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Careful planning can help keep wedding costs down

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Hank and Kealey Bullinger wanted their wedding to be special, but they also knew they had to be realistic.

"We wanted a fancy wedding, as fancy as we could get but within our limits," said Mrs. Bullinger, 24, a teacher. "We had to have a wedding that would cost between $5,000 to $10,000, and we wanted 300 guests with a full meal."

Their wedding, which took place last June, was done for under $7,000, but not without some creative efforts on the Irving couple's part.

Weddings are big business, and couples who don't want to get taken at the altar need to have a clear-cut plan to save on the costs.

The first issue is who's going to pick up the tab. The traditional rule that the bride's family pays for the entire wedding is fast fizzling out. Today, there's much more sharing of the expenses among both families.

Also, because many couples are marrying later in life and have careers, they're able to shoulder more of the expenses and may even want to pay for the entire wedding themselves.

The average cost for a wedding in Dallas ranges from $15,000 to $18,000, said Aloha Waggoner, executive director of the Dallas-based Association of Certified Wedding Consultants, which helps couples plan and coordinate their wedding.

That cost range is just for "doing the basic stuff, like getting the photographer, church, flowers, your reception costs and entertainment," she said. More elaborate affairs can run from $40,000 to $50,000.

To cut down on costs, wedding experts say couples need to plan at least a year in advance.

"Do a budget right off the bat," advises Carley Roney, editor-in-chief of TheKnot.com, one of several wedding-planning Web sites. "Don't spend a dime until you have it down line item by line item."

Divide your budget by categories, such as invitations, music, flowers, clothes and reception, and list how much you expect to spend in each.

If time is at a premium and you don't want to deal with all the details, hire a wedding consultant, who will deal with the various vendors that will service your wedding and coordinate the event.

Wedding consultants can cost as much as $6,000, depending on how much you want done.

But before approaching a wedding consultant, prioritize what things are important to you about the wedding.

"Everything can't be exactly what you want it to be," Ms. Roney said. "If you get the dress of your dreams, you may have to wear shoes from Payless. You have to pick and choose."

Consider renting

Instead of buying a wedding dress, Mrs. Bullinger rented one.

"We rented the dress from a rental shop in Fort Worth," she said. "Why would I need to keep this thing, pack it away and wear it once?"

She felt the same about her wedding shoes, so she picked up a pair of $9.99 white shoes from Payless ShoeSource.

Mrs. Bullinger hired a seamstress to make dresses for her six bridesmaids for $60 each. "The bridesmaids appreciated that it didn't cost over $100 [each]," she said.

"Don't just look in the phone book and do everything there," Mr. Bullinger said. "Try to go the untraditional routes."

They held their reception at the church where they married. That saved the cost of a separate location for the reception.

"The reality is, the only way to save on your wedding is to cut, to have fewer guests, to have fewer photos, to have fewer attendants," Ms. Roney said. "If you expect to have a high-end ceremony, you'd better be prepared to have it with fewer people because you can't [save money] and have 300 people."

Try to limit the guest list to 100 people or fewer, said Laura Sutherland, owner of State of the Heart Weddings, a wedding consulting firm in Dallas.

"Once you hit 150, your guest costs go up exponentially," she said.

Set priorities

Areas where the Bullingers weren't willing to skimp were wedding photos, the wedding video and flowers.

"... [The photos] and your video are the two things you can look at years down the road," said Mr. Bullinger, 23, a credit analyst. But even in those areas, they were careful not to spend lavishly.

For the photographer, a friend introduced them to another friend who took the pictures. The wedding video was a gift from the couple's friend. For the flowers, Mrs. Bullinger shopped around and found a florist at Kroger, who had owned a florist shop.

"We saved around 50 percent from what we would have paid vs. using a full-service florist," Mr. Bullinger said. "That was probably one of our best decisions because he did a wonderful job and made these grand-looking altar flowers. He was real flexible with the pricing too."

You may not even need flowers at the wedding in some cases, said Gayle Kesinger, wedding coordinator at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas.

"Look carefully at the church," she said. "It may be pretty enough that they don't need flowers, and flowers are a big expense." Or use a different type of floral decoration.

"Go for more ivy and ferns and more greenery instead of lots of flowers," Ms. Sutherland said. "That will save a lot of money."

Cutting back on flowers at the reception will also save money, Ms. Waggoner said.

"If you're putting arrangements on the guest tables, they don't have to be 8 feet tall," she said. "They could be something smaller and just in the center of the table."

The time when you get married will also influence how much the event will cost.

"Hold the wedding on a Friday or Sunday evening," Ms. Sutherland said. "This will help reduce the cost of the reception facility. Saturday evenings are prime time, and the facility rental costs, likewise, are at their highest."

A morning wedding is another option, Ms. Kesinger said.

"Get married in the morning and then you have a brunch or luncheon," she said. "There's not much alcohol to begin with and you usually don't have dancing or a band around noon time or 1 p.m," she said.

January, February and March are good times for a wedding because it's the off-season, said Micki Novak, a wedding consultant at Dream Weddings in the mid-cities.

"Almost everybody is available because it's a slow season," she said. "If more brides were aware of this, it would be very, very easy to plan the best weddings in the Dallas-Fort Worth area."

Food is a big budget item, so be selective about the choices.

The reception, including food and beverages, can comprise 50 percent to 65 percent of the total wedding budget, according to USABride, a wedding Web site.

"Avoid a choice of entrees," Ms. Novak said. "In most cases, you're going to have two separate prices for those. If a venue knows it can make 200 beef dishes, the pricing is going to be less than if they know they have to make 100 beef and 100 salmon."

You could even have a buffet, wedding planners said.

"The most traditional food like poached salmon or filet mignon is oftentimes the most expensive," Ms. Roney said. "You can have pasta or a pasta bar where people can make their own pasta selection."

Let them eat cake

For dessert, serve wedding cake.

If having an open bar - in other words, free drinks - is too pricey, try a limited bar that has as its centerpiece a specialty drink such as a champagne cocktail or a special rum punch, Ms. Roney said.

But don't have a cash bar at your wedding. It's a major social faux pas.

"Never, never have a cash bar, because you don't invite guests to a party and expect them to pay for anything," Ms. Novak said.

What about the grand exit? Try driving your own car instead of hiring a limousine.

In the end, always remember why you're going through all this chaos: "It's easy to lose yourself in the stress and all the prices," Mr. Bullinger said.

"No matter what, at the end of the day, it matters that you're getting married, not that you have the froufrou presentation."

Pamela Yip covers personal finance for The Dallas Morning News. If you have a story idea, e-mail her at pyip@dallasnews.com.
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