This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
There’s really no telling what's in store when you receive an invitation today: could be an e-vite to your ex-roommate’s dog’s 1st birthday, could be an elaborate save the date for a wedding ceremony in Tahiti in 10 weeks. (Better check your travel points balance.)
But whatever it is, you’ll be there — probably in a new dress, or at least something from Rent The Runway — no matter how much the plane ticket or the student loan payment you have to make. You won’t be able to deal with the Instagram-induced FOMO if you don’t go. The fact that you may be terribly exhausted from the carousel of weddings, Big Deal Birthdays, baby showers, push parties, and even a teacup pig celebration, also matters not.
Such is the state of play for those of us living through the rise of the Millennial Experience Economy (aka MEE). Overstretched as we may be, the reason we continue to say yes to every event is that all of this partying is hyper-meaningful to millennials. “It’s not that weddings and baby showers haven’t always been important to people, it’s just that millennials are less connected to communities in traditional ways — they don’t go to church or synagogue, and they often live far away from their hometowns,” explains Jessica Carbino, PhD, a sociologist who specializes in the study of relationships. “These events are rituals. Humans need rituals to create common ground between families and our communities, so these over-the-top celebrations are ways to remain connected.”
But there is doing it and there is overdoing it. We conducted a survey of more than 800 of our readers, and found that 44% have attended an out-of-state destination wedding, and 33% have been to a Big Deal Birthday party in the past year. One in five Refinery29 users said they had attended an “Instagram-worthy” group vacation, complete with matchings outfits and photoshoots. One in five surveyed also told us they’re stressed enough by their social calendars to talk to their therapists about it. What this shows is that, as important and epically fun as that perfectly planned getaway birthday bash is, the status quo is leaving all of us harried and in debt. That’s why we thought it might be time to write up some… not rules exactly (millennials wouldn’t follow them anyway) but some general guidelines around navigating the great wide world of milestone celebrations and other “Big Deal” events. For the sake of our relationships (which are the whole point!), we really need to talk about what’s fair, and what’s going to get you excommunicated from the group chat.
The result of all this research (Oh yeah, on top of the survey we did 30+ interviews, and talked to experts in etiquette and psychology) is a comprehensive, six-part guide that is just as extra as you are. We’ve got multiple sections on navigating modern weddings (the biggest source of your woes, we're told), plus advice for intrusive baby shower questions, gift-giving, and everything in between.
Part 1: Wedding Bells (& Bills)
If marriage is a status symbol (today, 56% of upper-class Americans are married, versus 26% of poor Americans) then weddings are the ultimate show-off. Once upon a time, breathtaking flower arrangements and lavish party favors were reserved for the pages of Brides and Martha Stewart, but thanks to Instagram, doughnut walls, food trucks, and handmade personalized place settings are now basic goals. That may be why the average cost of a millennial wedding is an incredible $38,700, according to WeddingWire’s 2019 Newlywed Report. And that cost is just for the person throwing it.
Between the getaway bachelorette, and the ballooning duties of a bridesmaid, guests are also chipping in more to attend: 44% of Refinery29 readers surveyed said they’ve spent upwards of $500 to attend a wedding in the past year, and 17% said they’ve spent more than $1,000. The fact is though, weddings are expensive for a reason. Most people agree that attending a loved ones’ big day is worthy of expense, even when they can’t really afford it: 55% of readers in our survey told us they go to every single wedding they’re invited to, and many told us that being invited to someone’s special day is an “honor.” Another survey, this one by TD Ameritrade, found that more than half of millennials surveyed said they think it’s fine to go into debt to attend a wedding for someone important to them.
What's less than cool, however, is this never-ending creep of social obligations that's developed: the engagement party, the bachelorette (39% in our survey said they spent more than $500 on a bachelorette alone in the past year), the bridal shower, the dress shopping, the dress fittings, the brunches for the bridesmaids to get to know one another, and more. “Money is the most obvious part of the stress, but really what’s terrible is the endless pressure to be ‘on’ when you go to these things — to look good in the photos, to wear something new every time, to be a good sport,” says Ashley Ross, 30, a content strategist in NYC, who estimates she goes to between 4 and 8 weddings each year. “When you have multiple friends getting married in a single year, and you have to travel, what ends up happening is you have to rank your friends based on who’s most important. It ends up being so much pressure, it ruins the fun."
The sad truth about all this "fun" is that it's starting to backfire. The bar for being a “good friend” has now been raised so high that people are feeling crushed by the pressure. Ahead, some advice for getting through wedding season and still having friends after.
