Wanted: Fairy-tale wedding at a dream price

The average wedding now costs $22,000. So more couples are looking for creative ways to cut costs.

Brooke Abernethy knows that something - or someone - won't make the cut for her Aug. 31 wedding. The exquisite event she is planning will cost about $28,000. So occasionally she finds herself eyeing the guest list and dubiously asking, "Would I really take these people out to a $110 dinner?"

The answer to that question is yes, she has decided, which means she will have to cut corners elsewhere.

She is not the only bride asking herself tough questions. The average wedding now costs $22,360, according to a study sponsored by Bride's and Modern Bride magazines. And long gone are the days when etiquette demanded that the bride's parents foot the entire bill.

Today, only 20 percent of weddings are paid for by Mom and Dad. Fifty-three percent are a collective effort between the couple and all sets of parents, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants. Couples alone pay for 27 percent of nuptials.

Given the high cost of getting married, more brides and grooms are finding creative ways to stretch their dollars. Ms. Abernethy, an assistant account executive at a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., plans to spend very little on flowers. The bridal party will carry bouquets, but there will be no flowers at the reception. That way, she can afford to invite 10 more guests. (The list now totals 165.)

"It's the most expensive thing I've ever been involved in," Abernethy says. Both her parents and her fiancé's are chipping in to help pay for the occasion.

At Jessica Colucci's wedding in New York two years ago, the guest list numbered 400. She wouldn't have been able to invite so many people without three sets of parents pitching in for the traditional wedding. She agrees that nearly $100,000 was a lot of money to spend in one day, but she wouldn't have changed anything.

Still, Ms. Colucci did save some pennies by getting married on a Sunday afternoon rather than a Saturday night, when rental costs for reception locations are higher, and also by using inexpensive in-season flowers arranged by a friend.

The time a couple marries can have a big impact on their budget. The most economical time to hold a wedding varies, depending upon the region and the season. The most sought-after sites for weddings and receptions are often more expensive in the months when the majority of weddings take place.

Breaking some traditional wedding rules can also reduce the final sum. Wedding expert and author Leah Ingram suggests that, rather than spend $700 to $800 on favors, couples make a $250 donation to a charity in the name of the guests. The money goes to a good cause and saves money on items that are usually thrown away afterward.

"Is it breaking etiquette?" Ms. Ingram asks. "Sure." But couples can be free-thinking and creative outside the constructs of etiquette, she says. "For those brought up in a debutante society, breaking etiquette isn't going to fly, but if the social pressures aren't there...."

Even if brides and their parents feel compelled to follow tradition, Ingram insists, "You've got to have the wedding that is right for you."

And she says that cutting corners can actually make the wedding more of a reflection of the couple. "Weddings truly personal, in my opinion, are the more economical ones," because couples who are working hard to stretch their money cut back on traditional wedding procedures that do not mean anything to them.

Perhaps the easiest solution is to pare down the guest list to only people who are nearest and dearest to the pair. Sharon Naylor, author of 12 wedding books, finds that many couples are inviting fewer people and spending more money on what they want in the ceremony and reception.

But there's a new twist to this approach. Destination weddings, which can range from an island getaway to any spot four or more hours away, are becoming more popular, says Ms. Naylor. Only family and close friends attend.

Destination weddings are "less about the production of the wedding and more about the substance," she says. Often planned with a few e-mails, these weddings eliminate "extraneous effort and strains."

Twenty-five percent of all US weddings are at resorts and other popular destinations, estimates Paris Permenter, who with her husband owns Lovetripper.com. Because they have a smaller guest list and combine the event with the honeymoon, destination weddings can cost a fraction of their large, traditional counterparts.

Ingram doesn't see many brides and grooms preparing to plunge into debt for their big day, especially if they are already laden with other loans. "I'm finding that most couples are being fiscally sound when planning their wedding," she says.

But despite the trend toward frugality, a fairy-tale wedding is still a priority for many brides who have the money.

"Could we have gotten married for under $20,000?" asks Melissa McMillan, who is planning to spend $35,000 on her forthcoming October wedding. "Yes, it's possible," she writes in an e-mail. "Could we have used $35k for a house? Yes, but then there's that dream I've had since I was 6 years old...."

Something old, something new...

Who decreed that grooms should have a "best man" and brides must toss their bouquets at the end of the wedding reception? Many familiar wedding traditions date back centuries.

Favors: In Elizabethan days, brides sewed "favors" (ribbons) onto their dresses. After the wedding, guests often tried to snatch the ribbons from the dress as souvenirs. To keep this from happening, the mother of the bride and the bridesmaids passed out substitute favors. Even though the custom of stitching favors onto wedding dresses disappeared, the name - and small gifts to guests - remains.

Raining rice: Greeks and Romans showered newlyweds with grain, believing its reproductive powers would transfer. During the Tudor era in England, shoes symbolized fertility and were thrown at the couple. Rice became popular in the 20th century; some people throw bird seed or confetti, while others release doves, balloons, or butterflies.

The bouquet: Ancient Greek and Roman bouquets consisted of stalks of grain, symbolizing fertility. Later, flowers added a dash of color. To the Victorians, flowers embodied the bloom of womanhood, and the all-floral bouquet quickly became the accepted standard.

Throwing the bouquet: Before the 14th century, rowdy guests often rushed the bride after the ceremony to snatch bits of her ensemble, including the flowers she carried. Clever brides avoided this by tossing their bouquets to waiting guests.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe: This wedding rhyme dates back to Victorian times. "Something old" signifies the desire that the best of the couple's previous lives remain with them in their future together. "Something new" marks the fresh page being turned in the book of life. "Something borrowed" symbolizes the idea that a happily married woman can confer her own good fortune on the bride. "Something blue" signifies the fidelity and purity of love. "Sixpence in her shoe" dates back to the late 1600s, when a sixpence was included in the dowry gift to the groom. Traditionally the coin is placed in the left shoe.

Groom doesn't see the bride before the wedding: This originates from the days of arranged marriages; an unfavorable first impression made before tying the knot could create last-minute havoc. Nowadays, many couples seek a moment alone in the hours before the ceremony.

Source: From 'I Do! I Do! From the Veil to the Vows - How Classic Wedding Traditions Came to Be,' by Susan Waggoner (Rizzoli)

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