Wedding bells without the bills

Does a wedding really have to cost $20,000? No way, say many creative brides.

For many couples, adding up the costs of walking down the aisle can be a bit like a trip to the Emerald City: cakes and flowers and dresses, oh my!

Add in some of the hidden costs of saying "I do" ($200 to hem a gown, for example), and suddenly even the most budget-conscious couples can feel like cowardly lions.

But at a time when the average cost of a wedding is $20,000 to $25,000, some brides and grooms are throwing spiffy affairs for just a few thousand dollars - and making sure their dollars go further, whatever their budget.

Instead of fancy hotel receptions, they're opting for backyards; instead of designer dresses, they're buying from J. Crew - or on eBay. They're choosing offbeat times for their nuptials. And some 10 percent of couples annually are choosing destination weddings - saying their "I dos" in Mexico, for example - as a way to simplify the decisions, cut the guest list, and save a few bucks.

Even people staying within 10 miles of home are finding avenues for keeping their costs down. Nina Willdorf, a recent bride and author of "Wedding Chic: The Savvy Bride's Guide to Getting More While Spending Less," encourages couples not to let the industry dictate their plans. "Decide what to spend and then have that determine what you want to do," she suggests. "Whether it's $5,000 or $50,000 ... whatever you have, you can do something really nice."

One of the main places couples try to save money is the reception - both the location and what's served. Fifty percent of a wedding budget typically goes to the reception, the cost of which is often calculated per person. That means the first step to saving money is often to trim the guest list.

"The best way is to cut, cut, cut," says Kathleen Murray, weddings editor for The Knot website ( and magazine. "Definitely try to shave it down to close friends, family," people who are important to you.

Sit-down meal vs. buffet

That's what Patricia Froelich, a Florida bride-to-be, has done for her coming November wedding. About 75 of the couple's closest friends and family will be invited. She opted for a sit-down meal at a hotel, which to her surprise turned out to be cheaper than serving people buffet-style in the same setting. (The reason, Ms. Willdorf explains in her book, is that caterers have to buy more food for a buffet than they would for a sit-down meal where everyone is eating basically the same thing.)

Time of year can also make a difference. May through October is wedding season, so experts suggest holding the event in other months - or at off times, such as Friday or Sunday nights - when locations are typically less busy and therefore less expensive.

Choosing a nontraditional venue for the wedding can help, too. Last September Aliza Sherman Risdahl got married in the garden of a Victorian mansion in Laramie, Wyo. A nonprofit museum, it asked only for a donation for using the space. The reception was in a local restaurant, where the room came free when the appetizers, meals, and drinks were paid for (guests were asked to purchase their own alcohol).

The bride was budget-conscious from the start. "I want to buy a house, I want to start a family, I do not want to be in debt over my wedding, and I don't want my family to be in debt over my wedding," says Ms. Sherman Risdahl of her approach.

For weddings farther afield, there's always the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii, where resorts are doing more to woo engaged couples. "Often you'll get the honeymoon for free," says The Knot's Ms. Murray. "Often there will be deals on hotels for all your guests, and if you do everything on site, they work with you ... [and] they can help make your wedding cheaper."

Cost-cutting couples should keep in mind that they can save if they avoid expensive out-of-season items on their menus, advises Willdorf in her book. Also, allowing a caterer to be flexible with the menu can save money. She also suggests nontraditional menus featuring ethnic foods - Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Moroccan.

Yana Usherenko got married last month at City Hall in New York and then invited 15 friends to a hotel for a midnight cocktail party to celebrate with hors d'oeuvres and cake. "We tried to sort of do something that's fun for everyone," she says of the affair, which included music from a boombox.

"It was a success," Ms. Usherenko says of the evening. "I wouldn't have changed a thing."

Ask friends to help

Bride-to-be Justine Jeanotte is having her July 30 wedding and reception in the yard of her fiancé's relatives in Poulso, Wash., near Seattle. She, her family, and friends are putting together a meal of quiche and salads, and adding croissant sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres.

To keep costs down, she plans to use paper plates and plastic utensils, along with rented tables and tablecloths.

Sometimes Ms. Jeanotte feels a little self-conscious about not renting the plates, too, but she wants to keep her spending in check. "You do start to think, 'Well, what will other people think?' " she admits. But "it's so much when you start getting real plates and real silverware."

