Have Your Wedding Cake and Cut Costs, Too

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Michelle Fortin, a twenty-something from Ossington, N.Y., is asked about the high cost of getting married, she chuckles and recalls when her friend spent $700 on stamps just to mail invitations. Ms. Fortin, who is getting married in November, says, "If I knew then what I know now, I would have eloped and just had a huge party in the backyard afterward."

Shelley Peterson, owner of Atlanta's Beyond Cuisine catering company, says the price of the average wedding is equal to the price of the average American car. Indeed, Modern Bride magazine puts the price of the average wedding at $17,470. Of that, up to 80 percent can be food and service. So the question for the happy couple, many more of whom are footing all or part of the bill, becomes how to pay for a Yugo and still wind up with a Mercedes.

There are plenty of ways to trim the fat off reception costs without cutting into the meat of the party. The important thing, says Liza White, vice president of Boston-based a mano catering, is to prioritize.

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"Go over all your ideas from the beginning. Write them down, lay them out, and see how many you have. Then see what you're willing to compromise on.... Be realistic from the very beginning, instead of trying to squeeze a size 8 foot into a size 6 shoe."

Ms. Peterson agrees, saying, "Many times expectations and budgets don't mesh." For example, "The last time I went to McDonald's, it cost $5 and I ate out of a box. How can I do your wedding for three times that amount?" If you have a limited budget but want a formal seated dinner, one option is to shorten the guest list. "Either trim back the guests or trim back the concept," Peterson says. "Smaller weddings are really very, very nice," Ms. White says.

Off-season discounts

Flexibility can pay big dividends, especially in Manhattan, where Ellen Eskenazi of Event of the Year says it can cost $40,000 to $100,000 to get married on a Saturday night in the fall. (October has overtaken June as the most popular month to get married.) But many hotels and halls offer discounts during their off-season in midwinter and early spring. They also offer special daytime or Friday-night rates. And a lighter brunch can be a less-expensive alternative to caviar and prime rib.

But Ms. Eskenazi stresses that slicing your bottom line doesn't mean resigning yourself to serving rubber chicken and pigs in blankets. In fact, more than ever, couples are planning the menu as a reflection of their tastes. Pat O'Connell, owner of Patrice's Catering in San Francisco, says she is frequently asked to include a special family recipe in the menu. To accommodate her many vegetarian guests and also to cut costs, Fortin bypassed the surf-and-turf option in favor of a vegetarian and chicken entree.

Many caterers say that today's brides are more sophisticated than yesterday's. "Brides have changed," says James Healey, head of San Francisco's Clarion Hotel catering service. "They have careers ... they want complete, full service. They want the cake done, flowers.... The less work they have to do, the more chance you have to make a sale." In general, Mr. Healey says, brides are more savvy and budget-conscious than they were a decade ago. "Today's brides walk in knowing exactly what they want. They want food, plenty of it, and the best possible quality," he says, adding that the two most frequently asked questions are "What is the most you can do for our budget, and how are you going to make it special for me."

Reducing dinner costs

If you have a limited budget, put your money where your guests' appetites are: at the hors d'oeuvre reception. Trays of appetizers and a food station or two are increasingly popular, making it possible to eliminate one course from the main meal.

Don't let facilities overload you with food, Eskenazi warns. "You need to serve one or two food stations, not five or six." Ms. O'Connell agrees: "Impress guests with two to three really nice things - as opposed to six or seven."

The dinner cost can be further reduced by serving the wedding cake as the main dessert course along with a light sorbet or plate of petit fours to tide guests over.

If you can bear to give up the frothy layer cake (which can cost $5 a slice and requires a special table), White suggests switching to "a fun strawberry shortcake or hearts and stars with blueberry peach compote." O'Connell offers a compromise for those who want to have their cake and cut costs, too. She recommends buying just the top of the cake, displaying it on a glass pedestal, and then serving, say, peaches-and-cream cheesecake for under $1 a slice to go with it.

When trimming costs, Healey notes that flowers are often the first things to go. Fortin opted for the lanterns her hall placed on the tables, and she will use her bouquet as the centerpiece for the head table - thereby saving hundreds of dollars in decorating costs.

O'Connell says it's critical to sample first. "I always recommend people have a tasting and try to encourage them to see something I've done." Fortin and her fianc attended a bridal fair hosted by the hall so they not only tasted the food, but they also saw how the table would be set and how each course would look.

While the task of planning and budgeting a wedding can seem overwhelming, White suggests couples resist starting too early. One year of planning is about right, she says. And try not to panic. "When you're ready to make decisions, run with it and make as many as you can. Then you can put it aside and not worry about it."

Six months before Fortin's wedding, every dress has been fitted, every flower chosen, and the menu is set. Now all the November bride and her fianc have to do is sit back and look forward to the big day.

With the wisdom of a now-experienced wedding planner, Fortin offers this advice: "It's very hard to keep costs down and very hard to please everyone, but just keep in mind that it's your day."

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