The affordable wedding day


*Last in a series. Customs associated with formal weddings are changing, yet some traditions die hard. One of them, the high and increasing cost of getting married, seems changeless.

One sure way to trade one day of bliss for a lifetime of misery is to begin your marriage loaded with debt. How do you avoid that? Decide how much you can reasonably spend. Establish a budget. Stick to it. Establish priorities and make trade-offs for the things that really matter to you.

If you start off with unpaid bills, it will be difficult to reach your other lifetime goals: rearing and educating children, buying a home, establishing a retirement nest egg, all of which require steady and continuous savings. Be aware that money problems are the No. 1 cause of marital dissension, often leading to divorce.

With the price tag for a traditional wedding now at an average of $16,000, today's young couples are looking for ways to save.

In most regions of the country, today's bride is older, more sophisticated on money matters, and, besides, says Kerin McKinnon of Dedham, Mass., a bridal consultant, "she doesn't want a cookie cutter wedding." That's the reason more brides today are approaching their wedding plans with greater creativity. What's changing: Throwing rice, birdseed or strewing flower petals is out. On their way out: releasing balloons, tossing the bridal bouquet, wearing the garter, the cake-cutting LTC ceremony. "Many brides and grooms today go into a second room to cut the cake," says McKinnon.

None of those changes will save you money. But other choices may. Shop wisely, says Barbara Tober, editor-in-chief of Bride's Magazine.

What does that mean? There is widespread fraud and abuse in the wedding industry, consumer activists Alan and Denise Fields allege. Their book, "Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget," estimates that engaged couples lose $1 billion annually to scams.

Compare prices and investigate the quality of services. Insist on contracts with all suppliers, including your wedding consultant. Ask for references and check them. Check with the Better Business Bureau as well. Be sure contracts are specific regarding services offered, extra charges, cancellation. Use your charge card for consumer protection, but only if you have the money in the bank to pay it in 30 days.

Consultants say one tradition foremost in the bride's mind is the wedding gown. It is a major expense. Some brides choose to alter and wear their mother's gown, as much for sentiment as cost. And there is a growing trade in secondhand gowns. Also, dress styles are becoming simpler. Yet, that doesn't mean they're going to be less expensive, warns consultant Wilda Hyer of Ceres, Calif.

The single largest expense is the reception or sit down dinner, which appears to be compulsory in the Northeast. Eliminating the sit down dinner can cut your costs by as much as one-third. In parts of the South, it is customary to have cake and punch at the church, eliminating both the reception and the dinner.

Pare down your guest list, say the editors of Bride's Magazine. You reduce your overall costs and chores keeping track of responses, thank-you notes, planning table seating, meal service.

Elsewhere couples are cutting the open bar or limiting it to wine or punch. It saves money, but demonstrates a higher social consciousness, says Hyer. The hosts can be liable if people drive away after drinking too much and have an accident.

If you want to be part of the latest rage, plan a "destination wedding." Pack up the family, the attendants and a few close friends and fly off to Las Vegas or Tahoe. Some Caribbean resorts offer packages that include the wedding cake, punch and a wedding on the beach.

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