Always Remember: The Wedding Is The Point
We're not saying don’t throw an engagement party, or that you don't deserve to spend a weekend in Miami that is commemorated by a professional photoshoot. By all means, do what you want. But at the same time, maybe don't lose sight of the fact that all of this is just icing? You are entitled to one special day. On the day of your wedding, you are to be the absolute center of attention, the sun around which everyone you know and love rotates. But the rest is optional. “The truth is not even the bridal party has to attend the bachelorette party,” says Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and author of Higher Etiquette. “I get really concerned when I see people feeling the pressure to have the $2,000 bachelorette party, and to fly everyone to x,y,z destination for so many different wedding parties. All you’re doing is limiting people’s ability to participate in the wedding itself.”
How To Be A Good Friend, Even When You Can't Be In The Bridal Party
No one is required to go into debt or put themselves in any kind of personal peril for someone’s wedding, no matter how close you are or what they did for your wedding. But that doesn’t mean this won’t be difficult. How you decline can make all the difference. “Our words can mean so much. If you just say I’ve got too much to handle, sorry. That’s not going to make the bride feel supported,” Post says. “But if you say I so want to be there for you, and I’m sorry I can’t, and then you find ways to extend your good will and support in other ways, that can salvage your friendship.” Ideas for doing that: sending an affordable gift, like flowers, to the hotel during her bachelorette or even just Facetiming her while she’s getting ready day-of.
How To Be A Good Friend, Even When Your BFF Can't Be In The Bridal Party
You’re probably upset, and maybe a bit angry given how much effort you put into supporting her. But keep in mind: “There are other ways for other people to be a part of the wedding and not be a bridesmaid,” says Terri Huggins, 30, author of 100 Things You Should Never Say. “Have your friend do a reading as part of the ceremony.” Either way, Huggins adds, just remember she’s probably doing you a favor by being honest about her limits. “It can save you the headache later on from having a bridesmaid who can’t give her full attention.”
Part 2: A Bachelorette Attendee’s Bill of Rights
The Big Deal Bachelorette is at once the best and worst of all millennial inventions, and it's become such a tricky phenomenon that it needed it's own section. These parties are exhausting, hellishly expensive, and often lead to nightmarish planning email threads that span an entire year (or more.) And yet, the Big Deal Bachelorette can also be incredibly fun? That is if certain principles are respected. From here on out, every bachelorette guest is entitled to the following:
The Right to Give Input: So you’re planning your sister’s getaway bachelorette and you feel like asking for feedback will be too time-consuming? Maybe on every detail yes, but when it comes to the big things — lodging, group dinners, pricey activities, guests have a right to be asked about prices in advance. “The thing about these events is, there is no way to do them without the process being like preparing a marketing deck. It’s annoying, but it gets the job done,” says Caroline Moss, co-author of Hey Ladies!, a hilarious book about nightmarish email threads. “What is more annoying though is getting a Venmo request out of nowhere for $150 when I wasn’t even consulted.”
The Right to Wear What You Want: The only people who truly benefit from the trend of matching “Bridesmaid ” T-shirts are the people you’re buying them from. If not doing this has you crying inside, we suggest the compromise provided by one of our survey respondents: “Instead of telling your bridesmaids what to wear, pick a color and have them wear something they might actually wear again,” says Patricia, 34, from Boston. Still can’t stop yourself? Certainly having the Bride to wear a dedicated T-shirt, sash, crown, what have you, is still allowed. She’s the guest of honor, after all.
The Right To Smooth Sailing: Booking flights and getting through security are bad enough. Please do not force your friends to endure a layover as well. Direct flights may be impossible in every situation, but your nearest and dearest deserve to have a reasonably easy way of getting there. You can do this by skipping places where there are virtually no direct flights or far-off-the-beaten path places that will require planes, trains, and automobiles on the way there.
The Right To Opt-Out: If you need to say no to her expensive bachelorette, even if you're in the bridal party, you have a right to do so. Likewise, planning a jam-packed itinerary is great, but planners should always make it clear that attendance at any of the activities is optional. “The best is when there is a lot of flexibility,” says Michelle Moscowitz, co-author of Hey Ladies! “For example, there’s always the big group dinners at fancy restaurants. I love it when hosts give you the option of just meeting everyone for drinks before or after.”
The Right To Take A Nap At Anytime: These trips are tiring, and the non-stop eating, drinking, and socializing can really wear on people. On top of the right to opt-out to save money, any attendee is entitled to lie down or sit in her room alone watching TV, sans guilt trip. “There should really be dedicated nap times,” Moscowitz says. “At any time you should be able to do what you need to do the chill out.”
Part 3: What About Gifts?
