What’s the Best Age to Get Married?

“I thought I was one of those people who wouldn’t get married till they were 30,” says Sarah Haynes Waller. She married her husband Ben three years ago, at the tender age of 22.

Sarah continues, “People asked me, ‘When did you know you wanted to marry him?’ And I said, When I was walking down the aisle. I thought, Well I guess we’re doin’ this!”

Our table full of marg-happy gal pals starts talking about our parents’ marriages. When our parents got married in the 70s and 80s, they were in their mid-twenties. It’s the same age as most of us are now.

Our group is mostly single, however, which squares with the U.S. Census Bureau’s data on age at first marriage. Since 1960, people have been delaying marriage later and later in life, and the stats are higher than ever. Women are marrying at about 27, men at 29.

At our table, wedged inside a little Mexican spot in the West Village, our only friend besides Sarah who is about to get hitched is Carolann. “November 5!” she chirps, reciting her upcoming wedding date. True to trend, she’s 30.

I ask Sarah if people treat her and her husband differently because they’re a conspicuously young married couple. She nods. “People think we’re weird.”

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Sarah and her husband live in St. Louis. I didn’t know this at the time, but St. Louis is a veritable wedding chapel compared to the matrimonial wasteland that is New York City, where the couple will move in several weeks.

At 28.4, the median age for a woman’s first marriage in New York state is the third-highest in the nation. In fact, a child of the New York City metro area might be less likely to get married than a native of any other geographical area in the country, according to a recent study by a team of Harvard economists.

Sarah speaks as if someone Manchurian-Candidated her into marrying young. She says she knew she was headed for the altar after the third date. “I came home and said, ‘Shoot, I’m gonna marry this guy, and I don’t want to!’”

I ask her why the rush to the altar. She has no idea.

Sarah’s impulse to settle down at 22 might have had something to do with her upbringing in rural Alabama, suggest the Harvard economists at The Equality of Opportunity Project, who have studied marriage rates in the U.S. by location. As organized by the New York Times in this nifty interactive map, the data suggests how likely you might be to marry by age 26 according to the state county in which you were raised.

The study has followed its participants, now in their early thirties, since childhood. Data shows that a child raised in a major urban center is much less likely to get married than a child of the Mountain West or the Southeast.

In short, small towns make soulmates; big cities make Hinge dates.

Take Sarah and me, for example. We’re both from Alabama, but Sarah hails from the tiny town of Ohatchee. As a resident of Calhoun County, Sarah was 8% more likely to marry, whereas I come from Birmingham, the largest city in the state. A native of my county is 3% less likely to get married by or before her twenty-sixth birthday.

I’m twenty-five-and-a-half and single… Go ahead and consider me a statistic. (But hey, at least I’m a genuine grownup.)

It’s not so surprising, is it? You might’ve heard the joke about small towns like Ohatchee: there’s nothing to do there, so people just get married. That’s not true, per se, but you can’t deny that the denizens of rural areas are big on family life.

And your career-focused, Olivia Pope types? Those are city-dwellers, through and through.

In fact, marrying later in life is more lucrative for college-educated women than for any other subgroup. A woman with a college degree who waits until 29 to marry will earn about $10,000 more per year than a woman with her college graduation and her wedding on back-to-back weekends (not as rare as you’d think!).

And if it’s true that partners with good credit stay together, so much the better if you’re coming into the marriage with life experience and financial stability.

As for the older grooms, they typically earn less than men who marry young. On the upside, as Catherine the Great reminds us, “Men make love more intensely at 20, but make love better, however, at 30.”

As far as I’m concerned, Sarah and I are living pretty amazing lives. I get to live in the city, build my career, and hopefully get married someday. There are so many milestones I have to look forward to.

Sarah gets to live her chaotic twenties with a partner. They’ll each change immensely, both individually and as a couple.

Charles Murray writes, “If you wait until your 30s, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your 20s, it is likely to be a startup.” Whether you’re in a startup or a merger, embrace it! Each alternative has its own challenges and rewards, and the “company” you’ve formed with your partner is the only one of its kind.