An Ode to Cultural Wedding Debt

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A few weeks ago, we asked our readers to tell us their thoughts about being on the same page financially with their spouse before they got married. Here’s a story, by one of our readers, that discusses dealing with the pressures of having a big wedding but at a price:

An Ode to Cultural Wedding Debt by Ahmad Munir

With the Spring wedding season upon us, my wife and I find ourselves giving young Muslim couples a lot of counter-cultural advice these days: “Have a fabulous wedding, but a wedding that disappoints a lot of fabulous people.”

Muslim couples that are collectively burdened with tens of thousands in student loans or other debts should not compound that mess with wedding debt. The stress and displeasure in dealing with interest zaps the crucial blessing (baraka) in that critical first year of marriage.

This weekend marks five years since our $25,000 wedding. Today, our wedding video collects dust – a visual reminder that we have viewed just once together because it harkens back contrite memories of a terrible financial decision.

Romantic Debt Poverty

In 2009, our future seemed promising. We were in love, a stone’s throw out of college, plotting our future, and planning a wedding. We were collectively saddled with $31,000 in student loans. Debt did not seem to faze us though. Many of our peers had much more. And debt had been normalized in our families.

The Prophet (PBUH) advises a Muslim to hate his or her debt. And sure, we both disliked our student loans. But we weren’t about to go scorched earth on our debt. That would involve sacrifice and that is a downer especially when you are planning a party.

Our families are Afghan. Afghan families shame easily. The bar at some point in our cultural history had been set high. If our wedding fell short, tongues would wag. Money would need to be spent and expectations met.

At the time, my fiancée and I were re-discovering our faith. Our experiences in college had unfogged the religious teachings we had learned as children. For too long, we had parroted a religion that often played sloppy seconds to our culture. Now we were intent on bucking the cultural trend towards pageantry and extravagance. We sought a simple Nikkah union geared towards the modesty extoled by our religion.

We shared a Google document to plan our humble $10,000 budget wedding. It was eviscerated within weeks.

Our parents requested we add secondary and tertiary relatives and friends to what had been a 130-person guest list of immediate family and close friends. Requests for more catered pre- and post-wedding dinners for our guests, a better venue, more decorations, and more jewelry quickly followed. The budget rose to $25,000 – just about the average wedding cost in 2009.

In a moment of clarity, and in halting Dari, I called my mother and told her no. No to the debt she expected my dad and me to go into, no to the expectations of her family, friends, and culture, and no to more usury in our lives.

“What we’ve decided,” I told her, “is that we’re going to have a nice simple walima reception and dinner at the local masjid. The imam will give a nice little Khutbah, maybe we’ll have some naat. But we’ve decided not to rent a fancy wedding hall or a band, or have any dancing, or continue to buy boxes of gold bracelets and jewelry sets so that they can be paraded on stage for the amusement of these people we barely know.”

My mother was aghast.

“No matter how American or Muslim you act,” she said. “This is our tradition. You cannot deny tradition. This is something that happens just once in our life. We have to spend a lot on a wedding celebration. Its for other people not for us.”

What I heard was a familiar mantra while growing up in a household with an outsized cultural ideology: Why be happy when you could be cultural normal?

I had always expected my mother would ask me to spend a lot due to the symbolic and cultural importance of a son’s wedding. But she then began on a now worn-assumption that the success of the marriage was someway correlated with the wedding cost.

“The more we spend on the wedding means the more emotion and love we will be showing to our new bride and to her family,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “This debt, the interest, we will have it paid off really quickly, right after the wedding when you are both working.”

We persisted. Weeks of guilt-ridden and emotional phone calls from various family members ensued. We stood our ground. I shared a Hadith I came across stating that a wedding and marriage that involves the least burden produces the most blessings. The arguments did not stick. We soon lost our agency to fight. We relented. The grand one-night affair would go on, as envisioned and at cost.

Married with Debt

And so we began our married life with more debt. In that first year of marriage, the student loan, car, and wedding debts hung over our heads long after the wedding memories faded from the minds of our guests.

We were at the nascence of our careers. Our household income was just more than $70,000 – about $20,000 higher than the national household average. And yet a dinner, a couple plane tickets to see family, a gift for a friend’s birthday, and even buying health insurance for my new wife – all had guilt associated with it. And yet that guilt had still not translated to hate, which is what the Prophet (PBUH) asked a debtor to have towards his or her debt.

It was not until 2010 when downsizing at my job forced us to feel the shaky ground we were on. One of the few positives that have come out of the 2008 recession is that many American households have been made to come full circle with the way they were living.

