Money Is Key: Weddings for the Willingly Unmarried

Money Is Key: Weddings for the Willingly Unmarried

Jieun Choi
Jieun Choi

While myriad reasons are causing young South Koreans to shun putting rings on their partners’ fingers, money is often the definitive factor. An average wedding costs 270 million won (24,000 U.S. dollars); not only that, finding affordable housing in major cities is close to impossible for newlyweds.

As more young South Koreans see marriage more as a rather burdensome option than a necessity, celebration of singledom is gaining popularity.

Many describe their marital status with the neologism bihon, meaning “willingly unmarried,” instead of using the word mihon, which implies the possibility of getting married in the future. Some even declare their bihon status by taking solo wedding photos.

Some of the willingly unmarried are taking a step further: by holding weddings.

The irony is unmistakable. So why are they celebrating their (lack of) marital status with the most familiar ritual associated with marriage?

The answer lies in money.

At South Korean weddings, it is customary to give an envelope containing congratulatory money. Starting from a minimum of 50,000 won (over 40 U.S dollars), the amount varies depending on the circumstances, such as the guest’s social status and relationship to the newlyweds. For a close friend’s wedding, you could easily slip 200,000 won (176 dollars) into the envelope. And when you can’t make it to a wedding, you might even transfer the money to the newlyweds’ account instead.

Later, when the tables turn, those who were previously on the receiving end are expected to return their favors, or money. A poll conducted by daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo reveals that almost 73 percent of newlyweds make a record of their congratulatory money for future reference, i.e. when they go to others’ weddings. (It’s customary at weddings to write your name on the money envelope, before handing it to the bride or groom’s side, before entering the wedding venue.)

This is one of the ways couples and their families bear the hefty wedding costs, and it’s precisely why most South Korean weddings are full of guests who are only vaguely acquainted with the couples themselves: They have been invited by the bride or groom’s parents.

But for the proud singles of the bihon tribe, it feels like a losing game: They are literally losing money without a chance to reap what they sow. So to level the playing field, some are organizing the occasion themselves, in the form of a bihonsik (bihon ceremony).

Bihonsik came under the spotlight last November, when comedian Park Soo-hong declared on television that he would hold a bihonsik at age 60 to collect the congratulatory money he had paid over the years. The TV show host estimated that Park paid at least 10 million won, or 8,800 dollars, every year at his friends’ weddings and their babies’ first birthdays (another occasion during which it’s customary to give money).

“[With the congratulatory money I have paid] I could have bought a house,” Park sighed. The 46-year-old comedian added that, while he still hoped to get married before hitting 60, if he didn’t, he’d hold an alternative ceremony to take back what he had given.

Recently, one Twitter user made bihonsik the talk of the town again with a tweet:

“I want to recover my parents’ congratulatory money [for other weddings]. I’m looking for someone to hold a wedding ceremony with me and then break up,” she said.

Her tweet was picked up by Joongang Ilbo and incited an online debate about the rising cost of marriage and the culture of exchanging money.

Congratulatory money is so burdensome that some are trumpeting the idea of a bihonsik — or even a temporary wedding partner like the Twitter user. But bihonsik for the sake of getting back congratulatory money is not widely seen as desirable. According to a recent survey by Trend Monitor, over half of the respondents were unenthusiastic about the idea.

Still, 35 percent saw it as a viable option for giving and receiving reasonable sums of congratulatory money, even for the willingly unmarried.


Cover image: It is customary to give congratulatory money in South Korean weddings, which is largely a burden for many guests. (Source: Flickr)

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