Terran Thomas and Nekia Austin have been engaged for three years. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Terran Thomas bumped into Nekia Austin during a fire drill. Fast-forward 13 years—10 of those spent dating and three engaged—and the Curie High School sweethearts still are not married.
Life just sort of happened. A month after the proposal on Valentine's Day 2009, the couple found out they were expecting their second child. And Austin, 28, wanted to get her graduate degree in social work.
"We kind of put things on hold," said Thomas, 29, a salesman. Today, the couple live in Homan Square with daughters Kyla, 10, and Kelsi, 2.
Count them among the number of engaged couples this wedding season who are taking their time in tying the knot. Now, art imitates life in the recently released movie "The Five-Year Engagement," in which a couple played by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt delay their nuptials because of a series of ups and downs that spans half a decade. In real life, those who draw their engagements out longer than the average (14 months) have more time to save money and shop around for the perfect wedding–but they also face endless questions about the date of the big day.
"When everyone asks, 'Oh, you're not married?' or 'Why are you not married?' they think there's an issue in your relationship and there's not," said Bianca Berger, 30, who has been engaged to her fiance, Tad Snyder, 32, since 2010. "We are madly in love, just like we always have been, and it's just not our priority at this point in time." They have no wedding date set.
When it comes to walking down the aisle, Americans today are waiting longer than they were 50 years ago.
The median age at which people get married—28 for men and 26 for women—is the highest since such records first were published in 1890. And it's up six years compared with 1960, according to U.S. Census data. Experts cite a variety of reasons for the trend, including the rising costs of weddings, advancements in fertility treatments that allow women to bear children later in life and, for gay couples, state laws banning same-sex weddings.
"Women in this day and age have a lot more options at their disposal than women did back in the '60s and '70s," said Christie Nightingale, founder of Premier Match, a New York-based matchmaking service with clients in Chicago. Among them are greater access to higher education and medical advancements addressing fertility.
Many people are taking the time to establish themselves in their careers, pay off student loans and generally get on their feet.
"They're going through these steps and checking off boxes before they get married rather than afterward," said Anja Winikka, editor of wedding site theknot.com.
And it makes sense to buy time given how hard it is to plan a wedding with a schedule filled with work or school. Consider how much money needs to be saved: The average wedding in Chicago costs about $53,000—making it the second most expensive place to get hitched in the country behind Manhattan.
Not everyone understands the extended engagement, and a delay doesn't necessarily mean the couple is in trouble. Snyder and Berger say they are happy in their eight-year relationship. But when Snyder proposed in 2010, he says it made sense at the time because getting engaged was the next step for their relationship.
"If we're going to have kids and we wanted to fit in to social standards, then let's just get married and call it a done deal," Snyder, a sales engineer, said about proposing. The couple have been living together in Wicker Park since 2006.
Their plans changed when they decided to go full force into putting their time, energy and money into creating a nonprofit on top of their full-time jobs. The GOBI Energy Transformation Project promotes sustainability and green energy alternatives to the nightlife and entertainment industry with the use of a mobile DJ soundstage powered by solar panels.
Juggling all that would have been too much, Berger said, so their wedding plans have been shelved indefinitely.
Of course, long engagements have perks, such as more time for couples to save money, particularly when wedding budgets are on the rise, and more time to make decisions—and even change one's mind—about wedding details.
Thomas and Austin, the couple in Homan Square, never put down any deposits on the 150-guest, traditional church wedding they initially planned. Since scrapping their earlier plans, they've changed direction and are planning a small destination wedding in Cancun, Mexico, with 15 people.
"It gives you time to get everything together the way you want it as opposed to having to rush," Thomas said.
Now that Austin is finished with grad school, she said the three-year wait has been worth it. "It's allowed us to grow more as a family," she said.
The couple is getting hitched Oct. 20, which is Sweetest Day. Pretty fitting for the high school sweethearts.