WEDDING WAYS AN D MEANS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Alas -- even as bells ring in joy and wedded bliss, so do cash registers often ring up wedding bill blues. Colorful flowers, beautiful dresses and elegant settings aside, the biggest day in your life may bring with it some of the biggest bills.

And this year, many couples (and their parents) may be weighing worries of economic recession against the joys of a new marriage. Or perhaps they've merely replaced the more devil-may-care, charge-it attitudes so prevalent in the '80s with more prudent '90s approaches.

"I suspect this June weddings may be slightly smaller, slightly less formal, given the current situation," says Elizabeth Post, author of several books on etiquette including "Emily Post's Complete Book of Wedding Etiquette."

Whatever your reasoning or motivation, planning a wedding with caution, care and a calculator may prevent surprises in the bills department later. Big surprises: The average cost of a wedding these days is $16,144, according to a Bride's magazine survey.

But, experts say, your wedding can be enjoyable, memorable -- even elegant -- for much less if you take the time and make the effort.

HAVE A PLAN

The first step toward a beautiful wedding that won't break your budget is, of course, to have a budget, says Andy Schiavone, director of catering at the Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn. When couples come into his office, "That's my first question -- do you have a budget? Do you know how many guests you want to invite? Once that's done, you're ready to begin."

After drawing up a budget, the next consideration for brides or grooms with an eye to saving money is what type or style of wedding to have. If you've lived for the day you march down the aisle preceded by 14 flower girls, naturally your wedding is going to be more formal and more expensive than others.

One suggested method is to draw up a trade-off list. On this list write what facets of a wedding are nearest and dearest your heart -- and what areas you may be willing to give up, or fudge on a little.

And these days, tradition may be gently manipulated to suit both personal tastes and budgets: Weddings have become increasingly personal, with many couples opting for garden weddings, weddings at home, short receptions followed by far less formal parties and other variations, says Ms. Post.

"Etiquette never said you had to have a huge, expensive wedding. What counts is that everyone enjoys themselves," she adds. "There's no rule that says you have to have a big reception at all. My family had a clambake when my son got married for the second time, and it was wonderful and everyone had a wonderful time."

LIMIT GUESTS

Perhaps the most obvious way to limit the expense of a wedding is to limit the number of guests. But what if both bride and groom are from huge families? Relatives alone may fill a banquet hall.

Hordes of relatives descending upon you or not, there are ways to cut costs.

In an age of lessened formality, wedding couples can both negotiate with their prospective in-laws about who pays what. (No longer are the bride's parents absolutely obligated to pick up most of the tab.)

Or enlist the aid of friends, says Letitia Baldrige, Washington etiquette expert and author of "Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to the New Manners for the '90s."

If, for example, many of your colleagues are close enough friends so that you feel you simply must include them somehow, one option is not to ask any to the actual wedding. "But ask a friend to hold a cocktail party for the bride- and groom-to-be so they can all meet each other. It's amazing how much good will and fun can be had," she says.

GET MARRIED IN THE OFF-SEASON

Although limiting guests at a wedding may seem the easiest method of paring bills, according to experts, timing is of the utmost importance.

"Plan your wedding in the off-peak times," says Mr. Schiavone of the Marriott. Those in the business of renting halls for weddings often increase their charges during the months of May, June, September and October. During the off-seasons for weddings -- and sometimes on off days such as Sundays, he says, most establishments are willing to negotiate. "If it's 150 guests in July, there aren't many places that aren't going to do what it takes to get the business."

And while doing some of her own marketing research, Jane Fallon of Jane Fallon Catering of Kingsville found that menu prices also increase significantly during these more popular marrying months: She found a difference in the thousands of dollars while researching the pricing for one large, elegant event.

PICK THE RIGHT PLACE

Rented banquet halls can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a wedding. Certainly a reception for 300 needs a huge space in which everyone can comfortably mingle -- therefore, renting a hall becomes a necessity for many couples. But there are other options if your guest list doesn't read in the hundreds. One couple held a wonderful reception in their town house by extending it with a tent. "You can heat tents and tents can really be quite elegant," says Ms. Fallon.

To save money and still include close friends, one older couple decided to hold a very formal sit-down dinner in their home for 12. "Not family," says Ms. Fallon -- the family was invited to an intimate wedding. "They got married, then sent out announcements to their friends afterward and had a dinner."

Another, younger couple is holding their reception outdoors this month at a historic Maryland mansion. "It's a day wedding and they wanted a picnic. There are blankets all over the ground and they have released themselves from having to serve standard fare. If it rains it will be an adventure." (The couple has planned a nearby back-up location.)

CHOOSE CATERERS WHO CARE

"Shop around" is the universally given advice from nearly all the caterers and wedding planners consulted. Find the caterer who seems to think like you and who seems to work with you for the best possible balance of budget and wedding bliss, says Ms. Post. "I certainly would do some comparison shopping -- and I don't think you need a consultant unless you're going to have 500 people. The maid of honor often can take that role for you."

