Page 3 of 5   <       >

A Bride, Some Beer and 'Great Balls of Fire'

What is important is putting together a ceremony that will join together tradition and brevity -- but with "no God," because Sarah's father is an atheist, and she shares many of his views.

In contrast, Keith's priorities are kegs of his favorite beer (Yuengling Lager and Bud Lite) and, because he's a huge fan of rockabilly and punk, "really good music" at the reception. His first choice was King Cadillac, a vintage '50s band based in the Washington area, which he and Sarah had heard play at a local winery. The band, it turned out, charges $2,000 for three sets. That's more than the couple would pay for food and drink -- an array of "heavy appetizers" (including fried chicken fingers, miniature chicken salad croissants and ham biscuits) from Sweet Briar's catering services, plus the requested two kegs of beer. Still, Sarah agreed to the cost without question.

"Good music is important," she says. And so be it if that meant she had to skimp on other expenses. "A big, extravagant, obnoxious wedding is just not me."

"Sarah likes people to think she's fussy," smiles Elissa, "but she's really not."

WITH THE $5,000 HER PARENTS ALLOTTED HER WEDDING LONG GONE, Sarah has decided to pare back on every other expense. Instead of floral centerpieces for the reception, her mother, Peggy, has been scouring garage sales around her home in rural Loudonville, Ohio, for crystal candlesticks, usually 25 cents apiece. Sarah vetoed the idea of a rented dance floor; the guests will just have to shimmy on the carpet. No videographer. No printed programs. ("People just throw them away anyway," she reasons.) No custom-engraved invitations. (Peggy designed and printed them out on her computer instead.) Even for the rehearsal dinner, Sarah has opted to serve her guests cans of generic "Cola" and "Doctor" rather than Coke and Dr Pepper.

"They were leftover from an engagement party my parents gave me in Ohio, so why not?" she says. "They're free."

Her Sweet Briar connections have helped keep costs down. The school's director of academic computing, an amateur photographer, will take the wedding photos for $275. Ice is free from the training room, because one of the bridesmaids is Sweet Briar's athletic trainer. For $200, another co-worker's mother and grandmother are cooking and setting up the rehearsal dinner -- a no-frills buffet of barbecue pulled pork, coleslaw, potato chips and red velvet cake for 40 people -- in the campus boathouse. And, while she and Keith did pay Sweet Briar's professor of music $250 to play both the organ and piano during their ceremony, the check hasn't been cashed yet.

"We're hoping that'll be her gift to us," Sarah says with a grin.

It's not that she and Keith can't manage a more extravagant wedding. Salaries combined, they make more than $50,000 a year -- adequate for this rural area. But unlike many other couples their age, they have a strong aversion to debt. Sarah felt "huge anxiety" when she opened up a store credit card to cover the $400 cost for her bridesmaids' and flower girl's matching azalea-red dresses. (She knew two of the women couldn't afford the dresses, so she decided to pay for all of them.) And she felt sick to her stomach when Keith recently announced he was applying for a Visa card so they could have a "cushion" for their honeymoon week in Asheville, N.C.

"I told him, All right, but I'm not doing it," Sarah says. "It can be your name on the card."

THROUGHOUT THE WEDDING REHEARSAL in Sweet Briar's elegant chapel, Keith nervously shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Having heard of his stage fright from Sarah, the four bridesmaids and even the officiate, a cheery woman named Desi Justis, whom Keith knows from taking classes at Lynchburg College, pretend Sarah's wedding dress is so "poufy" that she'll need to practice turning sideways to reach the altar.

"He thinks my dress will be hideous," Sarah giggles. "He thinks I dress like an old lady." (Keith will later deny this, but his face does register panic as Sarah parodies sidestepping up to meet him.)

<          3           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company