Ki Bum Kim: The Economic Craziness of Korean Marriages

Link to Ki Bum Kim’s Linked In homepage

I am pleased to host another student guest post, this time by Ki Bum Kim. This is the 6th student guest post this semester. You can see all the student guest posts from my “Monetary and Financial Theory” class at this link.

Getting married in Korea is not easy. So much money has to be spent and the unique Korean marriage culture of gift giving is the place to point the finger. In Korea, the groom’s side and the bride’s side both present gifts to each other’s families. “Gift trading” goes all the way back until the ancient Joseon Dynasty of 1392. Traditionally, good silk for new clothes and simple jewelry were exchanged. Today in 2016, mink fur coats, luxury watches, jewelry, and expensive designer shoes are exchanged.

This continued tradition of gift exchanges has become a huge burden for young couples. To the point where marriages are called off. Many couples call them off because of the expected amount of money often differs between the two families. Ms. Park, a 30 year old Korean woman who recently cancelled her marriage a week before the wedding, confided to the Korean Herald that she could not handle the stress from her fiancé’s mother. She said the problem initially arose when the mother-in-law asked for a $70,000 Mercedes-Benz car for her son in return for the house her fiance’s family bought.  

Park’s family eventually made a loan and bought the car because they were happy in getting a lawyer son-in-law. However , Park’s mother-in-law criticized her for not buying luxury watches for the in-laws, saying, “This is because you were not well educated in your family.” Ms. Park decided then she could no longer continue with the wedding.

Along with the power duels, the “show-off” mentality that some Korean parents have adds onto the pile of stress for couples. Parents want to boast their wealth and power by holding lavish weddings. Data shows that “the average cost for a wedding in 2011 rose about 270 percent from 1999.” The average cost of weddings is $90,000. The hefty fee poses no problem for rich people who can manage to do that. However, the problem lies within the normal people whose average income is roughly $42,400 according to government data.

Ewha Woman’s University Professor Harris Kim in his explanation of why Koreans financially strain themselves over weddings blame the Korea’s social stigma surrounding weddings. “Korean society is very tightly knit, and people here are very concerned about how others view them. The wedding works as a status symbol, like a marker of where you stand in the society.”  

The mentality is quite hard to understand. Ignoring the cost of a lavish wedding does not seem “forward-looking.” The youth unemployment rate is increasing each year, reaching a high time of 10% in 2015. Housing prices are also skyrocketing. The rent in Seoul, the capital of South Korea is growing and growing. Yet, some people contemplate about buying Rolex watches and Benz cars. 

Kisun Lee, a 29-year-old consultant at Impact Consulting, sums the situation up perfectly. “None of that expensive jewelry is actually useful or beautiful, and you know you’ll just regret using the money for that after you’re actually married and need money for your married life.

Fortunately, there is a budding trend among young couples who overpower their parents and spend frugally on weddings, who decide no gifts shall be exchanged. The government has also begun to help by turning its public buildings, town halls and service centers into inexpensive wedding venues during the weekends.