Heather Wax had never been in a wedding before. So when her old chum Elise asked her to be a bridesmaid, the 24-year-old San Franciscan felt honored. Heather's thrill waned, however, once she calculated the costs. There were the dress and shoes, hairstyling and manicure, cross-country flights and hotel rooms, the expenses of a wedding shower, a bachelorette party, and gifts. In fact, certified wedding consultant Michelle Hodges, of San Jose, CA, estimates that the average bridesmaid will spend upwards of $1,000 in the months preceding the big day.
"You should talk to the bride about expenses before you accept the role of being a bridesmaid," says Robbin Montero, a wedding planner in Napa Valley, CA. "If you really feel you can't afford it, you should decline." If your financial concerns don't arise until later, Hodges suggests a chat with the maid of honor. "Remember that when planning a wedding, emotions are high—especially the bride's."
But don't let dinero or the lack thereof discourage you from saying "I do" to a friend who wants you as her bridesmaid. You can still be part of the bridal party, even if you have to pinch a penny or two.
When it comes to cutting clothing costs, "the best thing you can hope for is a considerate bride," says veteran attendant Allison Smith, 25, of Berkeley, CA. If the bride's open-minded, suggest that the maids wear coordinating off-the-rack outfits from a chain store, outlet mall, or catalog, or let them choose plain black dresses (you may already own one).
If the bride wants traditional bridesmaid gowns, steer her toward one with versatile pieces that can later be paired with other items. Sing the praises of less-expensive manufacturers like Alfred Angelo, Mori Lee, and Bari Jay. Once the bride's made up her mind, order your gown immediately. Grace Young, a representative of San Francisco dress shop Bridal Galleria, warns, "There are often additional rush fees when you order late." If you're an out-of-state bridesmaid, don't automatically order the dress from a store in your neck of the woods. First, contact the shop the bride is using to see if it can ship your gown directly to you. You'll almost always avoid the sales tax, so even with the shipping costs, the dress may cost less.
To save on alterations, provide accurate body measurements when you order. Young suggests having bridal shop pros do the measuring, if possible. Also, try shopping around for someone less expensive than the bridal shop's seamstress.
Need dyed-to-match shoes? Find out if that pale pair from your last bridesmaid's gig can be re-dyed (a possibility if you're going darker, but be cautious, since the additional dye can sometimes run). For new footwear, seek out inexpensive brands like Nina and Dyeables—and see about coloring them black after the wedding so you can use them again.
If the bride's not requiring dyed-to-match, Hodges recommends black shoes to go with any dark gown. Light dresses can look good with bone or even clear-vinyl shoes. Dig through your closet, then scour lower-priced stores like Payless or Wal-Mart for their most unadorned styles (keeping in mind that bargain-bin specials may rub your tootsies raw).
Hair and Makeup
The easy money-saver? Do your own beautifying: Go with a simple, pulled-back 'do and have all the bridesmaids help with one another's makeup.
Some brides insist on professionally crafted coifs. In that case, consider a beauty school, where students perform a full range of services for nominal fees. And no need to worry about ending up with a frizzed-out fright perm. As Frank Pappacoda, CEO of the Learning Institutes of Beauty Sciences, a chain of New York and Massachusetts cosmetology schools, points out, "The students are under the constant supervision of their teachers" and will heed your wishes. Check out naccas.org for a school near the wedding