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How to buy a cheap (yet fabulous) wedding dress

Wedding dress shopping can be a stressful, expensive business, but the Internet offers a slew of options for brides who want to look great while sticking to their budget. Here's your guide to snagging a fabulous, inexpensive wedding dress.

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    Anna Gesterak celebrates finding a wedding dress she likes at Filene's Basement during a "Running of the Brides" bridal dress sale in New York.
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Congratulations! You're engaged! The easy part is over--you found someone to spend the rest of your life with--now you have just few short months to plan a wedding, and perhaps most importantly, find a dress that makes you look like the queen you are without bankrupting yourself.

To make things even harder, consider this poll from Glamour Magazine, which found that 32 percent of married women "cringe" when they remember their wedding dresses. If you're a bride-to-be, the last thing you want to do is spend too much money on a dress you might not even like in a few years. While the modern, frugal-minded bride might head to the internet for a cheap dress that'll stand the test of time, online shopping for a wedding gown can be a risky business of its own.

To help you make this process as cheap, quick and painless as possible, we talked to three seasoned bridal industry experts:

With the help of these knowledgeable ladies, we came up with a list of 7 essential tips for buying an inexpensive wedding dress...without getting ripped off.

1. Pick a budget that works for you (and stick with it).

Too many brides get caught up in the moment and end up spending a small fortune on their dresses. It's an easy mistake to make--especially if you're watching shows like "Say Yes to the Dress" in preparation for your own dress shopping experience. You might think it's normal to spend upwards of $5,000 on a gown, but according to a survey of over 13,000 brides done by TheKnot.com, in 2013, the average bride spent just $1,281 on her wedding dress.

"Don't be embarrassed to stick to your budget," said Sims, who recommends being as upfront as possible with your budget while shopping for a dress. "Yes, [salons] are there to make money, but they'd rather you spend $600 on something you can afford than have you walk out without spending anything."

One way to figure out how much you can and should spend on a wedding dress is to first calculate how much your entire wedding is going to cost. In an article for Glamour Weddings, blogger Kim Fusaro said a good rule of thumb is to allocate "no more than 5 percent of your wedding budget" towards the cost of your wedding dress and alterations.

2. Be realistic.

Make sure you're well aware of what kinds of styles and designers fall within your budget, because if you don't, you're at risk of getting scammed.

"If you think you can get a $5,000 Vera Wang for $300, you're kidding yourself," said Lapkin. "That's just not the way it works."

Salazar agreed with this sentiment, stating that if a deal you stumble upon online seems too good to be true, it probably is:

"Most designers don't allow their dresses to be discounted below a certain margin," she said. "So if the price is significantly lower from other websites that you've come across, I would recommend to keep looking."

3. Be SERIOUSLY careful when online shopping!

Think shopping online for a wedding dress is a good way to save big and get what you want? Think again. Online wedding dress shopping can be a veritable land mine of scams and rip-offs, and often brides who order online are shipped something that looks completely different than the picture on the site.

If you want to see these disasters first-hand, check out the IBMA's Bridal Beware site, and the Facebook community pages Knock Off Nightmares and Brides Beware (not affiliated with the IBMA). Online dress stores often steal images from real designers, and try to pass off their shoddy counterfeit gowns as the real thing.

Lapkin says shopping at local salons is a much better bargain in the end, because along with allowing you to physically try the dress on and make sure it's to your liking, most salons have an in-house tailor, a sale rack, and a way to get your money back if you're not happy. Most scam sites won't respond to emails or phone calls, so the only way you can potentially get a refund is by attempting to stop the payment on your credit card. (If you've been the victim of an online scam, check out our blog post on requesting a chargeback from your credit card company.)

If you must shop online, heed these warnings:

  • "Shop local. And when I say 'local,' I really just mean within the United States," said Salazar. "The majority of fraudulent websites are shipping their goods from China, so make sure to check the website's contact and shipping information to see where the merchandise is coming from."
  • Salazar says the greatest piece of advice she can give is this: "Always verify that the website you are buying from is an authorized retailer. It might look like a legit site, but it's really easy to fake just about anything nowadays. If you're having any doubts--even the slightest inkling that it could be fake--go to the actual designers website and they will have a list of authorized retailers that you can refer to. If the site you were shopping isn't listed, move along."
  • Make use of BridalBeware.com, and the Facebook pages Brides Beware and Knock Off Nightmares. They're all good resources for brides who are unsure whether or not to order from a certain website. They've got testimonials from unhappy shoppers, pictures of some pretty horrible dresses people ordered thinking they were getting discount designer duds, and Brides Beware recently posted a list of repeat offender websites to avoid.
  • Contact the IBMA if you come across a fraudulent site while shopping.

4. But legitimate online stores and resources DO exist.

Of course, not all online stores are scams. In her search for the perfect dress, Sims has come across quite a few with great deals: "BHLDN isAnthropologie's wedding website and they offer beautiful designs, many under $1,000," said Sims. "J. Crew and Nordstrom also both have options under $1,000."

Sims also recommends looking at sites offering pre-owned wedding dresses.

"Buying pre-owned online is different than buying knockoffs," she said. "Sites like preownedweddingdresses.com offer the same dresses from the salon, but they've been worn once, or sometimes not even at all as some people choose to sell their dress if the wedding didn't work out or if they found another dress."

5. Utilize national shopping events and holiday sales for big bargains.

"If you want to guarantee low prices from legitimate online retailers, shop holiday sales," said Salazar. "Most shops offer great discounts around holidays such as Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, BlackFriday, and occasionally Christmas. Shopping those holiday deals will usually guarantee you the lowest possible prices on great gowns."

6. Look out for trunk and clearance sales at local salons.

"All stores have sale merchandise," said Lapkin. "There isn't a store in the world that doesn't have sales. I mean, manufacturers discontinue their products several times a year because they always have to get new samples in the store. So the best place to start is your local salon."

Sims keeps track of trunk and clearance sales by following her favorite bridal stores on Facebook, and frequently checking the events section of their websites.

"You'll have an easier time if you pick a handful of designers or dress styles that you like," said Sims. "Find out when the designer is having a trunk show, or find when the shops carrying the dress styles you like are having sale. Most salon websites will list their sales and trunk shows in the 'Events' section on their website. It also never hurts to call and ask or check on Facebook."

7. Be prepared to pay up front, especially if you're shopping consignment.

"Some shops offer discounts if you pay in full, so save up before you go shopping," said Sims. "You can usually find details about discounts in the FAQ section on the shop's website."

Consignment shops are the best bet for brides who are short on time and money, but because you'll be taking your dress home same-day, most don't offer long-term payment plans. Like Sims said, save up and be prepared to pay for the dress up front. Consignment dresses are significantly cheaper than anything you'll find at a salon, and they often have more sizing options available as well. Check out this helpful post from the DC area wedding blog United With Love for more tips on consignment shopping for your dress!

As you prepare for your big day, just remember that choosing a dress should be fun, not stressful! Maybe you'll look back on your dress and cringe, or maybe you'll be so obsessed that you'll wear it around the house for fun for years. At the end of the day, what really matters isn't what you wear, but the love that exists between you and your spouse before, during and long after your wedding has passed.

Follow CSMonitor's board Money Saving Tips on Pinterest.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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