No wonder South Koreans are marrying late and the country is winning the race to the bottom in the fertility stakes. Their wedding culture alone, labelled “vain and extravagant” by their own president, sounds like a big turn-off.

Western brides and grooms have their gift registers (cash also accepted), but South Korean families expect their guests — who can run to thousands — to turn up with a cash-filled envelope to be received by a cashier, who will give them a meal ticket in return. A bank account number is sometimes included in the invitation so people who can’t attend can still send money.

Of course, money is a very practical thing to give newlyweds and many cultures have the custom of giving money for weddings and funerals. But the element of “face” and one-upmanship involved has an inflationary effect that, in Korea at least, can be boosted by political and business bribery.

South Korea’s top financial regulator, Kim Jong-chang, dropped the envelope system from his daughter’s recent wedding. Otherwise, he says, “In my case, many banking officials would have shown up with cash gifts. They would have wondered whether I was annoyed that they didn’t put enough in the envelope.”

Here are some stats:

Every year, the roughly 330,000 South Korean couples who get married spend an average of 15 million to 20 million won, or $13,000 to $17,000, in wedding expenses, said Lee Woong-jin, head of Sunoo, a matchmaking company that conducts an annual survey on wedding expenses. The cost can exceed 50 million won for hotel weddings.

Much of that is covered by the cash gifts. Last year, South Koreans gave out 8 trillion won, or 524,500 won for each household, in cash gifts for weddings and funerals, according to the National Statistical Office.

Friendships and business relationships may hang on keeping a record of how much a family receives so they can reciprocate when it’s their turn to show up at a wedding. And the whole thing is organised by parents rather than the bride and groom. But younger couples are rebelling against what they see as a “commercial” wedding culture.

“Some of my friends feel frustrated, wondering if their wedding is for them or for their parents,” said Lee Eun-jeong, 35, who works at a publishing company in Seoul. She limited her wedding in June to 135 guests and did not accept envelopes. “We also hate it when a friend who hasn’t contacted us for years suddenly gets in touch with us before her wedding, obviously with our envelopes in mind,” she said.

The government is trying to encourage frugality, but it has its work cut out.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet