If your wedding budget is taking on epic proportions, take heart — you're not alone.
The American trend toward supersizing has extended to weddings, with the average price tag for a day of wedded bliss soaring to a whopping $26,327 — a 73 percent increase in the last 15 years, according to the annual "American Weddings" study conducted by the Fairchild Bridal Group. (search)
So what's a couple to do if they want a memorable wedding day, but don't want to rob a bank?
One place to start is to limit the number of guests to bring down the cost of the reception. (The average number of reception guests has increased to 164, according to the "American Weddings" study.)
"Be ruthless," said Cynthia Hornblower, executive editor of Brides magazine (search). "Even if someone invited you to a wedding five years ago, if you haven't been in touch with them, you do not have to invite them."
Also, talk to other brides, some of whom have the best tips.
“The minute we decided we were getting married, we started searching for a place that offered a location for the ceremony, table and chairs, and a place where we could bring in our own food,” said Stacey-Ann Johnson-Rhone, who had 200 guests at her April wedding in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Johnson-Rhone and her groom also brought in their own flatware, flowers, plates, wine glasses and liquor.
“If you get a venue where you can bring your food and drinks in, then buy in bulk ahead of time,” said Johnson-Rhone, who bought beer, liquor and soda at sales over the course of several months to stock up her bar, which can account for a significant portion of the bill.
“Go through coupons, look for sales on soda, seltzer, beer. It can seem as if you’re paranoid at times, but it turns out you’re saving money.”
Take the concept even further by limiting drink selections.
"Consider limiting the bar to wine, beer, soft drinks and one signature drink," Hornblower advised.
By shopping around for the best deals, the couple brought down the overall cost of their wedding to just $11,500, including everything from the rings (they used a layaway plan) to the groom’s tux, the bride’s wedding dress and the honeymoon.
“I chose not to rent flatware after I checked with companies because it was more expensive to rent all the cutlery versus buying them,” said Johnson-Rhone. “Buying them is really strategic. If you want fancy stuff, it’s going to cost you $1 to $1.50 per item.”
At various discount stores, Johnson-Rhone found bargains on bone white plates for 50 cents apiece, wine glasses at $4.99 for half a dozen and juice and water glasses for $5.99 a dozen.
Thanks to her shrewd shopping, she ended up spending just $200 on all the items combined.
Johnson-Rhone also brought her food tab down to $750 for her 200 guests by having food catered by the platter from one of her favorite restaurants, rather than by the plate.
“Food by the plate, depending on the season, ranges from $60-$150 and it’s usually limited to fish or chicken," she said. "I ended up buying a tray for an average of $60: Jerk chicken came with 50 pieces and stretched a long way.”
Wedding expert Sharon Naylor, author of "1,000 Best Wedding Bargains," suggests opting for combination platters instead of offering guests different dinner options, which can cut the catering cost by 20 to 30 percent.
"If you give a choice, the chef has to buy enough to cover each option for every guest," she warned. "Nobody has ever gone hungry at a wedding."
Johnson-Rhone also has words of wisdom on flowers.
“If you’re hell-bent on having one particular flower, try to get married when they are in season or be prepared to pay through the nose.”
Naylor suggests couples avoid florists when shopping for flowers, where medium-sized centerpieces can run $150 apiece.
By shopping at a discount warehouse or supermarket, couples can bring that cost down to between $25 and $50.
Where to Have It
A trend that's been on the rise in recent years is the destination wedding, or a wedding held at a beautiful, exotic place to which guests are expected to travel — at their own expense.
Destination weddings tend to cost less partly because the average guest list is just 56 people, and also because more of the cost is shifted onto the guests.
Some all-inclusive resorts will comp the wedding in exchange for the business you're bringing to the hotel, and some will even be able to offer special airfares to ease the burden on your guests.
Also, when you get married in a gorgeous setting, such as on a Caribbean island, your decoration costs and your floral budget can be reduced because you will have the pool, tropical flowers and beach as a backdrop, Hornblower said.
