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Wedding bells can sound a lot like cha-ching

March 19, 2006|By KRISTIN WILSON

It starts with ceremony costs, a reception hall and food for 150 guests.

But then there's the perfect designer wedding dress, the five-tiered wedding cake, limousines, videographers, table linens and a bridesmaids' luncheon.

Before you know it, your dream wedding comes with a sky-high price tag.

This year, the average U.S. wedding will cost almost $28,000, according to "American Wedding Study 2006," a survey conducted by The Cond Nast Bridal Group, which publishes Bridal Guide, Modern Bride and Bride's, among other magazines. That's an 84-percent increase over the average $15,200 couples paid to tie the knot in 1990. And many wedding costs are 20 percent more expensive today than they were in 2002, the study found.

The Cond Nast study includes both first-time and second-time marriages, but second-time brides are likely to spend less on a wedding because they tend to invite fewer people and choose more intimate venues, says Diane Forden, editor in chief of Bridal Guide.

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So what's driving couples to increasingly up the ante when it comes to their wedding experience?

"This whole wedding industry has just exploded," Forden says. "I think in the 1990s that happened. Part of the reason for that is the celebrity factor. You had some very big designers now designing for the bridal industry. We also have seen a lot of celebrities agree to be photographed and showcased on television. I think they realized that weddings bring in ratings."

With more visibility of extravagant, celebrity weddings, brides-to-be might have greater expectations, Forden says.

There's also an age factor.

Couples today are getting married later, and that means they often have more disposable income - and more time to dream up their perfect wedding. The average age of brides is 27 and grooms are, on average, 29 years old, according to the Cond Nast study.

One of the biggest changes in the wedding industry is an ever-growing expansion of choice, says Forden, who has followed the industry for more than 15 years.

"The personalization and making a wedding their own, making a wedding special and memorable has really been the biggest change in weddings," she says.

All of those personal touches often come at an added cost.

Couples today have many more choices than people who were married 15, 20, 25 years ago. And there has been a boom in businesses that cater to the wedding experience. Bridal magazines estimate the wedding industry is worth $70 billion annually.

Once a couple picks their reception location, for example, they have a list of upgrade options, each followed by a dollar sign. They can choose a special centerpiece for guest tables for $10 to $20 per table. They can opt for chair covers for $4 a piece. Table linens to match the wedding theme colors? That's an extra $5 to $15 per table. And, if you really want it, you can upgrade your wedding cake to look like a replica of your wedding dress.

This July, Bill and Susan Fisher of Smithsburg will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Getting married one month after their high school graduation, their wedding was simple and inexpensive but totally memorable, Susan Fisher says.

A neighbor made Susan's wedding dress, her mother made the wedding cake, and the bridesmaids wore their prom dresses. Their reception was held in their church's social hall.

"The church social halls were used a lot more then," Susan Fisher remembers.

When the Fishers' daughter, Shanna Byrd, got engaged in October 2004, Susan and Bill had no idea how much weddings had changed. They started out with a budget of about $10,000 but soon realized, to put on the wedding they all wanted, the budget needed to be expanded.

"The national average, I would say is correct," says Bill Fisher.

"The biggest factor was the reception," says Byrd, 26. "That is where a huge chunk of money goes to."

After about a year of planning, Shanna Fisher married Peter Byrd on Oct. 23, 2005. The day was unforgettable, the family says.

"When it was all over and we looked at the numbers, it was much more than we had expected (to spend)," Susan Fisher says. "But there wasn't a thing that we would change. We wanted to do what we could to make Shanna's dream for her wedding day come true. Everybody said (Shanna's) cheeks must have been sore. A smile never left her face."

Navigating the wedding industry with so many options, upgrades and sales pitches can be daunting, but wedding experts and recent brides say it's possible to plan a great wedding within almost any budget.

In the Tri-State area, a "nice wedding" can be put together for $5,000 to $6,000, says Kandy Koons, a wedding consultant based in Waynesboro, Pa. The trick is to identify areas where the wedding couple feels comfortable cutting corners, focusing funds on the most important components.

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