A towering fondant cake, customized CD invitations, and an expensive designer dress: These are the dreams of many a bride-to-be—even when she knows the cost is well beyond her reach! But rather than reaching for the plastic, applying for a loan or borrowing from family, why not rethink your wants? Having a more modest wedding is far better than beginning married life with a big debt.
To consultants like JoAnn Gregoli of Elegant Occasions in Manhattan, what makes otherwise sensible women go haywire on spending is easy to explain. "Brides view the day as a once-in-a-lifetime party in a dream setting," she says. "So whatever it takes to have the best is what they ask for—no matter the price tag."
Opulent weddings on television can also send brides on a shopping spree. One planner reports that scores of young women wanted the "dripping roses" shown in the prime-time nuptials of The Bachelorette couple Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter. The blooms were beautiful to be sure, but they reportedly cost $500,000—not practical for the average bride, by any stretch of the imagination. Competition to have a better wedding than everyone else is yet another reason bridal planning goes awry. In fact, say many consultants we talked to, if the whole process were an Olympic event, there would be numerous contenders for the gold. "Brides don't come out and say they want their weddings to be impressive, they just say they want to make the day 'memorable,'" notes Gregoli. "But what they really hope is that guests will walk into the reception and say, 'Wow!'"
Yet despite the many temptations to splurge beyond their means, couples are well advised to spend no more than they can afford. The best strategy, of course, is to save the full amount necessary to finance the celebration. "These days, the average engagement lasts 16 months," notes Howard Dvorkin, founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, FL, a service that often helps newlyweds overwhelmed by bills. "That gives a couple plenty of time to save—and shop for bargains." To help them create a budget, he recommends checking the company's Web site, debtfree.com. (Click on the Learning Center link; you'll find comprehensive information and an online calculator to help you figure costs, down to the last detail.)
Once you have made a plan, it's crucial you stick to it. As Kyle Brown of the Bridal Association of America points out, "Brides often head to a store with every intention of buying the $99 dress they saw advertised, but once there, decide they'd rather have the $2,500 design instead." Not only that, says Brown, they don't keep track of outlay each time they shop. "I have seen women buy boxes for the favors one month, the chocolates three months later, and then the ribbon after that. Before they know it, they've shelled out more than $18 just for one favor."
Setting aside money for out-of-the-blue expenses is also important when figuring overall cost. When Michele Hess was making arrangements for her Fort Worth, TX, nuptials in September 2002, she had no way of knowing her fiancé would unexpectedly be laid off from his job. Instead of postponing the event or scaling back, they decided to go forward, which meant charging thousands of dollars they're still paying off—something Michele regrets. "It is the intimacy between the two of you that matters," she says. "After all, you don't take home the cake and the flowers."
If assuming some debt is inevitable, what is the best approach? "Tally how much money you have saved and how much of the wedding you still have to finance," advises certified financial planner Jill Gianola of Gianola Financial Planning in Columbus, OH, and author of The Young Couple's Guide to Growing Rich Together (McGraw-Hill). "Put together an after-marriage budget and calculate what can be set aside for wedding bills each month, after taking into account existing loans and obligations."
Money advisers agree that it's best not to take on liabilities you can't pay off within a year. If you are using an existing credit card to fill the money gap, call the credit-card company and ask them to lower your interest rate. (But keep in mind this will only work if you always meet your due date.) If you're opening a new account, look for a card that offers either zero or low interest during an introductory period and try to get the balance paid off during that time. Check out cardratings.org, or go to cardweb.com or bankrate.com, for cards with competitive rates.
Another strategy is to take out an installment loan. The benefit here is that the credit isn't revolving (you can't continue to borrow), and according to the contract, you're committed to getting squared away within a certain number of months.While these approaches can make debt manageable, think twice before you take it on. You surely don't want to start your married life with undue stress, which "a giant tab can create," says Gianola. When you feel crazily caught up in the moment and are tempted to go on a buying binge, take a deep breath and consider what is truly important: celebrating your love and the beginning of your lives together. "If I had to do it over, I would have had something smaller and more intimate so that we're not still paying for it," says Michele Hess, the Fort Worth bride. Her advice to others in a similar situation? "Be careful," she says. "Focus on what is meaningful for you and your spouse, not just doing something for show."