"I got married in the afternoon and I had the rehearsal dinner and reception at the same club in different rooms," she said. "My bright idea was to use the flowers from dinner the next day in the reception. Also, the room [where we had the ceremony] had the most extraordinary wallpaper and a view of the river."
If you opt for a stateside wedding, another way to cut venue and decoration costs is to look to a favorite restaurant with a beautiful décor, or consider a restaurant that's already decorated for a particular holiday, such as Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Just be sure to pick a restaurant that would normally be closed at the time when you're getting married, such as one that usually serves a business clientele.
"Look outside of traditional bridal locations," said Naylor. "When you slap 'bridal' on anything, the cost goes up by percentages."
Naylor suggests checking out tourism offices to find links to estate homes and using any affiliations you might have with a university or an ethnic association that might have an appropriate venue for a wedding.
Timing Is Everything
Just as important as where you get married is when you do it.
Hornblower suggests couples seriously consider getting married in the off-season or on a less popular day of the week.
"There are only 52 Saturdays and 52 Saturday nights, so these are premium times," she said.
Getting married any time between January and March, or on a Friday night or at 2:30 in the afternoon on a Sunday, with a simple brunch or cocktail reception, can really lower costs.
Josh Brooks, co-owner of wedding planning company Fete New York (search), said doing it on a Sunday or a Friday night can save you up to 25 percent.
Hornblower also suggests cutting the reception time down from five hours to four hours, which will cut down on food, drink, band and rental costs.
Know People Who Know People
Brooks suggests that couples choose their own vendors rather than those tied to whatever venue they choose. Often those vendors aren't the best, the most convenient or the cheapest — they just happen to have a financial agreement with the location.
"Hire artists," Brooks said. "Often they aren't the best business people," meaning they will likely cost less than vendors accustomed to soaking customers in the bridal industry.
Bridal coach and author Jeri Kadison (search) advises being equally selective in choosing the wedding party.
"Choose your bridesmaids well, people who are going to help you," she said.
It also pays to find a great DJ rather than an expensive band with several members you’ll have to feed.
“If you know party people, chances are you can get a club DJ for between $350 and $550, for five hours or the entire night,” said Johnson-Rhone.
But be wary of cheesy DJs who want to emcee the night, Brooks said.
Another way to save is to hit up your friends and relatives for favors and contacts. If you have a friend who is a graphic designer, consider using him to do the invitations, for example, or try to get a family discount if someone you know has a favorite caterer.
"Tell them it's their wedding gift to you and that's economical for them," Naylor said.
Another great way to save is to use an online printing press service, such as mountaincow.com, to handle the invitations, Naylor said.
Do-it-yourself printing can add up to thousands of dollars in savings on invitations, seating cards, programs and thank-you notes. Naylor said around $200 will cover the cost of the average number of guests.
Memories ... They Can Cost Ya
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but your wedding photography doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. Couples are spending an average of $2,570 on their photography and videography combined, but Johnson-Rhone said that cost can be brought down.
“It’s a good idea to get the video and photos from the same place because it’s an incentive for them to give you a good deal,” said Johnson-Rhone, who used a company that charged just $480 for a standard video package that included a montage of baby pictures and the same for an album of 100 proof photos.
“We got wonderful reviews,” she said. “The photographer caught great details, including a dancer losing her top and my husband grabbing my butt.”
Still, Johnson-Rhone said the one place she regrets scrimping was on her wait staff, where she paid just $15 an hour, and she advises hiring a coordinator to oversee the reception on your wedding day.
Bridal coach Kadison agrees that cutting too many corners may fatten your pocketbook ... at the expense of your Big Day.
"Hire people who are very reputable, who are going to make things run smoothly," she said, recalling one bride who learned her lesson the hard way.
The Mrs.-to-be chose a bargain florist, and ended up with dead flowers on her wedding day.