The Big Day Gets Smaller

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ahhh, the big day -- when wedding dreams come true with flowing champagne, live music and the perfect dress by Vera Wang.

This year, add to that list soaring gas prices, job insecurity, foreclosures and a depressed dollar.

These unromantic downers are forcing couples to take a hard look at what they're spending on their special day. In many cases, the new economic reality means downsized ambitions. Couples are scaling back on their guest lists, replacing filet mignon with chicken, and crossing out honeymoon plans to Italy because of the sinking value of the dollar. Some are choosing exotic destination weddings instead of hometown fetes to keep their guest numbers low. Others are making small cuts where they can: getting professionals to print invitations but stuffing envelopes themselves or replacing expensive peonies with cheaper roses.

"Every time I pump gas into my car, I think, 'That's $60 I could have put into better invitations or another guest,' '' said Arielle Etienne, a soon-to-be bride in Woodbridge who is looking for corners to cut to save on her October wedding.

Richard Markel, director of the Association for Wedding Professionals International, estimates that couples are spending $1,500 less this year on the average $28,000 wedding.

Tough times also are hitting wedding vendors: photographers, caterers, planners. "People are coming in with smaller budgets, but we're trying to make the most of what they have to still give them a special experience, and if that means losing $100 to $150 for us because of the cost of a better quality of meat, that's okay for us," said Dan Capobianco, president of American Catering in Centreville.

Experts say there are many ways to cut wedding costs. "This is the time to prioritize what you need and realize that there is always something in your budget" to economize, Markel said.

He and other experts say a couple's first task is to create a realistic budget for the wedding and honeymoon. If job security is in question, think about putting aside some of the money that would have gone toward a live band and posh reception venue for a rainy day fund instead. Set a goal for how much money you want in your checking and savings accounts after the festivities are over.

"For one day, it just didn't make sense to spend so much money that would put us in debt," said Latoya Starghill of Houston. She opted for a destination wedding in the Bahamas that will save her and fiance Christopher Gilmore at least $10,000 compared with a reception for hundreds of family members and friends at home.

Surprisingly, a white-sand wedding at a luxury beach resort can be more affordable than a hometown wedding and reception. That was what Starghill found when looking into prices for a Houston celebration. The 29-year-old doctoral student and her 27-year-old fiance both went to college in Houston, and she has a big extended family there. Their guest list would easily top 300. The couple also was determined to have their wedding on the popular date of Aug. 8, or 8/08/08, a biblical symbol for new beginnings. Most venues started at $10,000.

The couple was particularly cautious about their spending because of the uncertain economy and because Starghill left her job to begin her PhD studies full time.

One day, she saw a destination weddings magazine at a bookstore and decided to throw out her conventional ideas of a big family wedding. Destination weddings tend to be less expensive -- sometimes more than 50 percent cheaper -- because fewer people can attend and because resorts offer steep group discounts, often for all-inclusive stays. The Web site said the number of couples choosing destination weddings in places like Mexico and the Caribbean increased 26 percent in June compared with the same month last year.

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