As we get to the nook between the holidays and Valentine’s Day, the engagement frenzy hits and makes you start questioning your own relationship. When you’re thinking about making the promise to marry someone, there are many conversations you’ll probably want to have before saying, “I do.” Some are more obvious than others, such as conversations about kids, preferred lifestyle, and where you might want to live (a non-parental abode would be preferred). When my partner and I were getting serious 14 years ago, it didn’t occur to us to ask the taboo questions. Questions like, “what kind of engagement ring do I want?” or, “how much do we want to spend on a wedding?” honestly didn’t come up. Given the amount of debt the average college student today is graduating with (approximately $28,000), the formerly taboo questions are becoming the essential ones.
Personally, I think one of the classic mistakes we make in life as we transition from “young” to “less young” is that we fail to question the expectations that are thrust upon us. Expectations (such as the expectation that we’ll get married, have a traditional wedding, and have kids) don’t necessarily fit who we are as individuals. We’re hyper-aware of making decisions that go against the norm. We want (or are encouraged) to be interesting and original, but not too original. For the fact that we want to be new, different, and inspiring, many of us still feel a pull toward maintaining traditional values. Marriage and getting engaged get confusing and muddled because the rituals are laden with expectations from friends and family.
So 13 years into my marriage, here are a handful of things I’ve learned:
1. My partner’s experience of any situation is his reality and, therefore, my willingness to accept his reality and vice versa is the thin-but-persnickety glue that holds two complicated individuals together for a lifetime.
2. I am often wrong, and so is he.
3. Honoring the other person with the admission that you f***ed up is not an indication of groveling, but is, in fact, evidence of empathy, which is something that is required for the world to go ’round.
4. When situations get down to the wire and big decisions have to be made, the last thing that matters to my happiness is an expensive engagement ring. I got one and sold it 12 years later.
At first, I was pleased to have the nice-sized diamond ring that my husband presented when we got engaged. I proudly showed it to my parents and girlfriends as a symbol of my fiancé’s lasting love and prodigious wallet. However, by year three, I barely wore it. By year five, during the depths of the 2008 recession, it didn’t feel right or important to bust it out. And then the fine, emerald-cut, baguette-encrusted ring just sat there in a box in a drawer. By year ten, I knew that the ring was no longer who I was at all and had nothing to do with the strength of our marriage. I asked my partner if the ring was meaningful to him, and his answer mirrored mine. It was time for an engagement ring makeover.
I got a good deal at the neighborhood pawnshop on my ring, and then fell in love with a hexagonal, labradorite ring lined with tiny, dusty diamonds and set in rose gold. It was funky, cool, and luxurious all at once. It was me.
The new ring cost us a fifth of what the original one had, and it made me 10 times happier. We applied the difference in funds to our savings account.
Tradition can be wonderful, but not when strictly applied as the stick by which all success is measured. It’s not fair for you to feel bound to tradition as the only way to do things. Before you go ahead and spend three months of salary to buy a diamond ring (or ask your significant other to) because that’s what’s expected, think about whether being another DeBeers poster child of marketing success from the 1930’s is really how you want to spend a significant amount of the money you’ve accumulated thus far. And keep in mind that the money would be spent on a mostly depreciating asset. Diamonds are commodities and, like all commodities, there are booms and busts. If you ever want to sell a commodity in the secondary market, it’s usually an automatic write-down. There are so many engagement ring alternatives — such as using a ring from inside your family, or doing just a wedding band — that are worth considering.
Of all the many, many weddings I’ve attended as an adult, the only ones I still remember are the ones where the couples handwrote their vows, shared the intimacy of their romance with the crowd, and guests laughed and cried… a lot. I’ve never attended a wedding and walked away thinking about how I was blown away by the expensive centerpieces or the glistening diamond ring.
I only wish I had sold my ring sooner. The 13 years with my husband is all I need. I could’ve passed on the ring.
Jane Hwangbo is a former investment analyst and portfolio manager, who founded Money School with Jane, a personal coaching program designed to change the way individuals see and interact with money. Visit her website: www.
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