The Changing Face of Engagements

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Michael Huber and Tyler Sylk | Carina Romano

When Michael Huber, a 31-year-old attorney, popped the question to Tyler Sylk at the Jersey Shore last July, the moment was intimate. But they were hardly alone. Waiting to celebrate the moment were a professional photographer and, back at Sylk’s family’s beach house in Longport, both sets of parents.

As Sylk, 28, recalls, it was a surprise engagement party — but not really.

“I had dropped these hints along the way, like, ‘Maybe you should make sure to take nice pictures of the moment,’” recalled the bride-to-be, a clinical trial coordinator at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center. “And I was hoping if he were to propose, he’d do it there down the shore.”

Welcome to the new engagements.

They’re shorter in duration — averaging under a year, according to Gina Sole of Philadelphia-based The Wedding Planner — but increasingly emphasize elaborate proposals that feature surprise engagement parties, staged by the groom-to-be and captured by a professional photographer.

The calculus of where to splurge and where to scrimp has clearly shifted for today’s Jewish couples. Sylk said a lot of her friends reset family diamonds into engagement rings, a potential four-figure savings that many would rather put toward a photo shoot.

With grandma’s solitaire, “nobody can really accuse you of cutting costs, because of the sentiment,” Sylk observed.

Meanwhile, engagement photo shoots have gone from optional to part of the standard full-service wedding package. Even booked a la carte, “they’re definitely more popular in the last eight to 10 years,” said Carina Romano, a co-owner of Love Me Do Photography in Philadelphia.

Most couples spend $500 to $700 for a shoot lasting between one and two hours, Romano said. A counterpoint to nuptial formality, engagement pictures capture a couple’s dynamic through everyday activities — “drinking coffee, taking a walk, at home with their pets,” Romano said.

To save money, some brides will schedule their hair and makeup trial on the same day as the shoot, Romano noted.

“That way they can get the professional hair and makeup without having to spend twice,” she explained. Romano has also seen more brides renting gowns from websites like Rent the Runway.

But even couples on a budget don’t skimp on photos. “They’ll use it for save the dates, on the wedding website,” Sole pointed out. “Girls will pay top dollar for photo and video, because after the wedding, that’s all they have left.”

The informality of an engagement shoot is also an ideal way for couples to “bond” with their photographer and get comfortable posing, said Christiane Lehman of Truly You Events in Philadelphia. “That way you don’t have a stranger in the room on your wedding day while you’re getting dressed,” she said.

As proposals have gotten more elaborate, Lehman said she has begun receiving emails from grooms seeking her services. “There are full Instagram feeds and blogs dedicated to this topic — ‘How He Asked’ — and it’s the first thing your girlfriends ask: ‘How did he do it?’” she said. “There’s all this pressure to have a great story.”

But most grooms take the DIY approach, Lehman said, especially after hearing a planner’s fee. She charges $100 per hour, and calculates an average of five to 10 hours to arrange proposal decor and setup, secure a photographer, and corral family and friends for a “spontaneous” engagement fete.

One who planned it alone was Michael Pasadak, a 30-year-old Center City attorney, who had a crowd of 30 well-wishers waiting at City Tap House last July when he asked Samantha Wertheimer to marry him. Both sets of parents, along with friends from as far away as Los Angeles, joined the happy couple for a private reception, Wertheimer recalled.

Michael Pasadak and Samantha Wertheimer | Photo provided

Engagement parties “are more about having champagne and celebrating with friends and family,” said Lehman, who said that in her experience, Jewish families are particularly likely to involve both sets of parents in pre-wedding events.

Families of all persuasions, however, are less likely to turn to a professional for the engagement party, which has grown smaller and less formal over time. With shorter engagements, Sole explained that couples are loath to spend — or make their parents spend — a large sum for a second event within a year.

An engagement party “is the one area where people feel they can save a bit, and they can manage it,” observed Sole, who has owned The Wedding Planner since 2001. Her couples typically invite no more than 100 people, even for a large wedding; the event might take place at a parent’s home or country club, but it’s just as likely to be at a favorite BYOB where the family has enjoyed many a dinner.

Next up: save-the-date cards. Like a lot of modern brides, Wertheimer, a 29-year-old graduate student, decided to cut costs by ordering save-the-dates from Minted.com, a website that was cheaper than her wedding stationer.

“The reality is, it goes on somebody’s fridge, and then it goes in the trash,” said Wertheimer, who describes herself as practical. “We decided not to spend as much on save-the-dates, and spend a little more on the actual invites.”

It may be cheaper cardstock, but paper still rules over email.

“I thought the transition would happen quicker, but my brides and grooms are sticking with tradition,” Sole said. “People like the idea that something is coming into each guest’s home that they can hold onto for the whole year.”

Sylk, who is planning a July wedding at the Barnes Foundation, said that of all the costs that arise during an engagement, hiring a planner — in her case, Lehman of Truly You — may be the most worthwhile.

“It’s really overwhelming, planning a wedding,” Sylk said with a laugh. “My friends who haven’t hired a planner wish they had. They say, ‘I wish I’d just gotten fewer flowers.’” ❤

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