It's time to challenge the way society tells us to show love and commitment.
Stefanie O'Connell, a young American finance expert, did something that would shock most people. She accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, but rejected the engagement ring. In fact, she returned it to the store and walked out with a hefty chunk of cash in her pocket.
It's a shocking move in a society that has conditioned women to expect a diamond ring as a sign of love and commitment, while pressuring partners to spend an exorbitant amount of money on something that's utterly pointless. The commonly accepted assumption is that a diamond ring should cost the equivalent of three months' salary, which is insane when you stop to think about it.The average cost of engagement rings in the U.S. right now ranges from $3,500 at the low end (Utah) to over $10,000 (California), and what's most shocking is that 90 percent of women say they're happy with the cost. Only 4 percent wish their partner had spent less. Meanwhile, the median wage for U.S. workers is $44,500. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.
The majority of couples getting engaged are young, usually at the start of their professional lives. They're likely carrying student debt, saving to make a down payment on a house, or wanting to start a family. It is pretty much the worst possible time to drop multiple thousands of dollars on a piece of bling -- money that could be working far more effectively in other ways -- and yet, the question of whether or not it's financially savvy is rarely raised. In fact, I'd never heard of a person returning their diamond to the store until I read O'Connell's piece, but her words make so much sense. She wrote:
"The idea of walking around with three months worth of my fiancé’s salary on my hand just gave me anxiety... All I could think about looking down at the ring (besides getting married, of course), was all the other things we could do with the money. We could splurge on a New York City wedding. We could rent out our favorite taqueria for a rehearsal dinner. We could book some suites near Central Park to host our families for a weekend of festivities. Clearly my concern wasn’t about the bottom line. I do love to splurge... But ultimately, I just don’t value engagement rings in the same way I value those other things."
She asked her fiancé to map out his top priorities for celebrating their marriage. It became clear that a fabulous honeymoon was more important to both of them than a glitzy ring, not to mention all the other things they hope to accomplish in the next five years.
"So we returned my engagement ring and agreed to shop for simple wedding bands instead, using the rest of the money (plus my contributions) to fund our actual priorities. Call us the most millennial couple ever, but we really do value experiences over things."
I am very impressed by what O'Connell did. Like I said, I've never heard of such a thing happening before, although I do know a few women who requested simple, ethically-mined rings or inherited a family ring. Sadly, I can also think of many women who could drastically improve their financial situations by selling their diamonds, paying off major debt and freeing themselves of a great mental burden. (In case you're wondering, mine is a small Canadian-mined diamond that came from an estate sale and cost my husband about a week's salary. I love it.)
It's worth reminding ourselves that the only reason diamonds are a thing is because of a brilliant marketing campaign by DeBeers. To quote Rohin Dhar in Priceonomics (via Jon Gorey),
"The next time you look at a diamond, consider this. Nearly every American marriage begins with a diamond because a bunch of rich white men in the 1940s convinced everyone that its size determines your self worth. They created this convention – that unless a man purchases (an intrinsically useless) diamond, his life is a failure – while sitting in a room, racking their brains on how to sell diamonds that no one wanted."
O'Connell's decision is a fine example of what we need more of, a questioning of so-called 'normal' behaviors that cost a fortune. It's only by challenging these norms, examining their root causes, weighing them against longterm goals, and learning to say "no" that we'll be able to boost our financial wellbeing and consume fewer of the Earth's increasingly precious resources.
O'Connell may not have a glitzy ring on her finger to show family and friends, but she and her new husband will have less debt. That in itself will set them up for greater ease and happiness and, hopefully, lasting success in their marriage.