WASHINGTON — Eric Bell met his fiancee on a Delaware beach over a Memorial Day weekend.
When he came back to Washington, D.C., where he is pursuing an MBA at Georgetown University, he received a text message: "When are you going to take me on a proper date?"
He did. Now, many dates later, he is engaged to be married.
And getting married costs a fortune — which presents a bit of a dilemma, because Bell is the founder and editor-in-chief of yobucko.com, a personal finance website "dedicated to helping the next generation learn how to build wealth."
Bell doesn't think people will build wealth if they spend all they have on a wedding. "We are trying to get as much value for as little money as possible," he said of his own plans.
A recent survey by theknot.com and weddingchannel.com queried 18,000 brides and found the average 2011 wedding budget (excluding the honeymoon) was $27,021. This is only $37 more than last year, but is the first time since 2008 that the average cost has increased. Back in 1990, the average cost was about half as much at $15,208, according to the American Wedding Survey. And if you go back to pre-WWII America, the average wedding cost $392.30 — about $6,486 in today's dollars, as documented in the book "One Perfect Day" by Rebecca Mead.
Searching for a venue
According to the survey, the biggest chunk of a wedding budget goes for the venue (or reception hall), at an average cost of $12,116.
No way were Bell and his fiancee going to spend that much on a venue.
Bell said his fiancee had a vision in her mind of what she wanted, and not surprisingly, considering where they met, it was on a beach. But the prices were too high for their budget, and the venues were booked. "So we had to compromise," Bell said.
The couple looked in Washington, D.C., and found they could book a little church and a reception venue for $7,000. Food would cost about $70 per guest and alcohol about $30 per guest.
But in his fiancee's hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., they found a venue that could handle both the wedding and reception, all for just $500. Food was only $25 per guest, and they could save by bringing their own alcohol.
"Between trying to get ready for graduation and repaying student loans, we are thinking, 'Is the value added of $6,500 really worth all the struggle it would take to pay it back if we had to borrow money?'"
So, come next July, the wedding will be in Tennessee.
The wedding venue was also important to Meg Schneider, who was married in 1999 and, because of a bankruptcy, had to do it on the cheap.
Her mother, however, had one demand. "My mother was adamant that we not have our reception at a fire hall," said Schneider, who was married at Embassy Suites in East Syracuse, N.Y. "So we had to get really creative, and we had a beautiful wedding."
The experience helped Schneider when she later wrote "Budget Weddings For Dummies."
People have dreams for their perfect wedding day — dreams that override rational budgets. Schneider said the wedding industry calls that fantasy and enthusiasm "white blindness."
"They are not selling you an actual dress or an actual cake or an actual venue," Schneider said. "They are selling you a fairy tale."
The industry ties the various expensive elements of the wedding to love.
"It is the same tactic funeral homes use to get you to buy a more expensive casket," Schneider said. "'If you really loved this person, you would shell out the money for the walnut instead of the pine.' 'If you really love your bride-to-be, then you'll pay for hothouse lilies in December.'"
Schneider said couples do not have to buy into what the wedding industry wants for their big day. "There are a lot of really creative ideas that allow you to express your personality and make your guests feel like they are not at a cookie-cutter wedding," Schneider said. "You make the wedding about what is important to you, and not what is important to the wedding industry."
And it all starts with a budget.
Plan a life, not a day
Bell and his fiancee are both goal-oriented people. "We have things we want to achieve, such as buying a home or having kids," he said. "And we realized there are financial implications to all of those things."
Schneider said financial considerations have to come first. The first thing she recommends is that engaged couples sit down and talk about their financial goals to put the wedding day into perspective. What do couples want in the first year of marriage? Where do they want to be in five years?
"Your wedding is your first day (of your) life as a unit," Schneider said. "Instead of just focusing on that day, think about what you want your life to look like financially before you plunk down any money for your wedding."
"To really throw away money on one day when we have an entire lifetime to think about, I just don't think either of us looks at (that) as the responsible choice," he said. "There are things we want versus things we need. At the end of the day, we need financial stability in our lives. We need a day we can remember, but not one we regret."
Once a budget is set, then the fun begins.
Skip the 'wedding' dress
The survey by theknot.com and weddingchannel.com found that the average price of a wedding dress is $1,121 — but much of the price is just for the name "wedding," Schneider said. "You could find a very nice evening gown for less than $100," she said. "But you put the word 'wedding' in front of 'gown,' and all of a sudden you are looking at $1,000."
Instead of buying a wedding gown, Schneider bought an ivory bridesmaid's dress. "It was perfect. It was simple. It was elegant. It was my style," she said.
And it was less than $100.
Bell also identified the dress as a high-ticket item, but thinks his fiancee will find a way to cut down on the cost. "She is a pretty girl," he said, "so I don't think she is going to have any problem looking beautiful on that day."
Like Schneider, Bell also thinks the word "wedding" in front of items increases the cost. For example: wedding photographers. "If you took the word 'wedding' off, I'm pretty sure you could get a decent price," he said.
Bell said there is an amazing number of talented freelance photographers who shoot for little money. And he said the same strategy applies to finding a band to play at the reception.
"Don't go on the Internet and look up 'best wedding band in New York City,'" he said. "When you look for people on Google, you are just going to find people who are extremely expensive."
Instead, he advised, ask people you know. Just don't use the word "wedding."
There are many ways to cut expenses on weddings. Here are a few ideas:
Invite fewer people. This can be accomplished in many ways, such as sending fewer invitations or having the wedding at an exotic location.
Don't always assume renting is cheaper than buying.
Look online. Many items needed for weddings are now available online at used prices.
Do it yourself. The Internet is also full of inexpensive (and fun) ideas for creating your own decor for the reception.
Pick days and venues in the off-season when prices are cheaper.
Get a friend to make a wedding cake as a wedding gift.
Use social media to keep people up to date on wedding plans and searches for less-expensive alternatives.
Both Bell and Schneider balked at the $27,000 average cost of a wedding. Bell thinks the figure may be due to some brides feeling pressure to compete with their friends, and he calls it a wake-up call to parents who may need to pay for their daughter's dream.
Schneider, however, said couples shouldn't give into pressure. "Think about what $27,000 can buy," she said. "You wouldn't ever consider spending that much money on any other party. Ever. Only for weddings do we think that is normal. And it is not normal. $27,000 is a down payment on a house. It is a brand new car. It's four years of public college at a state school. It's insane to spend that much money on a wedding."
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