“They said the groom’s family should provide the marital house as that’s the norm and the tradition,” The 36-year-old told The Korea Herald. “My parents have no such money, and I can’t really afford an apartment in Seoul by myself in spite of my full-time job and personal savings.”
Shin is one of many single Korean men who think Korea’s traditional wedding culture, which dictates that the family of the groom buys a house for the newlyweds -- while the family of the bride buys the furniture and household items -- should now change.
For Shin, financing a marital house on his own means to have a huge mortgage. About five years after obtaining his university degree, he’s been employed full-time since 2011. Shin, who claims to now have a frugal lifestyle, currently has personal savings of 80 million won ($69,668).
“The housing that I'd like to live (as a married man with a wife) costs about 300 million won," he said. “I don’t mind having mortgage debt. It’s just too much of a burden to pay it off on my own.”
According to a 2014 study by local NGO Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, it would take on average of 29 years for a newly married double-income couple to save enough to lease an apartment in Seoul -- which on average costs about 280 million won as of 2014 as a lump-sum deposit under Korea’s “jeonse” real-estate system -- if they choose to avoid borrowing. The average cost for an apartment under “jeonse” in Seoul marked and 400 million won as of this March.
And as of last year, the average monthly wage of all first-year, university-educated employees was 2.9 million won.
“I think it’s virtually impossible for anyone in Korea -- regardless of their gender -- to afford a debt-free house in the early 30s,” said Lee Kyung-eun, a 31-year-old female office worker in Seoul. “It’s impossible even if they were employed at one of the biggest conglomerates at the age of 25.”
With such a housing situation, as well as the still-prevalent traditional wedding culture, the cost of wedding and marital housing are still being financed by couples’ parents in Korea, especially the ones of the grooms.
As of 2013, 66.5 percent of Koreans who were married for less than 3 years said parents should finance their children’s housing and wedding “as much as they can,” according to a report by the Korean Women’s Development Institute.
According to a recent report by the Samsung Economic Research Institute, which surveyed 1,501 Korean parents with grown, married children, they on average spent 125.05 million won on their children’s weddings and marital housing.
The report also showed that the parents spent significantly more on their sons’ weddings and housing. They, on average, spent 94 million won per son, while 42 million won per daughter.
In total, 63.8 percent of all surveyed parents financed 40 to 100 percent of all cost needed for their children’s weddings and housing. At the same time, 75 percent of them said paying for their children’s wedding and housing had an impact on their post-retirement finance.
Shin said he does not want to financially burden his parents anymore by getting married. “I relied on them financially for all of my education,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ethically right to ask them to pay for my housing. I know a lot of other people get apartments from their parents when they get married, and I sometimes wish I were that lucky. But that doesn’t mean I should make my parents take the burden.”
Yet Kim Yoo-jin, a 33-year-old female working professional in Seoul, said it’s all about “being practical” in today’s society where social mobility is severely limited. She said among her group of friends, those who are considered the most fortunate are women who “marry up” -- meaning they get an apartment financed by their in-laws, and are no longer required to view their jobs as a means of survival rather than as a career choice.
“I work full-time and I also have my savings. But there’s no way I can get decent housing with my salary anytime soon. For many people marriage is the only way to secure housing and financial stability. So if you find someone whose parents are willing to provide those for you, why not?”
Kim Young-ran, a researcher who specializes in family studies at KWDI, said the continuation of the particular custom and hypergamy -- the notion that women should marry up and men should marry down educationally and economically -- reflects the prevalent gender disparity that exists in Korea’s patriarchal society.
“If we lived in a society where women can take care of their own housing, we would not see this happening,” she said. “And when you think about it, the kind of young women who are most popular in the Korean marriage market are not those who are most educated, or most successful. The ones that are most wanted are women with wealthy parents -- most likely wealthy fathers -- who can provide their future sons-in-law with opportunities and other material goods.”
Kim said sexism in Korea’s labor force, gender wage gap, and poor work-life balance of working women as well as stigmatization and financial insecurity experienced by single women all contribute to the culture.
A change in the widespread phenomenon of a heavier financial burden on the groom’s family should bring greater benefits to both men and women, she said.
“Once you get a free house thinking this is what you deserve as a wife and a future mother, you become subordinate to the marriage. Having some financial independence within your marriage gives you the opportunities to seek equality at home. It’s easier to share domestic chores and child care with your spouse when you have that independence and contribution.”
And that‘s exactly what Park Hee-jin, a 30-year-old Seoulite wants to do. “I still want to be myself after getting married,” she said. “I don’t think I can do that if I‘m too financially related to my in-laws. I want to marry someone who manages his finances well and does not mind starting off somewhere small and simple. I think it‘s really about making a choice, between your independent freedom or financial wealth and security.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Shin Ji-hun and Lee Kyung-eun are not their real names. The names were changed upon request.-- Ed.