In some places it’s considered custom to “pay for your plate” with your wedding gift — as in, the amount you should spend on your gift should match the estimated price of your plate (or plates, if you have a plus one) at the reception. But that’s now woefully outdated in a world where weddings more often than not require cross-country travel. Here's how to figure it out.
First, determine your budget
* This means all expenses, including your Bridesmaid dress if necessary and what you’ve spent for travel throughout the year leading up.
Your total budget – Your expenses* = The price of your gift.
If traveling to the wedding (or the bachelorette) eats up your entire budget, then it is perfectly fine for your presence to be your present. “The rule is you give a gift that fits within your budget,” Post says.
0$ leftover, but you really can’t stand to not bring a gift
Make something! “I think you should really never plan an event and expect a gift,” says Terri Huggins, 30, author of 100 Things You Should Never Say. “However, I often feel guilty if I don’t bring something. I feel bad. So what I do is I make little gifts. I save their wedding invitation and make them a keepsake. It shows I care even if I’m broke.”
Anything above $ 0
Head to the registry. “The registry is helpful because it makes it easy for guests to know what you want,” Post says. But if everything on their registry is out of your price range, that’s on the couple. (A not-subtle hint for couples: Please make sure you have a wide price range of gifts on your registry.) In this instance, the best thing to do is go in with a group on a pricier item, give cash to the honeymoon fund, or go rogue/off-registry to buy them something thoughtful you can afford, such as a beautiful frame.
A Quick Word About Bridal Showers
Traditionally, the bridal shower is for “showering” the bride with gifts to help her prepare for her new role as a wife and homemaker. Today, that makes zero sense — as one survey respondent so eloquently put it: “Marriage does not require new dishes. It's not 1800.”
This is why today's bridal showers are rightfully much more low-key. If you're going to one, the same gifting formula above applies here, too. Buy something within your budget, or bring nothing at all to save your cash for the big day, the wedding itself.
Part 4: Oh, Baby!
Historically, the transition to parenthood was a very private affair. For centuries, it was considered not just uncouth, but immoral for a pregnant woman to simply be seen in public. We’re very happy those days are over, but with pregnancy announcements and week-by-week sonogram updates flooding social media on top of the events creep, it's safe to say the pendulum has swung fully in the other direction.
That’s right, a baby shower is far from the only pregnancy party millennials attend: there is also the growing prominence of the gender reveal gathering (interest in which has grown by 25% over the past 5 years, per Google search data), the “push party” (which is like a baby shower but more focused on celebrating the mom-to-be with presents) and even mini-celebrations, like the elaborate Godparent proposal. According to our survey, these last two are much less common: only 5% and 1% of respondents said they attended a push party or Godparent proposal, respectively, in the past year. But the fact that they exist at all are proof enough that millennials’ creativity is the gift that just keeps on giving.
People are surprisingly chill about the new ways to celebrate pregnancy. If anything, “I like the gender reveal trend because these can be less stressful than a shower: You don’t have to bring a present, and it’s usually fewer people who are invited,” says Kamisha Melicio, 26, from Boston, MA.
That said, baby showers and all of the related baby events can be more emotionally charged. “I want to have kids eventually, but I can’t even think about it right now. It scares me,” Melicio says. Likewise, in our survey, people who told us they found weddings the most stressful almost universally said the reason was cost, but for baby events, the cause of party-induced agony went much deeper: It’s not just that pregnancy celebrations can be boring, and the baby shower games can get awkward. It’s that the mere idea of a gender reveal may strike you as outdated, if not politically offensive (not that you can say that out loud to the host). And let’s not forget that for some, these events are painful — anyone who’s struggled with infertility or pregnancy loss can attest to that. Beyond that, a new baby is also the marker of a friendship about to change. “You get used to traveling with these friends or just going to a concert whenever and then you can’t do that anymore when the baby arrives,” Melicio adds. “It’s a big shift for the relationship. I wouldn’t say it’s always a change for the worse, but it is different.”
How to Reconcile Your Baby Shower-Induced Neurosis
No matter what your beef with the event is, the reason these are so troubling are the competing emotions. When we feel two things at once, both ‘I am happy for my friend and want to support her’ and ‘This event is going to be a total drag’ (whether that’s because you don’t want kids, or you wish you were the pregnant person), it’s tough to reconcile those emotions. “What pops up is ambivalence,” explains Juli Fraga, PsyD, a practicing psychotherapist in San Francisco. “The main thing with ambivalence is that it plays a cognitive trick on us. We feel like we have to choose one or the other.” Instead, what we have to do is find ways to honor and acknowledge all of what we feel. If you know the party is going to make you angry, or jealous, or just annoyed, set aside time before you go to experience those feelings and cry it out if you must, Dr. Fraga says. This will make it easier for you to enjoy the actual party as much as possible.
