ECONOMY HAS COUPLES SAYING 'WE DON'T' TO ELABORATE WEDDING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael and Tressa Schuler of Towson had their wedding all planned: an elaborate but intimate affair at historic Gramercy Mansion with about 75 guests. But then family members extended more invitations, and soon the guest list swelled to 170.

"It just started to get too stressful, and we felt that it was a time that we should be happy planning this," Michael Schuler said. With their wedding costs approaching $20,000, the couple opted instead for an "elopement" package at Gramercy that was limited to 20 guests. The bill: $1,600.

With the recession in mind, couples like the Schulers are shunning grand-scale settings and pricey accessories, opting instead for simple, do-it-yourself ceremonies that are high on creativity, low on stress and easy on the budget.

"As much as it's supposed to be the best day of your life, when it's over you're depressed because you put so much time and effort into an event that was over before you blinked," said Kerry McCullough of Kensington, in Montgomery County. After struggling to find budget-friendly ideas for her wedding last year, she founded Maryland Budget Wise Weddings, a Web service that helps couples create their own special day.

"People are getting very creative in order to meet their budgets," McCullough said. "You have to think about whether you want to put $30,000 into a five-hour event."

Shane McMurray, chief executive of the Arizona-based wedding industry tracker the Wedding Report, said the average wedding for the second quarter of this year cost about $16,500. (The average cost rebounded to $22,121 in the third quarter.)

McMurray says the overall average wedding cost for the year will be about $19,000. That's down from $28,730 in 2007.

Weddings are also getting smaller. Guest lists averaged 145 people last year, down from 166 people in 2007, McMurray said.

"The economy is what's on everybody's mind. More than anything, people are saying, 'We want to get married, but how do we pay for it?' " said McMurray. He said most wedding trends this year involve saving money, including: smaller weddings, more reliance on family and friends to help provide some of the services, and cutting down on the cost of food per person.

"Elopements are up big time," said wedding officiant Ken Patterson, senior pastor at Grace International Church in Baltimore. "I've done 20 this year, compared to eight last year." He said couples are more likely to marry soon after deciding to do so rather than plan for a large wedding in the distant future.

"This is a time," Patterson said, "where people who have been hanging out and dating say, 'We're struggling individually. Why not see if we can do better together?' "

Gramercy officiant William Duffy said the mansion has performed 34 elopement-package weddings this year, up from 17 two years ago.

"Some has to do with the economy, but most of the couples are having second-time marriages; they've been there, done that," Duffy said. Tressa Schuler said the thought of her parents being saddled with exorbitant costs added to her stress.

"We were looking at $100 per person for the meal, and my parents aren't millionaires," she said. "It came to the point where I was just so overwhelmed with everything that I just said, 'That's it,' " and she and Michael changed plans.

Their deposit for the original wedding paid for the elopement package.

"It seemed like a normal wedding, but everything was scaled down so tremendously," Michael Schuler said.

However, the changes meant that about 100 people who had been sent "Save The Date" notices had to be told that they were no longer invited.

"I wrote letters of apology saying, 'Sorry for the inconvenience, but the wedding has been dramatically downsized,' " Tressa Schuler said. "Some people were disappointed. But some people said, 'It's what you want, so if that makes you happy, good for you.' At the end of the day, everyone was fine."

Rachel Tabacchi and David Wafle got engaged in August - two weeks after the couple moved to Baltimore from Michigan, but six months after Rachel got laid off. Financial concerns caused them to change the wedding date three times. Ultimately, they opted for a small wedding with 12 guests.

"We wanted something simple, elegant and easy with not a lot of fuss," said Rachel, who did her own hair and borrowed a friend's dress. Rather than having a reception, the couple took their wedding party to the Milton Inn restaurant for dinner, and they have no plans for a honeymoon.

"There was no drama; I didn't need that," Tabacchi said. "When you tell people that you're engaged, they automatically ask, 'Where's the reception? Where's the honeymoon?' They think that everyone should follow a procedure, but not everyone is blessed to pay for all of that. We did what we were comfortable with and what made us happy."

McCullough said she had a large wedding party but cut expenses, getting flowers from a local flower farm that she and her bridesmaids arranged into bouquets and centerpieces. Instead of a pricey meal, she served pulled pork barbecue with a pasta salad.

"It was definitely less expensive per head," she said, "and I didn't want to go with a traditional meal anyway."

Jamie Anderson and John Parreco of Kensington got engaged in July but have decided to put off their wedding until April 2011.

"By planning this far in advance, it hasn't been stressful," said Anderson, who added that they're planning for 125 guests while using friends and family for such duties as music and photography.

Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said that, as is usually the case in tough economic times, marriage is down during the recession. He said some couples are opting to delay nuptials or live together. He added that some are so convinced that their financial states will likely end prospects of marrying any time soon that they're ending relationships altogether.

Other couples are determined to have their weddings - even if downsizing means forgoing dreams of a fairy tale ceremony.

"There's a part of you that always wants the Cinderella story," Tressa Schuler said, "but this was the next best thing."

Smaller weddings

Wedding costs are being downsized with the rest of the economy. Here are some examples:

* The average cost of a wedding in the United States for the third quarter of this year was $22,121, down from $28,730 in 2007, according to the Wedding Report.

* The average wedding guest list was 145 people last year, down from 166 in 2007, the Wedding Report found.

* Brides spent an average of $1,032 on their wedding gowns in 2008, down 22 percent from the previous year, according to a survey by the Knot.

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