2010 Weddings: They're Offbeat, Personalized and Getting Cheaper by the Minute
Life + Money

2010 Weddings: They're Offbeat, Personalized and Getting Cheaper by the Minute

Is it possible for a wedding to be two-thirds the price, but three times the fun?

On a sunny day last March, Abby Gondek and her fiancé, Nelson, gazed into each other’s eyes and said their vows, promising to love, cherish and respect each other until death do they part. All the prepping and planning, the dress shopping, the guest list, the invitations, added up to this one moment. Their friends and family had gathered for their big day, some traveling 3,000 miles to watch the couple celebrate their union. Only at this ceremony, instead of standing in a resplendent cathedral, they were all sitting on the floor, legs crossed, in Gondek’s tiny 168-square-foot Brooklyn apartment.

As we approach the height of the 2010 wedding season, industry experts say they’re seeing a major shift in the styles and budgets of weddings. Even though housing prices and consumer spending have begun to creep up and employers have started hiring again, one thing that keeps dropping is wedding budgets.  And that’s after falling 32 percent from 2007 to 2009.

According to The Wedding Report, the average cost of a wedding in 2009 was $19,580, down from $28,730 in 2007. That’s a loss of $19.8 billion dollars based on an annual 2.16 million marriages.  Adjusted for inflation, it’s been over 30 years since the average wedding cost this little. “We’ve come off a period of a lot of affluence, and some of the grandest, most amazing, most original weddings,” says Millie Bratten, editor-in-chief of Brides magazine. “People were spending more money than they might have because times were pretty flush. And now, because of the economy, people are pulling back.”

Becky Schneider, a Denver-based wedding planner, says her clients are spending between $2,000 and $4,000 less than last season. “I’m seeing that for a lot it’s not about who’s got the most expensive dress, or the best wedding location. They’re all about keeping it simple and elegant. They’re all about making it their day, and not worrying about what somebody’s going to think.”

Dress: $12 million is the world’s most expensive wedding dress. It features 150 carats of diamonds.Dress: $0 for a dress from a friend, plus $30 for a veil is what Larissa Allen spent.
Reception: $250 per person is the starting rate for the Grand Ballroom in New York’s Plaza Hotel. Reception: $0 for a backyard wedding.
Invitations: $3,000 for 100 engraved invitations at Bernard Maisner Calligraphy & Fine Stationary in NYC.Invitations: $0 to send them through Evite.
Flowers: $100,000 is what Donald Trump and Melania Knauss spent to hire floral designer Preston Bailey. Flowers: $20 for a simple bouquet.
Photographer: $200,000 is what one Arizona-based photographer charges.Photographer: $500-$1,000, especially if it’s through a friend of a friend.
Cake: $40,000 is what Liza Minelli and David Gest spent for their 6-foot-tall, 12-tier cake.Cake: $30 for the baking ingredients .

Less is More
Lasara Allen and her husband, Robert, decided to keep it simple and elope with only her daughters and a few friends in tow. With both out of work, they were worried about the prospect of inviting both of their large families. They wanted the day to be simple, memorable — and inexpensive. And they succeeded: They had a gorgeous, ethereal ceremony in a grassy meadow in San Rafael, Calif., spending money only on gas and $30 for the bride’s veil (her dress was a gift from a friend). “We wanted a day that was just ours. Something low key with none of the stressors that usually come along with planning a wedding,” Allen said.

Those who still want to go big and bold are finding ways, albeit in some cases sacrificing their sanity and taste. One bride auctioned off a bridesmaid spot on eBay for $5,700. Others have found sponsors to provide the alcohol, the flowers, the favors — in exchange for touting the sponsor on the invitations or during the dinner speeches. But more frequently, they’re skipping the traditional and downsizing.

Gone are the big, over-the-top weddings from the '80s and '90s. Wedding budgets have fallen so sharply, that brides and grooms-to-be are taking a second look at what the big day means to them — and more frequently, what it will cost them.

Back to the Future
Not so long ago, in the early 20th century, weddings were intimate family gatherings filled with ritual and meaning. There were no bridal registries, no wedding planners, no $5,000 De Beers engagement rings. Families would start planning maybe a month or two in advance. Both families would pitch in to prepare a feast for the guests, and brides would purchase simple, ready-to-wear gowns at local department stores. (During the Depression, many even opted for — gasp! — pre-worn wedding dresses.)

