Khris Cochran splurged for her wedding seven years ago. The ceremony was in a rose garden overlooking San Francisco Bay. The cake was made by a star baker featured on the Food Network. The honeymoon was in French Polynesia.
Then came the debt. She was $5,000 in the hole before she lost her Silicon Valley job in the dot-com bust.
"It took years to get out of that debt," she says. "By being so tied to the wedding dream, I ended up in a financial nightmare."
Weddings are said to be recession-proof, but the same can't be said for couples' budgets. As the economy takes a hit, many nearly-weds are looking for ways to scale back on a lavish wedding without sacrificing a special day.
Wedding spending is expected to dip slightly this year to about $28,700 per event, according to trend tracker The Wedding Report Inc. That's down just $28 from last year's high, but it bucks the 48 percent growth that surveys by the Conde Nast Bridal Group documented from 1999 to 2006.
At the same time, the fever for budget-busting weddings hasn't broken. Wealthy couples are now focusing on understated flourishes, says celebrity wedding planner Marcy Blum: "Serving Cristal, for example, as opposed to having elephants."
What's worth the splurge, and what's a smart save? Here are some ideas for richer and for poorer:
You can always elope. Barring that, if you want to save money, trim the guest list.
"You really don't need to invite everyone you know or have a party of 20 bridesmaids," says Maria McBride, an editor at Brides magazine and author of "Party Basics for New Nesters."
If you really want a big crowd, consider a smaller wedding with a separate cocktail reception. It beats a 300-person sit-down dinner in both cost and atmosphere, says Blum. "There's no way to go about making it affordable and really fabulous, unless you're a rock star or someone you know is Kuwaiti."
If your parents really want all their friends to attend, or your colleagues at work expect invites, remember it's your day. A good rule of thumb: Have you had dinner with this person in the last year? If not, and you live in the same city, consider a cut.
Looking back, Cochran wishes she and her husband had invited only the people closest to them.
"It's not only an instant budget saver but a way to make the whole event more intimate," she says.
David Tutera advises couples to focus their spending on the venue and decor, including flowers. One of his clients is spending $1 million on flowers and design, including 50,000 roses.
"People walk away remembering the unique experience you create and not the food that you served," he says.
He and Blum each stressed the importance of lighting, which they say many couples overlook. "They spend tons of money on decor and they have a great band, but if they don't spend on lighting, you can't see what they've done," Tutera says.
For Eda Kalkay, design and location were the most important decisions for her October 2007 wedding. The 150 guests to her city-meets-country wedding at an estate in New Hope, Pa., were treated to a white fantasy in the woods, with globes of white hydrangea, white candelabras and a surprise performance by a gospel choir.
The price tag? More than $300,000. But she has no regrets.
"It was so beautiful it felt surreal," says Kalkay, whose wedding was being featured on WE TV's "Platinum Weddings" this summer.
If you want a luxe setting at a discount, ask for a deal on a Friday or Sunday wedding, or cut costs with a daytime affair. And consider alternatives to expensive floral displays, like smaller "tablescapes" of candles and fruit, or centerpieces using a single type of flower, bought wholesale.
Cochran, who now runs the Web site DIYBride.com, says invitations are an easy way to cut costs.
"Paper is cheap and most people have a computer, word processing software and a decent printer already at home, which makes invitations an easy way to save some cash and be creative," she says.
Invitations set the tone for an event, but Tutera, author of "The Party Planner," thinks guests are more likely to remember the last moments of a wedding.
Etiquette experts still frown on electronic invitations, so prepare for raised eyebrows if you cut that corner.
Instead, Blum suggests cutting down on invitation inserts and heavy stock that waste paper and increase postage.
A wedding is only one day, but the photos last forever. Even on a budget, brides rarely lament the amount spent on a quality photographer.
"We really love our wedding photos and still get compliments on them to this day. She was worth the extra cash we spent," Cochran says.
Photos were so important to Kalkay, she spent $50,000 to bring in photographers who regularly shoot celebrity weddings.
If you're cutting corners, however, you may be able to find a skilled student photographer who's eager to earn extra cash and build a portfolio. And you can forgo a videographer altogether.
"It's very passe compared to photography," says Tutera.
You might really love that silver box with your monogram on it, but guests who have been to several weddings will probably toss it when they return home.
"Nobody needs another placecard frame, or a bottle of crummy wine with your name on it," Blum says.
It may seem like a small expense, but even cheap trinkets add up when you have a lot of guests. Odds are, there will be no complaints if you skip the favor entirely. (Cochran also points to money-wasting extras like toasting flutes as a bad idea.)
If you really want to give your guests favors, Blum suggests something edible.
"You'd be much better off to have all your bridesmaids or ushers bake cookies and enclose a great recipe," she says.
Another nice touch: offering a coffee cake or brioche on the way out for the next morning's breakfast.