Once upon a time every little girl dreamed of marrying her Prince Charming. The fantasy always included a beautiful long, white gown and veil. The setting was romantic, the scene filled with throngs of misty-eyed guests. It concluded with the starry-eyed bride and groom dancing the night away and living happily every after.

Planning that dream wedding used to be easy too. Weddings, after all, were much more important than careers, and one simply followed the rules of Emily Post.

Little girls still dream, but many of the old rules about weddings simply don't apply anymore.

Men and women are apt to wait until they are older and have established careers; they have definite ideas about the kind of wedding they want; they handle most or all of the arrangements and may pay all the costs, or share them with their families.

Traditions, however, die hard. If you think deciding to get married was difficult, wait until you try planning a wedding and sustaining your relationship while mantaining job, sanity and sense of humor.

As professional women, we survived -- and sometimes enjoyed -- planning and sharing the cost of our weddings with our husbands-to-be. We also learned that the people most resistant to new ideas are those who provide essential wedding services.

At the beginning, we took what we thought was the logical first step; we bought every self-help book we could get our hands on. And we found that the advice offered was great, if you're 21 years old, intent on following every etiquette rule, your family is independently wealthy and you always wanted the mother-of-the-bride to plan your wedding.

Information like how to address a wedding invitation to the pope, what gloves to wear at what time of day and how to toss the bridal bouquet (eyes closed) makes good reading, but it doesn't help anyone very much.

Where do you find answers to questions like: How to choose a caterer? How much wedding cake for 100 guests? How much and what kind of champagne? Where to find a wedding gown, for what is disparagingly known as the "mature" bride (over 25)?

Having discovered the hard way that the trial-and-error method of wedding planning is also the fastest way to a padded cell, we have gathered pratical information and recorded strategies that worked for us.

Choosing a Fantasy. A couple should start by defining their individual visions of what their wedding will be, and take time to write down that description. Consider all aspects of the occasion, such as setting (indoors or out, etc.), what you want to wear, time of day, number of guests, food and drink and how it will be served. We found that our fantasies and our finances were very different and needed to be reconciled early in the planning process.

Tone and formality of the wedding depends, of course, on what the two of you envision. Family members tend to say, "do whatever the two of you want," but the day before the wedding, someone will sigh wistfully, "I really wanted it this way . . . ." Spending a few hours fantasizing is fun for everyone and pays off later.

Financial Reality. Once you have a general picture of your wedding in mind, it's time to consider cold, hard facts. Set an absolute maximum you can spend, including a cushion for unforeseen expenses.

List everything you can think of that will cost something; decide which are top priorities you will be unwilling to compromise. For one of us, haute cuisine at the reception dinner was vital. That meant serving cheese and crackers rather than hot hors dOeuvres before the meal in order to meet the food budget. For the other, discovery of a dream wedding gown meant spending $300 more than allotted in that category; plans for free-flowing liquor and champagne at the reception were scaled down.

Divide and Conquer. The best resources for planning your wedding, in addition to your family, are friends. Your first contacts should be Anyone You Know Who Has Had a Wedding in Washington. Personal references are invaluable. Since Washington is a word-of-mouth town, ask other friends about weddings they have attended or participated in.

Find out specifically what things they remember about a wedding that were especialy nice (or awful). We found that Washington's largest, most expensive or "big-name" wedding services are not necessarily the best.

You might also call on friends to help with the legwork. There is no such thing as one-stop shopping when it comes to weddings. If you are hesitant about whether your friends will help: Ask. You might be surprised by how special it makes people feel to participate in your wedding preparation. A party before or after the wedding could serve as a thank-you for their time and effort.

One way to organize is by calling a wedding "board meeting." Come armed with lists of services you want explored: caterers, florists, photographers, musicians. Be sure to include a brief description of what you're looking for and a ball-park estimate of what you can spend. Lay the tasks out, ask who wants to do what and establish reasonable time frames. Once the information is gathered, you can finalize your budget planning and make some decisions.

An example of how well the divide-and-conquer concept can work is a recent wedding put together by one couple and five friends. The couple purchased note cards and wrote invitations by hand. They hired a trio to provide music at the reception. A friend of the groom hired a photographer. One woman called a friend in California and borrowed her gown, which was sent East. Another friend offered her home for the wedding reception and arranged for a caterer. Yet another purchased liquor and flowers.

Each person was responsible for follow-up on their part of the plan at the wedding itself. No guest ever knew that the wedding was a two-week coup.