As for the cake, she has opted for one from a grocery store bakery, whose quality she researched. Other brides are choosing cupcakes in lieu of an elaborate confection. And those dining in a more formal setting can cut corners with one of the latest trends: a fake cake.

Instead of an expensive creation, some brides are choosing to have a cake with tiers made mostly out of styrofoam, where only the bottom is real for when the couple cuts the cake. The servers keep a sheet cake in the back, to give to guests. "It depends on the style of the cake, but you could save up to 50 percent," says Murray.

Best blooms

Decorating is also on the minds of budget-conscious brides. Some, like Lisa Simpson from Belleville, N.J., are keeping the flowers simple.

"We're not buying flowers to fill the room the wedding's in or the reception," she explains while attending a monthly meeting of the Bridal Survival Club in New York ( survival).

Instead, for her May 2006 wedding she'll have fresh flowers for just her bouquet and the men's boutonnieres, and use silk flower arrangements already available at the banquet hall.

Ms. Froelich, the Florida bride, saved on her flower arrangements by finding inexpensive glass bowls at an arts and crafts store and giving them to the florist for her reception centerpieces.

Don't overlook supermarkets as a source for flowers, many experts suggest. They buy in bulk and can be cheaper than florists.

Willdorf also advises people to find out what flowers are in season when they plan to wed, as they can save money by sticking with those.

The Knot website suggests that anyone who wants to save money should not place big orders around holidays like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, when roses, for example, are high-priced and florists' time is at a premium.

And what about what the bride wears on her big day? Some brides are starting to wear two dresses - one for the ceremony, and one for the reception.

But most brides - especially those who are budget-minded - are happy when they find just one great dress for a reasonable price.

Sherman Risdahl bought her dress from J. Crew for $120. Froelich found a designer dress she liked, but was quoted a price of $3,500.

She ended up getting it for half that when, after some Internet research, she had a friend scout out the dress at a discount store in New York after seeing it on their website.

Not only was the dress less expensive, but "it took two weeks less than if I had gone with the original dress shop where I found it, so I was even impressed by that," she says.

In the end, the idea of budgeting doesn't mean making a bride and groom's big day any less special for themselves or their friends.

"It was so stress-free," says Sherman Risdahl. "It was not a burden for anybody, it was unique and original and totally spoke of us."

Ways to save money on weddings


What makes it expensive: Round layers (which feed fewer people), intricate designs and decoration, more than one flavor.

How to save: Have a square cake of a single flavor decorated with real flowers and ribbons. Ask a friend or family member to bake the cake.


What makes it expensive: Costly fabrics, custom designs, top-of-the-line specialty shops.

How to save: Ask if alterations are included in the price of the gown. Buy the dress off the rack at a nonbridal retailer and choose less costly fabrics. Consider catalogs, outlet stories, eBay, or upscale resale shops that carry designer clothes. If there's a talented seamstress in the family, pick out a pattern and ask if she would be willing to make it. Borrow a dress from a friend or family member. Many brides enjoy the opportunity to wear their mother's or grandmother's gown. Choose a simple headpiece or make your own with materials from a craft store.


What makes them expensive: Using flowers out of season; using large quantities of flowers; large bouquets.

How to save: Think of creative ways to use fewer flowers, those that are readily available, more bouquets composed of just a single flower, and centerpieces that use candles, fruits, ribbons, and other materials in addition to flowers. Consider carnations, which are inexpensive. Use silk flowers in arrangements that will be viewed from afar. Adding a mirror to an arrangement will make it look larger. Hold the wedding in a garden.


What makes it expensive: Buffets, costly foods.

How to save: Go heavy on the hors d'oeuvres and light on the entrees. Have a sit-down dinner with less expensive ingredients. Have a punch and cake reception, or serve only hors d'oeuvres.


What makes them expensive: Engraving, colored ink, adding a stamp to the response card envelope.

How to save: Use thermographed invitations with black ink and include a stamped postcard for response. Leave out the envelope liner. Don't order more than you will need "just in case." For very small weddings and with intimate friends, some brides are using e-mail and the telephone to invite and communicate with guests.

- Adapted from 'Wedding Chic,' by Nina Willdorf, and other sources

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