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[Weekender] A new equation in sharing costs of marriage

Old idea of groom alone buying house blown away by skyrocketing housing prices, calls for equality

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : March 16, 2024 - 16:01

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“The groom provides the home, and the bride furnishes it" has been a long-standing custom in Korean marriages.

But, with evolving perspectives on gender roles, and home prices virtually beyond reach for average Korean men of marrying age, the way couples manage the finances of their marriage is undergoing severe changes.

Newlyweds, single men and single women interviewed by The Korea Herald generally envisioned an equal partnership founded on equal contributions -- be it financially, in terms of their roles, or both. Yet, in reality, men still pay more to cover the costs of marriage. Women say they are willing to contribute more, but are often limited by practical reasons, such as modest savings.

Fading traditions, changing expectations

Who pays what for a marriage can be influenced by a complex interplay of factors, involving not only the two individuals tying the knot, their relationship dynamics and respective financial situations, but also the expectations and contributions of each of their families.

But Kang Kyung-seok, 34, who got married last year, could assert one thing clearly: the part of the marriage tradition that assigns the responsibility for providing a home to the groom only is obsolete for his generation.

“It is rare to find men who believe they should buy a house simply because they are men," he told The Korea Herald.

Nowadays, young people often discuss the concept of a “half-and-half marriage,” meaning equal financial contributions from the two, although he rarely saw couples doing so in reality.

“I think men tend to pay a bit more, something like a 60:40 ratio, although each case would be different."

The declining share of marriage expenses that men are paying is evident in surveys conducted by Duo, the largest matchmaking agency in Korea.

In 2004, grooms were found to be shouldering amounts more than three times greater than their brides -- men spent an average 99.4 million won ($75,400), compared to women spending 34.3 million won. This included the costs of housing, furnishing the home, the wedding ceremony, a honeymoon and other wedding-related expenses.

The same survey, conducted last month, revealed that men now pay only about 1.6 times more than women, with them footing a bill of 184.3 million won on average compared to women ponying up 113.9 million won.

In November last year, Duo asked single men and women in their 20s and 30s about how they would react if their prospective spouse suggested splitting the costs of marriage equally. The overwhelming majority of male respondents, 85.6 percent, said they were “willing to agree and marry the person,” whereas slightly more than half of the women, 54.8 percent, expressed the same sentiment.

Kang and his wife, a newlywed couple, settled into an apartment in Seoul valued at 450 million won, with 200 million won funded by himself and his parents. His wife contributed 80 million won, and the remaining amount was covered by bank loans that the couple agreed to repay together.

His wife purchased the furniture, while all other wedding-related expenses, such as wedding presents, the ceremony and the honeymoon, were split in half.

Kang had hoped his wife’s family could contribute more, but understood it was not possible due to their limited financial flexibility.

“I am OK with paying more because I am a man,” he said. "That’s how I was raised."

Home too big a burden

Finding a place to live now takes up the lion’s share of the expenses when a couple gets married in Korea.

This year, the average price of a three-room apartment home in Seoul is around 1 billion won, an amount that would require an average salaried worker in the city to save their entire annual income for 22 years. In 2004, the average price of a home was 330 million won.

The price of renting a home via jeonse, the rental system unique to Korea in which the tenant pays a large lump-sum deposit to the landlord up front with no monthly or yearly rent fee due -- an alternative choice for newlyweds when purchasing is not possible -- has surged to 534 million won in 2024, from 154 million won in 2004.

In the case of Lee Kyung-yeon, 33, who recently married, her husband paid part of the jeonse deposit for their home, while she covered the furnishings and honeymoon expenses.

Because the husband’s savings were not enough, the couple had to take out bank loans, which Lee considers a shared responsibility.

Lee, however, confessed that she had secretly hoped her husband’s family would contribute more financially, allowing them to have a more stable start without needing loans.

“Many of my (female) friends, including myself, think splitting expenses equally is ideal for us to have an equal footing in marital life,” she said.

“But, there is a gap between this ideal and reality.”

“When we reach the age of considering marriage, we often find ourselves without sufficient funds,” Lee continued.

She said she thinks women do not save as much of their earnings for marriage as men do. “It is true that women do not bear the same burden for securing a house as men do."

This eventually leads to women placing higher financial expectations on men when thinking of getting married, she added.

When couples marry at a later age through a marriage agency, they tend to split marriage expenses more equally, according to Woo Seung-rim, who has been a matchmaking manager at wedding agency Gayeon since 2016. Most of her clients are in their mid-30s or older.

“Many of these couples purchase their homes together and share the responsibility of repaying the loans, with the rest of their expenses also evenly divided between them,” Woo said. “Even before getting married, they often create a joint bank account to contribute equal amounts of money, which they then use for their dating expenses.”

The terms of equality

For many Korean men, marriage cost-sharing is just one aspect of the broader spectrum of financial dynamics within a marriage. They generally welcome women’s aspirations to continue to work and be financially independent, as it is very challenging to single-handedly cover the expenses for housing, child care and living costs.

Yoon Keun-ho, 35, said most of his male friends place a high importance on their wife’s job -- in terms of its stability, regularity, maternity leave benefits and the wife's willingness to work after having children.

“For me, dividing household chores is not a big issue. I don’t think there is much work to do at home since food can be delivered, dishes are washed by machines and cleaning is done by robot cleaners,” he said.

“What matters much more is whether my wife continues to work. Otherwise, covering all the family expenses alone would be too challenging.”

When asked what would happen if his wife wanted to quit her job after giving birth, Yoon said: “It can’t be helped, but I will (try to) persuade her anyway.”

Newlywed Lee also values an equal partnership above all, and believes for this, women should continue contributing to the household economy. This preference was shaped by witnessing her parents' skewed relationship, in which her father often disregard mother, a housewife, for not contributing financially.

“In the past, as men contributed more financially upon getting married, there was an implicit agreement that men hold more authority in their marital life,” said Kim Joong-baeck, a professor in the sociology department at Kyung Hee University. “Even when the bride’s parents were wealthier than the groom’s parents, they paid less than the groom.”

Such mindsets persist among the older generation, where parents may buy a house for their son’s marriage but not their daughter’s.

"However, this perspective is largely confined to the older generation,” Kim noted. “Among young couples, it is rare to encounter situations where a woman expects the man to pay more just because of his gender, and where the man agrees to it simply because he is male.”

Lee Bo-kyung, 34, joined a marriage agency six months ago and has met some men through the service. She wanted to meet someone wealthier than herself, preferably already with his own apartment, but she recognized that such a preference could lead to an imbalanced relationship, where she might have to compensate by eventually taking on more household and child care responsibilities.

“I think you can’t just compare ‘finances to finances' when you find a spouse,” she said.

"If a man is financially more stable, they might expect other attributes like beauty, younger age, obedience or a more stable job from their partner, balancing the equation.

“It is sad but true that no one wants to be on the losing side of a deal unless they marry very young and for love.”

Sociology professor Kim said the trend toward equally splitting expenses will naturally lead to a gradual further decrease in male dominance within the marriage and promote greater equality across areas like housework, child care and the traditional role of daughters-in-law.

However, Kim also expressed concerns that if young couples focus too intensely on dividing everything equally in a strict “half-and-half” manner, it might make their relationship seem transactional.

“This approach could shift the focus toward a ‘me first’ mentality rather than fostering a couple-centered dynamic.”