We realized that we were using credit cards as our rainy-day fund, we couldn’t spell IRA let alone begin thinking about retirement, we thought that we could afford something if we could make the monthly payment, our saving muscle was near atrophied, we regarded wealth as an indicator of status and not just security, and we often discussed our finances in the form of an argument.

Dua’s (Supplications) for Relief

We started making sincere duas to Allah (swt) that He help us eradicate our debt, which by then had ballooned to $46,500.

I recited words that the Prophet (PBUH) said would help a person get out of debt even if it were as large as a mountain:

“O’ Allah suffice me with that which is lawful and make me – with your blessings – independent of everyone but You.”

I recited Ayah al-Mulk (Verses 26-27 in Surah al Imran), which the Prophet (PBUH) had said has the ability to eradicate a person’s debt even if it were the size of the earth’s expanse. We also unclenched our wealth towards giving more charity (sadaqa) – even when it hurt to do so. We implored Allah (swt) in consistent sincere duas that He purifies our wealth and make us truly hate our debt with a vengeance.
In my research about debt in Islam, I also read a Hadith that had made my blood curl: “The soul of the believer is held back because of his debt until the debt is discharged.” I was wracked with worry for our collective mortal souls. According to Islam, after major sins, the greatest sin is for a person to die with debt. Even a martyr gets all his or her sins forgiven – except his or her debt.

Wracked with worries about us dying in a fiery car crash and no one to discharge our debt from our name, it was at that time Allah (swt) sent into our lives an advisor, in the form of an Evangelical Christian man named Dave Ramsey.

Radio-based Financial Peace

While driving home from work one evening, I turned to the AM dial and found a financial radio call-in show. Callers phoned in with their money problems, and a snarky host responded with answers peppered with Biblical verses and principles.

Dave Ramsey railed against debt as being opposed to good Christian living. He minced no words about his disdain for usury and the ravages it has caused the average American household. He also extoled the virtues of regular charity, communicating well with one’s spouse, and being ethical with our money. This guy sounded pretty darn Muslim to me.

The irony was not lost on me, a self-professed practicing Muslim, to be attracted to the teachings of a man who professed himself as an Evangelical Christian and who regularly shared his conservative political views that, frankly, bordered on the Islamophobic. Nonetheless, his words had struck a chord; we were ripe for his counseling.

We were now ready to take out our scissors and have plastic surgery on our credit cards. We started on Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps: we began by saving a $1,000 starter emergency fund, put ourselves on a budget where every dollar had a name and a purpose before the month began, and we started attacking our loans beginning with the smallest balance loan first so that we could build momentum. We soon felt the wind in our sails. I subscribed to Dave Ramsey’s podcast. It became my new motivator.

Channeling Dave Ramsey

The challenge to reform my financial habits were especially difficult.

I was by then a young man still trying to strike it out on his own as the head of household. When faced with a new life challenge, my mind would default to the acquired wisdom I had learned from my parents, friends, or television. For financial literacy, my parents were my point of reference. Debt was standard in their finances and they had struggled financially. When I opened my mouth to talk about our finances, I would find my dad’s voice coming out. I was socially conditioned to follow his debt path. It was now difficult to latch onto a stoic debt-free lifestyle when the familiarity and allure of a spendthrift lifestyle was more expedient.

On one visit, my dad advised me that he thought it was time for us to purchase a home. His message was clear: take out a mortgage despite all our other debts. This was reminiscent of the battle of ideals I had had with my mom about the wedding.  But this time I had Dave Ramsey to channel.

“Broke people should not be buying a home,” I heard my surrogate financial dad Dave Ramsey say in my head, as my father described the virtues of home ownership. “And don’t take advice from broke people.”

Dave Ramsey was right. My father is a man of many great qualities, but not finances. Islam teaches us to honor our father, which can be done without following his well-intentioned advice. “A new mortgage with all our existing debt hanging over our heads is an invitation for Murphy to move into our spare bedroom,” I told him.

In another instance, my father remarked about a beater car I had downgraded to: a high-mileage 1997 Toyota Corolla – a car I still drive and a point of personal pride. He asked me why I could not just finance a car like my peers had.

“Normal is broke,” I heard Dave Ramsey say in my head, as I repeated it to him. “Being normal in the U.S. today sucks.”

I explained that it does not take a genius to walk into a dealership and sign a car note. I felt to delay pleasure until a person can afford to pay for an item in cash can build character.
“I am living like no one else now so that later I can live and give like no one else,” I told him, parroting a Dave Ramsey chorus line.

“Dad,” I continued, ready with yet another Dave Ramsey zinger. “I’ve quit spending money I don’t have, to buy things that I don’t need, to impress people I don’t like.”
On a visit from my mother, I mustered enough resolve to tell her that the wedding debt she had encouraged us to get into was a departure from Islamic teachings. I again channeled Dave Ramsey – and she listened and somewhat agreed.

