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Here comes the ... bill!

Nuptial sticker shock is a sobering fact for brides and grooms as wedding bells produce ever-larger wedding bills.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2006

Brianne Della Rocca was determined to be a savvy bride, keeping wedding costs in check. Even when friends insisted that her $7,000 budget for 110 guests was impossible, she tried to hold firm.

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"I said, 'I am not going to spend a fortune on one day,' " says Mrs. Della Rocca, a media-relations assistant in Bennington, Vt. "That's not what a wedding is about."

She read books about bridal bargains. She made the invitations herself. She bought supplies, dresses, and shoes on eBay at nominal cost. She did not hire a florist or a limousine. She didn't even order a wedding cake.

Even so, by the time she and her husband, Jared, said "I do" on Jan. 15, their expenses added up to $19,000. Despite help from parents, cash gifts at the reception, and money from savings, they faced debts of $9,000.

"That was the 'affordable' wedding on a shoestring budget," says a still-incredulous Della Rocca.

Nuptial sticker shock has become a sobering fact of life for many brides and grooms as wedding bells produce ever-larger wedding bills. More than a quarter of engaged couples now pay for everything themselves. With weddings averaging $23,000, some newlyweds remain indebted for years. Some must even seek credit counseling.

"There's a lot of pressure to do things in a very spectacular way," says Susan Schneider, executive editor of Bridal Guide magazine. "People get caught up in a momentum and end up spending more than they intended. You have to really keep your head on straight when you're a bride and groom these days."

In an informal poll by Bridal Guide, readers said they spent an average of $3,000 more than they had budgeted. Some overspent by $5,000 or $10,000.

Bridal experts offer a variety of reasons for the problem. Some parents simply can't afford to pay. In other cases, couples want control. Deborah McCoy, a wedding planner in Boca Raton, Fla., notes that many brides have told her, "If Mom and Dad pay for our wedding, we have to do things their way. We want to do things our way.' " So they spend, fueling a $120 billion-a-year industry.

Many couples also marry later. "The older you get, the more weddings you've been to," says Kamy Wicoff, author of "I Do but I Don't." "There's this snowballing of competition, this feeling that your wedding has to be bigger, better, more."

In a society where divorce is common, some couples feel "serious insecurity" about marriage, Ms. Wicoff says. "That's a good recipe for a lot of spending."

So is an obsession with perfection - a word Wicoff heard often as she interviewed 80 women for her book. "That emphasis on the perfect day, the perfect wedding, is one of the things that drives spending."

Wedding vendors also perpetuate an attitude that this is the most important day of your life. "They imply that if you're looking at cutting costs or not doing things 'right' - which is code for 'expensively' - your priorities aren't straight," Wicoff says. "But if you start out with a lot of debt in your new marriage, on top of all the other stresses and tensions of that first year, it can be a deal-breaker."

Pop culture also plays a role. "Look at all the wedding movies, such as 'The Wedding Planner' and 'Father of the Bride,' " says Ms. McCoy, president of the American Academy of Wedding Professionals. "You see these incredible, over-the-top weddings. Flowers in 'Father of the Bride' had to cost $50,000, minimum."

Some couples depend on gift envelopes from guests to help finance the event. Brides have told McCoy, "I hope we get a lot of money at the reception, or we're in deep trouble." She calls this "a very frightening scenario."

Cate Williams, a vice president at Money Management International in Chicago, heard one bride discussing their "projected take" at the reception. "I don't think anyone should plan a wedding based on the expectation that they would be receiving certain amounts of monetary gifts," she says. "My byword is, 'use cash to pay for consumables, credit for durables.' While a wedding is a very important commitment that any couple makes, it still falls in the realm of entertainment and consumables."