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Many Cost-Conscious Couples Are Opting for a Less-Than-Tony Matrimony So They Can Enter Into ... : BARGAIN BLISS


This year, about 2.3 million couples will say "I do" to love, marriage--and, often, to wedding costs that can bring them to their knees.

The average traditional wedding now rings up a stunning $19,000 in expenses--roughly the cost of a new car or a down payment on a home, say Alan and Denise Fields, the Boulder, Colo.-based authors of "Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget."

But it doesn't have to.

Just ask Rachel Shreckengast, a 24-year-old who wed her childhood sweetheart last month. Her wedding and 65-person reception at a national park in Pennsylvania set her back precisely $603.76--and she even paid to outfit the bridesmaids and flower girls. Admittedly, her potluck reception wasn't as elegant as one held at a hotel. But everyone had a good time and--unlike the case with many couples--the Shreckengasts didn't have to borrow a dime.

Although Shreckengast may be more frugal than most, she illustrates a trend. Perhaps because today's brides are older and more likely to be shouldering some of the nuptial costs, today's soon-to-be-weds are increasingly budget-conscious, experts maintain. The average bride in 1960 was 20 years old; today, the average bride is 24, according to a Bride's magazine survey.

"A lot of brides don't want their parents to pay for everything," says Cynthia Edmunds, associate editor at Bride's magazine. "The people who are getting married today are older. They have money of their own. They are making more of their own decisions. And, in this day in age, everybody is more cost conscious."

Shreckengast agrees.

"I'm probably a frugal person anyway, but I didn't want to go broke over just one day," she says. "I would rather put that money toward a house or something else that would be an investment in our future."

Of course, some couples--or their parents--will be impervious to price. And even the budget-conscious are seldom willing to go as far as Shreckengast, who made all the wedding decorations herself and bought her veil and shoes at a thrift store. But more brides are saying they aim to have fairly elegant affairs at a fraction of the usual cost.

And they do--without giving up all the frills.

You just need to know where wedding costs ring up and clever ways to tone them down.

The Reception

The biggest wedding expenditure, by far, is the reception. Average reception costs--just for catering, drinks and site rental--run $8,400 today--somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 per person. And for couples on a budget, it's the first place to look for savings, Alan Fields says.

"Trying to feed 100 or 200 of your closest friends is always the Big Kahuna," he says.

When you don't want to cut the guest list or let the crowd go hungry, the best way to slash the budget is to focus on timing, Fields says.

You can schedule the wedding earlier in the day so that you can serve a less expensive lunch or "high tea"-style meal, shaving costs by 30% or more, wedding planners say. And because some people hesitate to drink at early hours, bar bills will be lower too.

You can also schedule a wedding during the off-season, which is defined differently in different areas.

In most parts of the country, the slow season for party planning spans from January through March.

One Los Angeles bride says she saved a tidy 20% on everything, from the site and equipment rentals to the food, by moving her wedding date up a week to March 31, the final day of off-season. In dollars, the savings came to roughly $3,000.

Planning the wedding for a Friday, instead of a Saturday, can help because many sites offer weekday discounts. It also tends to cut down on the guest list.

"Everybody gave us their Saturday rates," says Wendy Miller, a Virginia nursing student who plans to marry next summer. "I just asked what they'd charge if we held the reception on Friday instead, and it turns out that will save us between $300 and $500."

Vendors are unlikely to volunteer to tell you when their rates are lowest, so you'll have to ask, Fields says.

Finally, no matter when you choose to have your wedding, you can save yourself money and trouble by remembering that you are the host. You determine what to serve--and what not to serve. Don't assume that you've got to order straight off the banquet hall's catering menu. Ask the chef what he or she can do for you given your budget and the time of year, says Gerard J. Monaghan, president of the Assn. of Bridal Consultants in New Milford, Conn. (Serving foods that are in season is often a good way to shave your expenditures a bit.)

Furthermore, don't be talked into costly extras such as an open bar or a dessert table if you don't particularly want them, he says.

"The brides that we have been seeing lately are looking for value," Monaghan says. "They are willing to spend, but they want to spend money on the things that really mean something to them."

The Gown

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