God Blesses Sacrafice

Living on a budget and within our means felt as if we had both been given raises. At the end of each month, there was inevitably more money left over and less debt to pay off.

By then, we had been blessed with a daughter. My wife decided to stay home. Even on a single income, we felt the blessings (barakah) as we plowed through debt because we were now “acting our wage,” as Dave Ramsey instructs.

We had whittled away all smaller debts until only my $21,000 in student loan debt remained. My wife’s mother and younger sister, both appreciating our passion in seeing us clean up our financial mess, invited us over for dinner one day. They had drained their savings accounts, and they pushed towards us several bulky bank envelopes, each full with cash. We graciously accepted. We were now no longer saddled with interest, but debt alone.

By eliminating usury from our lives, it seemed Allah (swt) allowed my paychecks to stretch even further. We were so pumped at this point that we made the hard decision to move in with my in-laws so we could put our rent towards debt. This was an admitted strenuous living arrangement, and a sacrifice we hope God favors us to never repeat.

In less than a year, we were debt free. It felt great. We are resolved to never again be beholden to a lender.

Debt Life Lessons

In retrospect, we realize that in order to please our parents, we had displeased Allah (swt). We took the reins to a debt-inducing wedding for family and cultural ideology alone. As a result, our plan for a Hajj honeymoon was quickly dashed. We started our married life leveraged with usury and debt. Our young marriage unraveled due in part to it. The leading cause for divorce in the U.S. is money fights and money problems. Muslim-Americans are by no means an exception.

And so to the shiny young Muslim couples out there this wedding season, please take our counter-cultural wedding advice: invest in your marriage not your wedding. Buck the cultural precedent to wed high on the hog even if you can afford to do so.

To those young couples already heavily debt, do not take out wedding debt to please others; there should be no disconnect between your capacity and reality. Big spending on a wedding will also not “divorce-proof” your marriage; this is a cultural fallacy that has perpetuated in our community for too long. If anything there may be a negative correlation for those who overspend.
Now as a father myself, I shutter at how foolish we were.

I feel our happily-ever-after­ wedding was akin to me forgoing purchasing health insurance for my daughter just so I can afford to throw her a kick-ass birthday party.

To break this cycle, my wife and I have resolved to set aside cash as a gift for my daughter’s future married life. It will be her prerogative to use that money on her special day, or maybe to buy a new washing machine for her new home, or maybe just as some surety that she joins the ranks of our new growing generation of debt-averse Muslims.

With weddings, we are bound to disappoint some fabulous people in our lives. Disappointment hurts, but it does not kill. They will recover. And insh’Allah, our relationship with them will be better for it.

Adam Taufique

Adam Taufique is a founding member of Qur'an Weekly and Debt Free Muslims. He is a regular khateeb in his community and has served in Masjids from being a weekend school teacher to youth coordinator. You can follow him on Google+ or on Twitter @adamtaufique.

5 Comments

  1. M
    June 15, 2014

    Fabulous read. Also, 4th last paragraph’s “I shutter” I believe should read “I shudder”. Hope I am not mistaken. Thanks. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Ahmed Dirie
    June 17, 2014

    Adam, that is a really amazing piece and it hits home with a lot of people from many diverse backgrounds. We’re held hostage by culture and seem to all fall victim to this idea of having to throw something huge at our own expense and financial health. Maybe one day our seemingly connected cultures will experience a paradigm shift and re-embrace simplicity?

    Reply
    • June 17, 2014

      Jazakallahu Khayran for the feedback. Yeah, it’ll take a while to shift that culture, but the conversation has to start somewhere. I think the 2nd generation kids who grew up here will hopefully handle big events like weddings with a little more financial responsibility. Spending money isn’t the issue, it’s when you go into debt to throw that lavish event.

      Reply
  3. June 22, 2014

    Great article. It really shed a light on the reality of spending money that does not exist and that following the word of God is the best way to go.

    Reply
  4. maryam
    June 27, 2014

    Absolutely wonderful reminder and article. As a fellow Afghan myself I FEEL the couple! But I couldnt help but tear up thinking of all the sacrifices I have to make to be debt-free come wedding day while reading this. Its gonna hurt- me and family and culture and family friends. Its gonna be hard whenever the day comes :'( But its best to, may Allah help me and all others who will see that day inshaAllah. I was on border about doing it Afghan “traditional” or islamic traditional, but I think your article helped me move towards islamic and frankly debt-free inshaAllah. JazakaAllahu Khayran!

    Reply

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