The Wedding of the Century

Blame Princess Diana.

She starred in what was known as “the wedding of the century”—truly the stuff of little girls’ dreams. As more than 750 million pairs of eyes watched 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer and 32-year-old Prince Charles wed on network television in July 29, 1981, something shifted in the collective conscience of American and British cultures. The “wedding” had become an event unlike any other.

Or perhaps the shift had slowly been occurring over the previous few decades. This British royal wedding epitomized (to the point of exaggeration) the trend weddings had been taking toward the elegant, extravagant and expensive. It would be (and continues to be) a trend young brides (and their middle-class parents) have been paying for ever since. Literally.

At last count, the average budget for a wedding in the United States was $26,327, according to a 2005 survey from the Fairchild Bridal Group.

And what do couples get for that price tag? Sometimes they get more than they bargained for. There are entire wedding sites devoted to wedding horror stories when it comes to dealing with vendors ranging from a florist gone bad and a pervert photographer to the caterer who is MIA or a D.J. who plays the most inappropriate and embarrassing songs at the reception. The wedding industry is just that—a business—and unfortunately, there are many unethical vendors out to make a quick buck without regard to you or your special day.

These horror stories combined with today’s busy work schedules have led to the growth of one-stop-shopping wedding services, where at least if something goes wrong, you only have to sue one vendor instead of three. I guess that’s some consolation. Turn-key weddings packages supposedly make it possible for a couple to have a dream wedding (and the resulting price tag) without having to do anything but show up for the wedding (and pay for it afterward). But convenience always comes with a price.

For instance, couples from around the world come to Orlando, Florida, to get married at Walt Disney World Resort. Packages, which include “traditional,” “themed” or “intimate” range in price, but average around $22,000, about the cost of a new car.

The Evolution of the Event

The wedding itself has changed over the years. Reception times have grown longer. The wedding has become more about the party afterward than the ceremony that precedes it. It’s not uncommon that half of the total wedding budget goes to just the reception.

Wall Street Journal reported in 2003 that even as wedding costs rise, there are more and more couples scaling down their weddings because they care about how their (or their parents’) hard-earned money is spent. Brides are hunting for wedding dress sales where designer gowns are slashed to $100 or less. Couples are choosing off-nights and off-seasons to plan their celebration in an effort to get reduced pricing on goods and services. Some are choosing to design and print their own invitations. And smartest of all, couples are approaching friends about using their talents to make their day even more special—and more affordable.

The Millennial Wedding

As with the ’90s, the millennial wedding is all about expressing the personal identity of the bride or couple getting married. So why some brides continue to purchase cookie cutter dresses, cakes and other goods and services is beyond me. The options these days are limitless. Brides don’t have to settle for standard department store fare.

This top 10 list is for those who are ready to take matters into their own hands by being involved in planning their big day.

1. Go slow. Pick a non-traditional or slower time of year to get married. Think January, February or November. Even consider a day and time other than Saturday afternoon—when most weddings take place. You can get a break on the venue and from the vendors for choosing an off-peak time.

2. Limit the guest list. Make your dream guest list then mark off at least 50 names. Most caterers charge per-person, so the difference between 100 guests and 150 can be huge.

3. Shop around. Prices and packages are negotiable with most vendors. Don’t ever settle for more than you think you should be paying. Moreover, use vendors who aren’t primarily wedding vendors, and you’ll see cheaper prices (e.g., using a grocery store florist instead of a wedding floral designer).

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4. Get your hands dirty. The more you do, the less you’ll end up paying. While your bride and her girlfriends are tying ribbons on wedding favors, you can be running around town running wedding errands. Just ask your bride for a list of what you can do.

5. Rent. Rent your tux—some stores will even rent tuxes for $30 a day. If you’re wearing a suit and want to buy a new one, ask department store clerks when their next suit sale is or try an outlet mall.

6. Consider “drop-off catering.” The caterer delivers and sets up already-prepared food. Or, have family friends cater the reception for you. Go with a buffet instead of a sit-down meal, or host a dessert reception, brunch or luncheon instead of a multi-course meal.

7. Get friendly. Ask friends to take photos at your bridal showers, rehearsal dinner, pre-ceremony and reception. Hire a professional only for the formal portraits and ceremony shots if you’re concerned about the quality of a friend’s photos.

8. Skip the DJ. Hook up a CD player or iPod to the sound system and pump out the tunes. If you’re set on having live musicians, hire a local music student(s) for the ceremony and/or reception.

9. Get sponsored. If you or your bride is set on having a lavish wedding, negotiate with vendors to have wedding services provided in exchange for subtle advertising at the event (the company’s name on a card next to the items provided, a listing of sponsors in the wedding program or even a mention during a speech at the reception.)

10. Honeymoon close to home. The two best and easiest ways to cut down on your honeymoon costs are to stay close to home (to avoid transportation costs) and to limit the amount of time you need to pay for lodging. You can choose a nicer hotel for the same amount you would spend at a less-posh place if your honeymoon is a few days shorter.

The good news for frugal brides and grooms is that the trend of the millennial wedding is toward everything simple and elegant—that lends itself to savings. From ring styles to cakes and bouquets, less is more, and with the right planning, your bank account can reflect the savings.

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