Another bit of advice from Mr. Schiavone of the Marriott: Ask your married friends whom they used for their weddings. "You know someone who knows someone who had a wedding there -- and you can find out what they liked and what they didn't."

PICK FLOWERS IN SEASON

On average, flowers for weddings cost nearly $500, according to Bride's magazine. And traditionally, the bride or her family pays for the flowers, says Chris Psoras, owner of Flowers by Chris of Baltimore. But there are several ways of pruning a flower budget, she says. First of all, the fewer bridesmaids participating, the fewer bouquets are needed.

And there are ways of placing fewer blooms in each centerpiece. Many brides choose to use what she calls a high-style centerpiece: "It's not a lot of flowers, but they are absolutely quality flowers and you only need to use a few in an arrangement. It's so breathtaking, you can pay $25 to $35 and have a $50 look." One such elegant arrangement might include blossoms in a spectrum of pink hues from fuchsia to purple in a silver or gold bowl, she says.

Other ways of cutting back flower costs: Use larger but fewer blooms, choosing some for their vividness of color -- which often helps liven the arrangement, suggests Randallstown resident Wendy Chernak Hefter, author of "The Complete Jewish Wedding Planner."

And last, but not least, buy in season. "I have made myself a list of flowers that are in season month to month, even week to week," says Ms. Fallon. Generally, she and the bride will pick out blooms that the bride really likes -- but they agree to remain flexible. Then, during the actual week of the wedding, they choose the best blossoms available for the best prices. Some of Ms. Fallon's flower journal entries are, for the first week of June: "Irises of all kinds, but tulips are just going out. Second week of June, peonies are in bloom and poppies . . . " and so on.

MAKE THE MENU MEASURE UP

Nearly all the experts agree trimming budgetary fat from the menu follows rules similar to that of choosing flowers: Choose foods that are in season.

"All the chefs emphasize fresh, seasonal foods. In early spring, fresh asparagus and lamb tastes better. But, serving asparagus in winter is crazy. In June, white asparagus will be in season," says Ms. Fallon.

But there are other things to consider, as well.

Some frugal chefs are trying to choose less expensive ingredients for their elegant dishes, says Darryl Wolod, sales manager for Selective Catering in Columbia.

In other words, veal with crab becomes chicken with crab. "Many people are going back to more standard fares -- meatloafs and more chicken dishes," he says.

"We're making it as elegant as possible: meatloaf with hard-boiled egg in the center, beautiful garnishes, nicer plates. We use the same sauces but change the main course. Instead of filet mignon and asparagus and pastry, we might have thinly sliced roast beef."

Another way of bringing down the per-plate cost, he says: Serve a more expensive and more elegant vegetable such as asparagus, but exchange the filet mignon for chicken. This menu variation might increase the vegetable price by 25 cents, but at the same time might decrease the cost of the meat by $1.

These days, as people frown increasingly on excessive alcohol consumption, serving wine and beer rather than liquor at receptions is widely accepted. It's also cheaper. Alternatively, you also could choose to serve only particular drinks, say, PTC mimosas and Bloody Marys. Serving a punch -- with or without alcohol -- is another way to cut bar costs. But the very idea of a cash bar at a wedding left most wedding experts gasping for air: "No, oh no. I don't think people should have to pay to come to your wedding!" says Ms. Post.

A more subtle cost containment measure -- if you do have an open bar -- is to close it during dinner, says Mr. Schiavone of the Marriott. "If you're doing a seated meal, we suggest you close the bar. Many bars have an hourly charge -- that's another hour and you can cut $3 or so a person."

Obviously, deciding on an afternoon reception rather than a sit-down dinner can also help you save money.

CHOOSE GOWNS WISELY

For many, the bridal gown is a major expense -- on the average costing as much as $794, according to Bride's magazine. The veil often runs another $169.

There are several things to keep in mind when shopping for the gown of your dreams. The first is never, ever carry a checkbook with you on a shopping trip -- that way you won't be swayed by shopkeepers who insist the gown won't be there when you come back. It probably will be.

Some brides might want to think of wearing their mother's dresses as both a saving and a lovely nod to tradition, points out Ms. Post.

Still others may be willing to shop at such secondhand stores as Once Is Not Enough Bridals, a store in the White Marsh area. There are two ways in which stores like this can work for the money-conscious bride, says owner Donna Chason. "Obviously, if they buy here, they are paying less for the gown in the first place. Instead of buying a dress for $700, they can buy a dress well under $500."

They can also offer the dress on consignment after the wedding if they wish, she says. "Often they see the dress they want, but it's more money than they want to pay -- but they know they can turn it around."

Whatever methods you and your spouse-to-be may choose to trim your wedding bills, with careful planning your wedding can be gloriously memorable. "I have been to very simple and very wonderful weddings," says Ms. Baldrige. "They have had simple flowers and simple country foods, fruit punch -- with or without alcohol. It's the spirit of the bride and groom that really makes a wedding reception go -- however big. It's not based on money, it's based on spirit."

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