Here comes the bride, all dressed in red

Recently I made one of the biggest financial decisions of my life. My partner and I decided to get married.

With annual revenues of $4.3 billion and employing about 54,000 people, according to analysts at IBISWorld, the wedding industry makes roughly the same contribution to the Australian economy as the baby products ($4.3 billion revenue) and cheese manufacturing ($4.25 billion) industries. Which seems appropriate; weddings often lead to the proliferation of both babies and cheesy moments.

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Gone are the days of church services, homemade dresses and sandwiches in the backyard. Weddings today are big business.

Estimates of the average cost of a wedding in Australia range from $36,200, according to IBISWorld, to as high as $48,296 according to a regular ''Cost of Love'' survey of brides by Bride to Be magazine. Presumably the later survey is biased towards higher-spending weddings - the kind conducted by the sort of bride who buys and fills out surveys for a bridal magazine.

But assuming a figure somewhere in the middle, couples are today forking out the equivalent of a 10 per cent deposit on the median-priced capital city home of $445,000 for their wedding.

Spending on weddings has increased by a fifth in real terms over the past decade, according to IBISWorld, despite a 9 per cent dip in annual spending during the global financial crisis - which has since been recovered.

If the $4.3 billion spent on weddings each year were instead given to the federal government, it could double its annual overseas aid budget (expected to be $4.8 billion this financial year).

So why have weddings become so expensive, particularly with a declining proportion of couples deciding to take the plunge? There are several possible explanations.

Weddings are what economists call ''normal'' goods, as opposed to ''inferior'' goods; demand for them rises as incomes rise. Furthermore, they also appear to meet the technical definition of ''luxury goods'', meaning spending on them rises not only in dollar terms as income rises, but they also take up an increasing proportion of that higher income. And today's couples have the benefit of not one, but typically two incomes.

The wedding industry is also largely non-tradeable, meaning brides miss out on the benefit of cheaper imports and a higher dollar. Most of the cost of a wedding lies in food preparation, venue hire and wait staff costs, which are domestically produced and so incur Australia's higher labour costs. Some savvy brides, however, are taking advantage of the internet to buy cheaper dresses, decorations and bonbonniere from low-labour-cost countries.

Many a cost-conscious bride will moan about the ''wedding premium'' charged by venues, florists and make-up artists. Cost of a makeover? About $100. Cost of a bridal makeover? Priceless, or rather, at least twice the price.

Economists believe such price discrepancy could only be caused by insufficient competition or genuine product differentiation. On all evidence, the wedding industry is quite competitive, composed of many players able to undercut each other on price. More likely, the wedding premium may in fact reflect the higher demands of brides for quality of service, flexibility and attention to detail. Bridezilla, anyone?

In terms of the spending capacity of couples, it has recently become more socially acceptable to ask wedding guests to, instead of bringing gifts, donate money to a honeymoon fund, or simply give cash. Any money recouped this way reduces the net cost of a wedding.

More importantly, however, it should be recognised that the market value of women's time has increased dramatically over the past three decades as women have entered the paid workforce. Many a modern bride is prepared to pay a premium for someone to organise the details of her big day. In economics jargon, the opportunity cost of a woman's time has risen.

Women today are more productively employed in the economy than ever before. Instead of fretting over the details of their wedding, they're working full-time jobs and wielding positions of real power. And that is something truly worth celebrating.

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