives”, says Anaid.
The lion’s share of the wedding expenses goes towards the wedding dress and restaurant reservations. After this come expenses on wedding hairdos and makeup, expenses for stylish buffets, for the groom’s clothing, for renting cars, for wedding photos and videos, for musicians, and for a variety of fancy fireworks…
Tahmina (Baku) got married in December of last year. Their wedding was far from modest, though Tahmina’s family and groom are not wealthy people.
“All the same, I wanted for my wedding to be sumptuous. My girlfriends are also not rich, but they arranged extravagant ceremonies. And I thought, why do I deserve less? Don’t I deserve a beautify wedding? I didn’t put any particular pressure on my parents, I demanded everything from my groom’s family. I even insisted that they do a renovation on their home, since you’ll be able to see all this in the video recordings. Should I walk in, in a beautiful dress, to an apartment with old wallpaper!?”
It cost 300 dollars to rent Tahmina’s dress. She paid the same amount to an expensive beauty salon for her hairdo and makeup. They bought her groom a suit for $225. The wedding rings cost $250 for the groom and $550 for the bride. The photographer, rented car, and decorations for the table at which the groom and bride sat, also cost $1,000. They paid $750 for the musicians, and paid eight thousand for the restaurant. According to tradition, the groom’s family also bought the girl a set of gold jewelry, which cost them $3,000.
The entire wedding cost $16,000, which neither Tahmina’s parents nor her groom’s parents had. The family of the groom got part of the sum from relatives, and took part out on credit. They intended to pay in cash, which, in accordance with Azerbaijani tradition, would be brought by the guests, along with the gifts, in envelopes prepared ahead of time for this purpose. Usually, before the wedding, the guests will look into prices at the restaurant where the wedding they are invited to will take place. If the cost for one person is 40-50 dollars, the guests will usually put at least a little more, and sometimes much more, than this amount in the envelope.
In this way, the restaurant is paid for, but the money for the bride’s finery and for other expenses is usually paid out-of-pocket by the parents of the newlyweds.
Gold, suits, and photography services cost almost the same in all three countries. At the same time, in Armenia you can find a restaurant where the price per person starts at 15 dollars, whereas in Azerbaijan such prices are not to be found even in the countryside. Usually prices start at 20 dollars, and that’s at the cheapest restaurants.
An employee of one of the restaurants in Yerevan, David Petrosyan, says that prices primarily depend on the number of hot dishes. Armenian kebab is served almost everywhere, accompanied by a special ritual.
In all three countries, the musicians play all throughout the wedding. Modern young people invite DJs who charge a minimum of $100 for their work.
During recent years the bride and groom’s dance has become very popular in all three countries. For this, the young couple rehearses with a professional dancer for around a month. Very often, the traditional wedding dance is replaced with a modern one. The young people pay from 50 to 100 dollars for staging this dance.
One of the main heroes of the wedding is the tamada; after all, he is an indispensable part of the culture of the South Caucasus. Even in Azerbaijan where there are very many Muslims for whom it is a sin to drink alcohol, it’s very rare to hold a wedding without a tamada. A tamada’s services start at fifty dollars; some might ask you as much as 2,000 dollars for a single wedding, but these are primarily famous singers or actors.
One more point in the list of expenses is the wedding cake. This is a new, post-Soviet tradition, which has taken hold in all three countries of the South Caucasus. The cake should be the jewel of the wedding, it should be an original work: here much depends on the wishes and fantasies of the newlyweds… well, and on the amount people are willing to pay for such beauty.
Susie Aslamazova, owner of a wedding services agency, has been doing what she loves since 2005, and tells us about her experience organizing beautiful weddings in Georgia. Susie Aslamazova organizes banquets, buffets, any sort of family celebrations, parties to welcome people home from the maternity clinic, and graduation parties, but she admits that her favorite activity is, of course, organizing weddings.
“All weddings are different. Some people ask for a wedding to be organized from the choice of a theme and the place where the wedding will be held to the menu, the seating arrangement for the guests, etc. And for some people my services are a florist, designer, and decorator are enough. I do practically everything myself: carving the fruits, putting together the sandwhiches and appetizers, the floral decoration of the premises, the cars, the bouquets, decorating the bride’s room, decorating the gifts, searching out a place to hold the wedding, finding musicians, pyrotechnicians, photographers, drivers. But in case of need, for big weddings, I bring in a team of specialists that come to help me”, says Aslamazova.
As far as the budget goes, the specialist emphasizes that everything is very individualized and it’s hard to give concrete figures and define a ceiling price. “A wedding might be the usual registration with a buffet, and it might be a festival that lasts for several days. The budget, which includes many things, depends on the time of year. I use live flowers in the décor, and in winter flowers are more expensive, and the pickings are meagre. The cost of a wedding banquet also fluctuates depending on the time of year and the cost of fresh vegetables, fruits and berries. But, something can be put together for any budget, according to the client’s wishes”, says Aslamazova.
In reality, after the wedding the bankrupted newlyweds and their families end up having to pay off debts and loans for more than a year. And the only ones making money on this are the wedding industry, restaurants, musicians, and famous singers, who charge large fees. But it’s rare that someone resists the stereotypes of a luxurious wedding and is satisfied with a modest one, so as not to throw money to the wind.
Twenty-nine year-old Vusal Imanov got married two years ago. He heeded his father’s advice, and they held their wedding not in a restaurant, but in their garden at home. The delicious, homemade food was prepared by relatives. Cousins served as waiters. They bought non-bottled wine, the fruits and vegetables were primarily from their own garden. In place of juices, his mother opened her reserves of compote. Guests stayed and partied for almost three days.
“After the wedding, we tallied up the envelopes we’d been gifted. In addition to paying back what we’d spent on the wedding, another 14,000 dollars remained! We even renovated the apartment and bought the furniture it was lacking. We used the remaining money over the course of almost a year. I am so happy that I listened to my father. And the guests really liked such a wedding, they still joke that for such a wedding, it would be worth me getting married a second time!”
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