Here comes the ... bill!

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

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.

"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."

She emphasizes that the ceremony, the most important part of the event, is probably the least expensive.

Overextended newlyweds usually come to see Ms. Williams and other credit counselors between eight and 12 months after the wedding. "It's the first time they've come face to face with how much they owe and what the interest rate is," she says. The number of couples seeking counseling for wedding-related debt doubled between 2002 and 2003, according to Wicoff.

From Williams's perspective, situations like these are "very preventable" when couples are realistic and engage in good planning and budgeting.

Many couples do take on debt responsibly. When Brian Kolonick and Mandy Hausler exchange vows before 250 friends and relatives on June 23, they will foot nearly three-quarters of the bill themselves.

"I have just taken a very large credit advance to pay for it," says Mr. Kolonick, who works for a nonprofit group in Englewood, Colo. "We are about to enter a world of debt." He expects it will take a year or two to pay off everything.

"It's definitely worth it," Kolonick adds, noting that he did considerable research and cost analysis. "Mandy had a perception of how she wanted the wedding, and I did, too. I don't feel any costs are too extravagant, or not worth it, or silly." They are saving 50 percent on the reception by holding it on Friday rather than Saturday.

When Laura Ward of Atlanta walked down the aisle the first time 10 years ago, the couple went "a little bit" into debt. "It was very hard to pay off, because money is such a sore spot for people who are married."

When she remarried last December, she vowed not to incur any debts. "We spent about $15,000 with 65 guests, and I don't regret a thing," she says. "We paid off everything as we went." By contrast, her sister and brother-in-law took out a second mortgage to finance their dream wedding at the Four Seasons on Maui.

To save money, Mrs. Ward did not hire a videographer. "How many times am I going to pop a tape in?" she says, adding, "You have to try not to buy into all the hype about what's important, and decide for yourself what's important and what you're going to remember. If you've allotted X amount, stay within it. If you can't afford it, don't do it."

Cara Halstead Cea of Pleasantville, N.Y., describes the year leading up to her wedding last October and the few months after it as "excruciatingly tight financially." She is still disputing more than $700 in extra charges from the photographer that weren't in the contract.

For Della Rocca, paying off the bills has been difficult, primarily because "you know you're not paying off a car, or a house, or something tangible."

Even so, she says, "It was worth it, and we had a wonderful time." But she adds, "Would I do it differently? I would." Her scaled-down version would be an intimate dinner at a nice restaurant for 45 of the couple's closest family and friends, with a pianist or violinist, flowers, a wedding dress, and photographer. She wouldn't spend more than $250 on a dress, and would do her own hair and makeup. "I would spend the same on the photographer, which was hefty, because pictures will be how you remember your event," she says.

McCoy, who emphasizes that she loves weddings, says, "If you have $10 million and want to throw a $100,000 wedding, fantastic. What I am totally against are weddings where people can't afford to pay, when the money could be spent on [other] great things to get them started."

"We have to get back to basics," she adds. "We have to put our families ahead of our wants, and make weddings what they used to be."

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