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News / Life / Lifestyles

Low-Cost Weddings: Thrifty couples opt for a minimony

By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times
Published: July 8, 2023, 6:42am
3 Photos
Ana Soriano and Luis Moreno kiss after they are married at the Old Brown House, a wedding chapel in Highland Park, which offered free ceremonies during its grand opening on the second Saturday in June.(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS) (Photos by Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)
Ana Soriano and Luis Moreno kiss after they are married at the Old Brown House, a wedding chapel in Highland Park, which offered free ceremonies during its grand opening on the second Saturday in June.(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/TNS) (Photos by Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — As the couple sauntered down the aisle, an instrumental hip-hop version of the wedding classic Canon in D oozed from a boombox, and a small crowd, most of them perfect strangers, danced and cheered in celebration.

The bride wore a sundress and a veil she picked out moments earlier and the groom a black button-down with a fresh haircut from his family’s salon down the street.

The ceremony itself took less than 10 minutes — affordable, memorable and intimate, exactly what Ana Soriano and Luis Moreno had wanted.

“It was just us,” she told him moments after their nuptials. “You and me.”

Both in their early 30s, the couple met on Myspace 13 years ago and got engaged at a cathedral in Italy a few months before the pandemic shutdowns. Moreno, a studio engineer, lost his income overnight, and wedding planning moved to the back burner.

The couple knew some relatives had spent close to $50,000 on weddings, but they wanted to prioritize saving for a down payment on a home. And being inclined to avoid the spotlight, they liked the prospect of skipping the pressure of a big gathering.

They had settled on a backyard ceremony until the groom’s sister saw something on Facebook about the Old Brown House, a wedding chapel in Highland Park recently opened by a couple who, for years, officiated free weddings at Burning Man. Before the pandemic reorganized their lives and priorities, Soriano said, she felt some pressure to have a larger, more traditional wedding — but this had been so much better.

“Plan B is now Plan A for a lot of people,” said Connie Jones-Steward, an L.A.-based wedding officiant, who said the demand for small ceremonies has remained high since restrictions were lifted.

Largely gone are the days of Zoom weddings and socially distanced outdoor ceremonies, but some of the other pared-down celebrations that were once a pandemic necessity are now increasingly a top choice.

Some of the lexicon popularized during the shutdowns — “micro-wedding” and “minimony,” the portmanteau of mini and ceremony — still dominates the bridal blogosphere, and hundreds of companies have cropped up to cater to tiny gatherings.

Google searches for “elopement” — a term whose definition has evolved in recent years, to suggest a small, destination wedding more than something furtive — are even higher now than during the first wave of pandemic shutdowns. A survey conducted by a diamond company a few months before the pandemic found that more than 90 percent of millennials said they would consider eloping. Their top reason? Saving money.

Jones-Steward — who offers a beach elopement package starting at $399 — keeps in touch with many of the couples who eloped during the pandemic and learned that some who originally planned to have another big ceremony down the road ultimately decided against it, realizing they were grateful to have avoided the stress and cost. These days, she said, many of her Gen Z and younger millennial clients prioritize saving for travel and a down payment.

“They’d rather have this quickie ceremony,” she said, “and spend the money on a world cruise for a honeymoon.”

And if marital longevity is your goal, there’s evidence that’s a good call.

A pair of economists surveyed more than 3,000 people who were or had been married and found that those who spent $1,000 or less on their wedding were significantly less likely to get divorced than many couples who had spent more. Going on a honeymoon, however, correlated with a longer marriage duration.

One of the study’s authors, Hugo Mialon, an Emory University economics professor, said he was inspired to conduct the study, in part, by ads he’d seen on TV as a child from De Beers, the company that introduced the slogan “A diamond is forever” in an attempt to boost sales after the Great Depression.

The expensive-crystals-equal-everlasting-love messaging proved wildly successful for the company, which, in another advertising campaign decades later, used an image of a beautiful, pouty woman to help shape cultural expectations around how much suitors should spend on a ring.

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“You can’t look at Jane and tell me she’s not worth 2 months’ salary,” it read. “I mean just look at her.”

The Old Brown House, which looks just like it sounds, sits on a fairly quiet stretch of York Boulevard, across the street from a cannabis dispensary that was once a Pizza Hut.

Decorated on the inside with vintage furniture and a pump organ, the chapel held its grand opening on the second Saturday in June — the brain- and love child of owners Tess Sweet and Dan Gambelin.

The couple met at Burning Man in 2009 and returned several years after that to perform free wedding ceremonies to honor the festival’s tradition of giving. They loaned out thrifted gowns, gifted rubber rings and devised a Mad Libs-style format so people could quickly write personalized vows. They married more than 300 couples in ceremonies that, although not legally binding, were often profound.

Sweet, 51, and Gambelin, 54, both faced career crossroads early in the pandemic, and as they reflected on the intense joy packed into that week at the festival, they wondered if there was a way to sprinkle that throughout the year.

“We both retired from worlds that broke our hearts,” Sweet said. “This is a new chapter.”

For more than 20 years, Sweet worked to establish herself as a filmmaker, but she grew increasingly discouraged by the industry and how so much hinges on whom you know — and how, as soon as you’ve finished one project, people immediately ask what’s next.

At the end of 2020, Gambelin retired early with post-traumatic stress disorder after more than two decades as a firefighter and paramedic in San Mateo, a job he loved but one that slowly ate away at him. He began to disassociate, stamping down devastating images seared into his mind — body parts in a field at the scene of a car accident, the terror in the eyes of a child whose little brother died of sudden infant death syndrome.

He had been there for the worst days of so many people’s lives. It gnawed at him that, even though they surely didn’t remember him, his presence, his face, had been associated with deep fear and despair.

Officiating weddings, he realized, offered the exact opposite; now he was the stranger playing a small part in one of the happiest days of their lives.

Using money they’d saved from selling their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains several years earlier, the couple bought the chapel in 2021. It was painted white at the time and decorated with signs that the previous owners used to advertise their tax and notary services, as well as weddings and divorces.

Sweet and Gambelin — who both got ordained online through the Universal Life Church to perform weddings — spent two years renovating the place themselves and, in April, did a test run of sorts officiating the wedding of Hattie Brown, one of Sweet’s relatives.

She and her now-husband, Daniel Saavedra, who works as a chef at a restaurant downtown, got engaged a few months before the pandemic and knew they wanted a simple ceremony — something affordable, lighthearted and poignant to honor the relationship they’d built since meeting a decade ago while working at Yosemite National Park.

“I didn’t want the whole bells and whistles wedding,” said Brown, who stays home to care for the couple’s 6-month-old daughter. “That’s a lot of money that we don’t have and a lot of work.”

On a bright Saturday in April, about 20 of their family members gathered at the Old Brown House. Before they walked down the aisle, everyone took a shot of tequila.

Two of Saavedra’s brothers, who initially had scheduling conflicts, surprised them by showing up, and Brown carried a bouquet that included a small picture of her father, who died last year. During the ceremony, Saavedra recalled looking over at Brown and then up at the strings of lights lining the ceiling of the chapel.

“Almost like I was in a fairy tale,” he said.

At the grand opening, the chapel offered free ceremonies all day and the event stretched until after dark.