Couples say ‘We do’ to cutting back on wedding expenses

NEW YORK — The fairy-tale weddings that many couples have yearned for are starting to come back down to earth — leveled by everyday problems such as house payments and rising gas and food bills.

The wedding industry has long been considered one of most recession-proof. Most brides, grooms and their parents see the “big day” as a once-in-a-lifetime event not to be skimped on. But unlike Cinderella and Prince Charming, who didn’t have to worry about a mortgage on the castle, more couples are finding it hard to swallow the average pricetag of items like wedding cakes (about $500), bridal gowns (around $1,300) and flowers (near $2,000).

“Every girl dreams about their wedding day,” said Rebecca Stamilio, who braved the February chill and the crowds at Filene’s Basement’s bridal sale in Manhattan to find a gown. “But at the same time, you’re like, oh my gosh — I could pay off this much of my mortgage.”

Stamilio, a 30-year-old physics instructor at Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro, N.C., found a long, simple, white gown for $249 that was originally $1,600.

“I just don’t want to be in debt,” she said.

Many other couples apparently share that sentiment and are cutting some corners as they put their weddings together. Wedding trend tracker The Wedding Report Inc. estimates the average cost of a wedding will dip slightly this year to $28,704, compared with $28,732 in 2007.

That runs counter to the trend of the past 15 years, when wedding spending has nearly doubled, according to Conde Nast data. Tammy Elliot, president of the Perfect Wedding Guide wedding planning Web site, noted that the market is growing quickly due to the children of baby boomers.

Spending on the actual ceremony and the rehearsal dinner appear to be up this year, according to The Wedding Report data, while outlays for the reception and rings are declining.

It’s important to note that the data includes inflation, so with food, energy and metals prices on the rise, many couples are really getting less for their dollar. The wholesale price of gold is up more than 30 percent from a year ago, while platinum is up more than 50 percent, and retailers are having to pass these increases on to consumers.

With costs surging, some new wedding trends are sprouting. Liene Stevens, a consultant at the wedding and event planner Blue Orchid Designs, said she’s noticing couples choosing more do-it-yourself wedding items, such as table centerpieces. They’re also planning more brunch and afternoon weddings so they can shell out less for food and alcohol, she said.

Stamilio is accustomed to being frugal; financially independent since the age of 16, she paid for her first car, her first computer and her college tuition. But she’s not the only one keeping track of her receipts (she’s aiming for under $10,000 in total) — bigger spenders are seeking out ways to save money, too.

Erin Robertson and her family are willing to budget as much as $30,000 for her upcoming wedding, but Robertson went bargain shopping with Stamilio at Filene’s Basement for her dress. She ended up with a $730 ivory silk dress, tax included, that was originally $3,500.

Another popular way for newlyweds to save is tweaking or rethinking their honeymoons (an expenditure that is not included in The Wedding Report’s annual spending estimates). Barb Maxwell, who specializes in honeymoon vacations at the travel agency Viking Travel, said requests for European trips have sharply declined over the past several months, and that couples are increasingly choosing packages that include extra benefits and amenities, like free breakfast. The declining dollar, which makes travel abroad more expensive, certainly has had an impact on honeymoon planning.

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