How To Change The Subject
Aside from ambivalence, baby showers and the like also tend to bring up general anxiety about our own paths — especially when your Aunt Donna or your friend's mom takes to straight up asking you about it. Dr. Fraga gave us some scripts that can help.
They say: “So when are you settling down?”
What you want to say: “ In the words of Cruella de Vil, ‘more good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease, and disaster.’”
What you should actually say: “I’m focused on the present right now, but I’ll let you know when I know! Where’d you get that dress?”
They say: “I’m sure your mom just can’t wait for grandbabies! When is your turn?”
What you want to say: “Did you know: 97% of scientists now agree that we’re hurtling towards the point of no return on climate change and humans are the main cause? And also that it’s extremely rude to ask about the contents of my womb?”
What you should actually say: “ Getting married [or moving in, or getting promoted, or running my marathon] was a big enough step for me for now, but I’m so excited to get to be the cool aunt to little [insert friends baby’s name here].”
Part 5: The Baby Party Guest List
So, you’re pregnant and ecstatic and you plan on celebrating this more than you’ve celebrated anything. Good for you. Here are some suggestions for going all-out and still having friends after. Basically: Don’t invite every person to every shindig.
Invited: Everyone! And share your registry. The entire point of the baby shower is to get gifts, and for good reason. The project of welcoming an infant is like climbing Everest — exhausting, equal parts scary and exhilarating, and gear-intensive! So, this is one time when your friends, family, and co-workers will be at their most willing to help in the form of presents. But do be understanding when someone can’t make the actual event, and don’t pry into their reasons. “I once turned down a party and one of my best friends ‘unfriended’ me, literally, and never forgave me for it,” shares Evelyn Tsai of East Norrington, PA. “I understand that it was a celebration of her baby, but I completely congratulated her and would have bought stuff for her child. I just couldn’t make it.”
Invited: Immediate family only. Everyone else can see it online.
Invited: Closest friends, with a clear notice that gifts are neither expected nor required.
Invited: Just the Godparents. Don’t even hint to your other friends that they should come to this, please.
Part 6: Birthdays…And All The Rest
First came the Big Deal Birthday, then came … literally everything else. In 2018, Pinterest search interest for “mini-moment” celebrations — say, an elaborate (and Instagrammable) picnic to celebrate a work win, or your dog’s birthday — grew +113%, per data provided by the site. In the words of one of our survey respondents: “Stop the madness!” The reason why this is so irritating is because a lot of what’s driving the millennial events economy is FOMO and social media. “Our generation’s desire to throw what really are just parties that look good on Instagram is insane,” Ross says. “We are all so overscheduled.”
But at the same time, this is yet another outgrowth of how starved for connection millennials are: “You have to be participatory to have a community,” Dr. Carbino says. “All of these events are ways to create a sense of community. Because you don’t have that anymore in a traditional sense you have to do it another way.” And if you’re not getting married or having a baby, you have to get even more creative: an over-the-top party on your birthday, or register for your housewarming, a bash to celebrate your cat’s adoption day.
The key then isn’t to make like The Hermit and retreat with your lantern to the mountains, but to somehow find a healthy balance. The only way to do this is to be smart about the invites you accept — and send. Ahead, some tools for finding your way.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
So you’re planning another big bash….
Ask yourself: Am I celebrating my friends as much as I’m asking them to celebrate me?
Some people are just very good at throwing parties — every friend group needs one! If you have been reading this guide knowing you are that someone, maybe the next time you feel the itch to plan something, you can find a group-wide reason to celebrate: a karaoke night for Beyonce’s birthday, perhaps? At the very least, try to give yourself at least a one-year cooling off period between Big Deal Events for yourself. For example, maybe don’t host an elaborate birthday immediately after your wedding.
12% of Refinery29 readers surveyed threw themselves a Big Deal Birthday within the past year. 33% attended a Big Deal Birthday party in the past year.
And finally… YOLO
Throughout researching this guide, we heard a lot of pet peeves from many fed-up millennials, a lot of which we addressed. But there were also complaints that were valid, sure, but savage AF — y’all are mad about invite-quality and the nerve of Friday weddings. You’re mad about kid-free events and events with kids. You don’t like event hashtags or gatherings in other neighborhoods even. The list goes on, and on. Just remember: “Not every party can be the party we want it to be,” Post says. “It’s about the honoree. It’s not about you.” And if you don’t like it? Well, you don’t have to come.
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