The night before their wedding, Mr Kim Kwang Yoon and Ms Cho Jin Oh were up until 2am setting tables.
Their marriage venue: A room in the basement of Seoul city hall, rented from the government for US$60 (S$81).
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With South Korea’s average wedding expenditure last year at nearly US$64,000, or about double that of the United States, more citizens are spurning lavish events for smaller functions as the economy slows, the age of marriage rises and parents nearing retirement have less money to splurge.
South Korean weddings are typically a show of status, with hundreds of guests and expensive gifts.
The average expenditure, according to a survey by wedding planner Duo, excludes the cost of housing, traditionally provided by parents.
”I felt that if I don’t like getting invitations from people I don’t know very well, they would feel the same. I wished for my wedding to be celebrated by people I wanted there,” said Ms Cho, 32.
She and her 34-year-old husband shouldered the US$10,000 cost of their recent wedding themselves.
Huge marriage expenses prompt more people to delay marriage and children, worsening one of the world’s lowest birth rates in a population ageing at the fastest pace in the industrialised world.
To boost marriage rates from an all-time low last year, the government is renting out public buildings cheaply.
The trend took off last year, spurred by celebrities, said Mr Kim Jung Youl, an official at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
Last month, movie stars Won Bin and Lee Na Young got married in a wheat field 150km from Seoul, amid fewer than 50 guests.
Mr Kim and Ms Cho, who sell indoor lighting online, saved on the venue and Ms Cho’s wedding dress, bought online for US$100, but a two-week honeymoon to Paris soaked up half their spending.
”Weddings turned into lavish affairs because South Koreans were packing traditions from here and the West into one,” said Mr Lee Sung Hee, a senior planner at Duo, South Korea’s largest matchmaking and wedding consultation firm.
That is changing as the average age at marriage climbs.
The small-wedding trend also brings relief for parents, as South Koreans in their 50s and 60s are the most heavily indebted in a country whose household debt ranks among the highest in the world.
Half of Duo’s queries come from couples wanting small weddings, up nearly three times from 2008, Mr Lee said. ”As couples to be married get older, they can stand up to conventional culture and their parents’ demands more easily.”
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