Get the house, you dummies.
“Marriage or Mortgage,” a new reality series on Netflix, feels as if it was created specifically to infuriate me. Its subjects are engaged couples who must choose between a dream home and a dream wedding. This decision prompts deep soul-searching, high emotional stakes and lots of profanity shouted at the screen, by me.
Each couple lives in the Nashville area and has money set aside for either a home down payment or a fairytale wedding celebration. The show deftly combines two subgenres of reality programming — wedding preparation and house hunting/remodeling — with an added splash of generational economic anxiety.
Episodes are structured as competitions between real estate agent Nichole Holmes and wedding planner Sarah Miller, who work to maximize each couple’s budget, with plenty of emotional manipulation to pull them one way or the other. (“Wouldn’t your dead father want to see you walking down the aisle in this beautiful dress?”, etc.)
Holmes shows them attainable houses with Instagrammable bathrooms, trendy kitchen backsplashes and spare bedrooms furnished expectantly for hypothetical babies. Miller arranges custom cocktails in mason jars, cakes taller than the people cutting into them and, in one case, a buffet with actual ranch dressing fountain, because, well, America.
Given these options, one husband-to-be asks: “How do we pick between the day that we deserve and the future?” Another says: “We have this budget of $35,000, and we have this great opportunity to have an amazing wedding, or an opportunity to get a house. But not both at the same time. So we’re in a little bit of a pickle.”
You’re not, though! With five-figure savings to spend at your discretion, you’re in good shape relative to most millennial-aged couples. Maybe none of these people are underwater because they never took out loans to study economics. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need a reality show to tell them which of these choices is the better investment.
Option A, the house, offers security in uncertain times and a wealth-building tool that is still the best opportunity for average Americans to access a middle-class life, to the extent that this concept still exists. There is particular urgency here for millennials, who entered adulthood with disproportionate student debt and whose wages have failed to keep pace with cost-of-living increases.
Option B is a party. The setting is elegant, the couple radiant, the spread indulgent, the guests full and impressed. But by the next day, there’s nothing left that you couldn’t have obtained in a courthouse, besides maybe the hangover.
Nothing against the wedding-planning industry, but the choice between a storybook wedding and an affordable home does not align as a binary with comparable pro-con arguments. If the money is gone no matter what, the correct answer clearly is to opt for the down payment and get the house.
Since everyone on the show seems to understand this intellectually, “Marriage or Mortgage” becomes a proxy contest between lifetimes of internalized romantic ideals and the cold rationality that adult decision-making often requires. The show’s premise asks whether people can be talked into making a frivolous decision when a more responsible one is obvious.
They sure can! The couples on “Marriage or Mortgage” split nearly evenly in each direction. And since the show was filmed mostly pre-pandemic, we learn in follow-up segments that several of the wedding experiences were downsized in order to meet social distancing guidelines. Know what would have stayed the same size? That’s right, the house.
The only thing keeping me from doing a full party-pooping hate-watch on this show were the two lesbian couples featured, one in their late 20s, one a bit older. Both of them (spoiler alert) opted to spend their money on weddings rather than homes. As they explained, a public celebration of their love, particularly in a more conservative state, was part of a larger journey for their community, their families and for themselves. And if that means waiting a little longer to get the white picket fence, so be it.
Hard to argue with that. But they also could have celebrated that journey with a killer housewarming party.
Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.