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Frugal living tip #49. December 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for a Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. We committed to giving you a useful tip to help all of us get through these hard economic times every week throughout 2009. As you can see, we only have three more tips to go. If you’d like us to extend the series into 2010, please let us know!

Today’s tip is about reducing the cost of weddings and funerals. Please excuse our friend Ben while I rant about the two most pointless expenses ever created. To turn two of the most sacred events in people’s lives into excessive, tacky, bankrupting spectacles is, to me, both stupid and sacreligious. Many marry, and everyone dies. Can’t we manage to perform these ceremonies without putting ourselves, our parents, or our heirs in debt for a decade at least?

The average wedding now costs $20,398, not counting the cost of the engagement ring and honeymoon. When you add those in, you’re probably looking at $25,000, and that’s just an average: Half of all weddings in the U.S. now cost more.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood think there’s a better way, and this time, sure enough, it’s the old-fashioned way. Throughout much of history, the groom passed along a treasured engagement ring to his bride-to-be that had come down in his family. This heirloom carried great sentimental value and cost not a cent (or at most a few dollars to have it resized for the new bride). The wedding dress was often passed down from mother or grandmother to daughter. The wedding itself was a very elaborate affair held at the church, synagogue, etc., but the reception was a lovely, simple affair held at home.

We wholeheartedly endorse this approach: Give the pomp and ceremony full play in the holy place where you exchange your vows, then go for the simple but heartfelt home-based party afterwards. Have your friends bring desserts, flowers (better tell them the color scheme you prefer!), or champagne instead of gifts. Hold your reception in the backyard and string sparkly white lights in the trees. Or create a unique reception that captures who you are: a grilling party, a pirate-theme party, a locavore celebration where all the foods are produced locally, a poolside party, a picnic. So much more fun, so much more low-key, so much more real.

What if your parents want to throw a big do? If they really have that much money to burn, tell them to just give it to you as a wedding gift instead. You can use it as a downpayment on a house, buy a new car, take three months off and travel the world, pay for your doctoral degree. Or, say, pay off your credit cards. Whatever the case, that money will do a lot more good in your bank account than it would giving a great big party that lasts a couple of hours.

By the way, if religion isn’t your thing, you can still have a lovely wedding, as our friend Ben’s sister did: She was married in our parents’ gorgeous Colonial garden, surrounded by flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials, with a fountain splashing in the background as she and her husband exchanged vows with family and friends in attendance. True, our family spent a fair amount of time that summer making sure the garden setting was perfect, but even adding lovely blooms cost us less than $1,000, and that included the flowers and delightful celebratory feast we’d prepared and set out in the great dining room afterwards.

Now, let’s move on to that other unavoidable expense, funerals. Our friend Ben was in fact inspired to write this post by an article that appeared in our local paper, the Allentown, PA, Morning Call, called “Keeping funeral costs in check.” You can read the whole article at www.themorningcall.com.

Wow, a funeral’s such a bargain by comparison to a wedding: According to figures our friend Ben found online for 2007, it only costs an average of $10,000! Heaven only knows how much it costs now, on the verge of 2010. But one thing that all sources acknowledge is that most people can’t afford it. I was shocked to read that more bodies were being unclaimed at mortuaries because the families simply couldn’t afford to bury them. Cremation is way up because its cost is so much lower—more like $1,000 rather than $10,000—and more people are donating their bodies to science for the same reason; in the case of donation, disposal is free.

Ugh. How about respecting the dead and celebrating their life and death? Our friend Ben thinks of the Amish custom as the ideal in this respect. The dead are washed and dressed in their own clothes by their loving family, and laid out in a simple pine coffin built by community members. They are displayed in a room in the house so family and friends can gather and sit by the coffin, reminiscing about the dead or simply keeping respectful watch. (Neighbors, family and friends also deluge the grieving family with home-cooked foods to sustain them during their time of grieving.) Then an unadorned service is held for the dear departed and they’re taken to a private burial plot for interment. The cost to the bereaved? $0. The comfort provided, the respect for the dead? Incalculable.

For us non-Amish, this may be a non-option. It is apparently still legal to bury one’s dead on one’s own place in some states, but given most people’s rootlessness in today’s society, even were it legal where you lived, could you really say for sure that you’d live in your present place all your life, and your heirs and their heirs would do likewise? Here in rural PA, our friend Ben has seen many a private graveyard tucked away on a farm, and wondered if the farm was still owned by the descendants of the graveyard’s occupants. If not, what a burden to bequeath to strangers!

Frankly, it sounds like the military gets the best deal in terms of cost-free funerals—and God knows, they’ve earned it, risking their lives for the rest of us. If you or a family member was in the military, you and your spouse get free and honored burial and a free gravestone. But you need to contact the Department of Veteran Affairs, request a plot, receive confirmation, and file that confirmation with your papers, while, of couse, letting your family know. You (and your dependents) can also request burial at sea, also free, but family members can’t be present.

There are plenty of other options and cost-cutting suggestions both in the Morning Call article and in an online piece called “Plan a funeral for $800 or less” on MSN Money (Google the title for the link). Our friend Ben suggests that you check them both out and that you think seriously about what you’d like to have done with your remains, and what sort of ceremony you’d want performed to send you on your way. Do it while you’re not pressed by “old mortality,” so it seems more like a creative exercise than the icy breath of Father Time on the back of your neck. Yes, you could set money aside for an elaborate funeral so at least your heirs aren’t strapped to pay for it. But why not give that money to them and enjoy a serene, dignified, inexpensive funeral celebration instead? (Or, if you’re a riotous type, you could always specify that they celebrate a potluck wake in your honor instead, and it, like a wedding, could have a theme that highlighted something central to your life and enjoyment, such as Harleys, model trains, The Beatles, or what have you.)

The best funeral celebration our friend Ben ever attended involved a dear friend of mine named Norm. Norm’s wonderful wife Dolores chose to have a life celebration, and invited friends and family to come and offer their own memories of Norm. When our friend Ben’s turn came, I marched up to the front with a basket of hot peppers, Norm’s favorites, and gave a very short speech saying why I thought hot peppers were a fitting tribute to Norm’s memory, since he was much like a hot pepper himself (memorable, fiery, assertive, unafraid of taking his own stand, etc.). Norm’s family and friends, who knew him well, loved this, and fortunately the funeral bouquets featured hot peppers and garlic (Norm’s other favorite) along with the flowers, so my tribute fit right in. Dolores also showed a computerized slideshow of Norm and played his favorite music while it followed the high points of his life. It was just amazing. And then she had a tribute lunch afterwards so people would have a chance to see and talk to each other and celebrate Norm’s life in a more personal setting. I’ll never forget that day.

Our friend Ben urges you to think about your own wedding and funeral with an eye toward frugality. These are both times when sentiment, not expense, should be uppermost, when the triumph of the human spirit in love here and hereafter should be celebrated. In both instances, you deserve the best. And it’s the best, not that money can buy, but that the community of your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues, acting in loving communion, can provide.

As is the case with so much else in life, taking the time to plan things carefully in advance can make all the difference between an expensive—sometimes ruinously expensive—and impersonal performance and a heartfelt, personal tribute and celebration. Time is money. Take the time now, while it’s not urgent, to make sure that when the time comes, you get what you really want.