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Be strategic and efficient so you won't end up singing <I>Here Comes the Tab</i>.
Be strategic and efficient so you won't end up singing Here Comes the Tab. / Brooke Slezak, Getty Images

With the average wedding costing upwards of $20,000, Here Comes the Tab is the song many brides, grooms and their families are humming. That's why couples planning weddings must set realistic budgets and stick to them, even if they'd rather go all out. "It's more fun talking about cake flavors or flowers," says Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Brides magazine.

These six tips can keep wedding costs from spiraling out of control:

Set a budget and save.

Get an idea of potential expenses on sites such as costofwedding.com and theknot.com. The Knot even has a tool to track budgeted vs. actual expenses and to alert you when you're about to exceed your budget. Once you know roughly what your wedding will cost, open a dedicated bank account and add to it regularly, assuming you'll shoulder some of the costs. Try to build in a cushion of 10% for last-minute expenses, such as tips or travel for a relative.

Pick your priorities.

The food? The flowers? The music? The photos? Choose what matters most to you, and look for ways to trim other expenses. Must-haves for Megan Moench and Anthony Attanasio, who will marry in New Jersey this November: a first-rate photographer, videographer and DJ. "I think flowers are a waste of money, so I'll cut back on them," Moench says.

Another way to save is to be flexible with the timing of your big day. For example, The Knot says you could pay about 20% less per person if you have your reception on a Sunday vs. a Saturday.

Trim the guest list.

This move is, 'hands down, the No. 1 way to save,' says Rebecca Dolgin, executive editor of The Knot. Fewer people means less food and alcohol, fewer centerpieces and invitations, and a lower fee for the party space. Brides says trimming the average 164-person guest list to 100 could save you thousands on catering alone.

Stick to the guest list.

Don't feel pressured to add names. Politely explain that you're on a strict budget. Says Paul Hope, whose 2008 Brooklyn wedding to Leah Brickley had a 32-guest limit: "There were relatives we were eager to cut but invited because of pressure from parents."

Negotiate.

In this economy, "couples are in the driver's seat," says Tammy Elliot, president of Perfect Wedding Guide magazine and its website. Try bargaining with the catering hall or asking your photographer for a free parents' album.

Michelle Baker asked the bride who would be married the day before her at the same New Jersey church if they could split the cost of shared flowers. The other bride agreed: Both used the blooms, which saved Baker and husband Joe Sporkin about $400.

Don't overlook details. Little expenses such as taxes and fees for everything from the marriage license to the cake cutting can really add up. For tipping guidelines, use theknot.com's Tipping Cheat Sheet. "The single biggest thing couples don't do is read the fine print of the contract," Martini Bratten says. "You need to know what you're paying for."

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