It's time to pay for love.

This is the season when most couples decide how to distribute their -- or their parents' -- money on gowns, music, photographers and other details of that increasingly complex and expensive American ritual called a wedding.


Couples tend to get engaged in December, and brides-to-be with an elaborate wedding in mind don't dawdle.

Sneer all you want about a solemn ceremony turned into a spectacle of conspicuous consumption: The vendors know a good deal when they see it.


It's a $50 billion industry, according to the Conde Nast Bridal Group, which conducts surveys through its magazines Bride's and Modern Bride. Add in purchases made by the happy couples to prepare for post-honeymoon living, from insurance to housewares, and the amount of money spent annually skyrockets to $120 billion.

Conde Nast expects particularly good times soon because the baby boomers' children are coming of age after two decades without a spike in the number of marriages.

"The number of 27-year-olds in this country is going to explode by 30 percent over the next 15 years," said Nina Lawrence, vice president and publisher for the Conde Nast Bridal Group. "Anybody in the bridal market now is going to feel the reward."

Rising amounts spent on the big day have already infused the market with cash. The average wedding in 2002 -- a lousy year economically -- cost $22,400, the price of three years' in-state tuition and fees at the University of Maryland. That's more than 40 percent above the amount spent in 1990, Conde Nast says.

Everyone wants a piece of that white-icing, many-tiered cake.

Nearly all major retailers have jumped into the registry business, once the domain of department stores. The current issue of Bride's is 840 pages, as hefty as some editions of War and Peace but with more advertising. Select places like Palm Springs, Calif., have associations to lure in as many ceremonies as possible, while Walt Disney World in Florida offers Cinderella's glass coach as an inducement.

And a small but growing number of consultants are crafting individual wedding budgets, recommending vendors or even planning the whole event for couples who want it all but are too busy to do it themselves.

"This is big business," said Katherine Jellison, an associate professor of history at Ohio University who is writing a book about the commercialization of American weddings.


Expensive marriage celebrations became the norm after World War II with the rise of the middle class, when people began to see weddings as a way to show they had arrived financially, she said. The trend was strongly reinforced by the fairy tale royal nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.

"It's advertising whose impact is still being felt now, 23 years later, even though that [marriage] is long gone and one of the participants has died," Jellison said.

That enduring image of the proper ceremony is good for the diverse industries that come together to form what feminist scholar Chrys Ingraham dubs the "wedding industrial complex." About $9 billion is spent annually on jewelry, $7 billion on travel and purchases for the honeymoon, $6 billion on gifts and $5 billion on formalwear, according to Conde Nast.

On the other hand, more than 40 percent of couples surveyed told Conde Nast that they spent more than they had intended, a common problem in a country with massive consumer debt.

"Probably too many people who really can't afford to invest in this type of celebration have been encouraged to do so, and have become convinced that it's the only way to have a wedding -- and it's been to their financial detriment," Jellison said.

Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City held its 25th annual "bridal extravaganza" last weekend with an unusual twist for the 80 mothers and daughters who paid $110 a pair for the optional overnight stay: a morning seminar on budgeting, thrown in with discussions on wedding etiquette, bridal beauty and communicating with the spouse.


Friday night, though, was all about buying -- buying big.

Five hundred people, nearly all women, squeezed in to see the wares of more than 60 upscale vendors, from Captured in Time's preserved bouquets to the pure-white bird on the Wedding Doves For Love table.

Passing by the string quartet playing Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" in the lobby, they lingered beside delicate candles, satin-covered chairs, Italian wine in tiny $3 favor bottles, a heart-shaped wedding arch made of balloons, a six-tier cake, a 1947 Rolls-Royce available for rent and other elegant possibilities.

"Plan on having a musical interlude," advised Josh Friedman of Elan Artists, a Baltimore group that sent a trio to play classical selections while the guests ate dinner. "The ceremony goes by so quickly."

Models in bridal gowns -- white, of course, and sleeveless, which is all the rage -- stepped down a runway between the tables to recorded tunes such as "Someday My Prince Will Come."

"Many of you do get your dreams from Disney," said event organizer Regina Ford.


Desiree Williams, 37, a respiratory therapist from Randallstown, was eager for ideas. Engaged since Christmas, she's planning a formal wedding for at least 200 in September and wants it to be just so.

"I imagined it my whole life and it's becoming a reality," she said, a glass of white Zinfandel in one hand. "I think it's your day, and it's something you'll always have to remember."

Joy Zucker, a Falls Church, Va., free-lance television producer, fed a piece of tiramisu wedding cake to her fiance and said that $22,400 -- as expensive as it sounds -- buys a low-budget wedding nowadays.

"Our fiscal choice is to not start off on the wrong foot, and that's not easy to do," said Zucker, who bought a wedding-budget book but makes "no promises" that her bill will be less than the national average.

Even brides-to-be determined to keep costs down found all the add-ons at Turf Valley tempting.

"It would be nice," confided Julie Johnson, a 30-year-old massage therapist from Hampstead, standing near the satin-covered chairs, "but I didn't even ask the price."


People paid $18 for the activities Friday, but the event is a promotion rather than an immediate profit for Turf Valley, Ford said. The resort, which built its business on weddings and catering, figures that showcasing its ballrooms to hundreds of brides-to-be once a year is bound to help the bottom line.

Concerns about excess aside, Turf Valley isn't exactly twisting women's arms to get them to show up. Ford learned to require pre-registration after the first year, when she took out an ad, printed a few fliers and waited to see the results.

"We had a line that stretched around the block," she said. "Brides will be brides."