As the wedding industry developed after the Depression, wedding budgets ballooned, thanks largely  to brilliant marketing campaigns by De Beers (diamond sales went up 55 percent between 1938 and 1941), the rise of retail chains like David’s Bridal, wedding planners and gift registries. In the '80s, wedding spending shot up to new heights, quadrupling from an average $4,000 in 1984 to $16,000 in 1994. 

Epitomizing the trend was the 1981 marriage of Britain’s Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in front of 750 million people. Everything about the event screamed extravagance: her silk taffeta dress with 10,000 pearls, the 25-foot train, the diamond headpiece, the trumpet fanfare — likely inspiring dreams of grand weddings in millions of little girls who watched.

Consumers eagerly embraced the idea of an exorbitant wedding, and it wasn’t long before even lower-income families were spending half their salaries and going into debt to have the wedding of their dreams. “As consumption has become more democratized through rising incomes and increased access to credit cards and loans, the lavish wedding has become the standard in both middle- and working-class households,” wrote Cele C. Otnes in Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding back in 2003.

Feeding the craze was a fast-growing industry of wedding planners and suppliers. “My interest in the wedding industry was driven by a conviction that weddings provide an unparalleled lens upon the intimate sphere of American life,” wrote New Yorker Rebecca Mead in One Perfect Day. “Weddings have been transformed by outside industries into machines for making money … those outside interests tap into the deepest hopes and fears of their consumers in order to accomplish their economic goals.”

But the deepest recession since the Great Depression has transformed the consumer zeitgeist, and nowhere is it more evident than in the newly thrifty, values-focused bride’s approach to her big day. “The biggest change that we’re seeing is that the weddings are very personalized. We’re seeing more weddings at home, backyard weddings, family pitching in, lots of do it yourself, that type of thing,” says Bratten. “What has not changed at all is the desire to bring everybody together and celebrate.”

Beyond Budgets: A New trend Toward Personalization
And it’s not just smaller budgets that are changing the wedding scene. People still want the event to be memorable and impressive, but they’re doing so in ways that go beyond overt displays of economic status. You might remember the YouTube video last summer of Kevin Heinz and Jill Peterson dancing down the aisle to Chris Brown’s “Forever.” Minutes after it was posted the video went wildly viral, with 2 million viewers in the first week (and 50 million to date).

"That video is part of a bigger trend," says Bratten. “When we feature the real weddings in Brides, each of them has a story. The accompanying story is how we personalized our wedding, something that says this is who we are, this is where we come from, this is who all is here today, and this is what’s important to us.”

Becky Schneider says at least 75 percent of her brides want a unique touch to their wedding. Couples are doing this by having their ceremony in a meaningful location, adding a theme to their wedding, or focusing on the guest’s experience. One couple had their wedding at the 43-acre Vanderbilt Museum in Long Island, where guests could wander around the grounds to see artifacts like a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Others, like the makers of the YouTube video, try to involve their guests in some unforgettable way. “More and more we’re hearing people say ‘I want my party to be the best ever,’” says Bratten.

Mike Schmidt and Desiree DeLong, of Durham, N.C., did just that with their “roller disco” wedding in 2007. “We wanted our wedding to be memorable. We’ve been together for over 10 years and also most of our friends live on the West Coast, so it would’ve taken a lot to get people to come out for our wedding,” says DeLong. “We wanted to come up with a good party. Not just a wedding, but a party.” They rented a roller skating rink for $300, bought $300 worth of pizza and beer, invited people and had them RSVP online. All together, including her dress, they spent just under $1,000. Yet people still talk about their wedding today. “It was awesome,” says one guest. “A lot of the guys had mutton chops and just ridiculous '70s ensembles. It was something everyone could participate in.”

Schneider says couples are reevaluating what is important to them, and sometimes skipping out on the big event all together. One bride, when her dad offered to pay for her wedding, asked him if he could put the money towards her first house instead. Schneider tries to emphasize to her clients that having a dream wedding doesn’t require a fortune. Even with all the money in the world, DeLong wouldn’t have changed much about her roller disco wedding. “People still talk to us about it. Because we all go to weddings every summer, we go to about five or six weddings a year, and I can’t remember one between the other. But people have remembered our wedding.”

Know someone who’s having a funky, low-budget wedding this season? Send us a photo and a short description and we’ll add it to the slideshow.

Related Links:
2010 Celebrity Weddings: These Famous Celebrities May Be Tying the Knot This Summer
Love in the Time of Recession (CNN)
Couples Find Ways to Afford Dream Weddings
Saving by Tying the Knot at Sea (New York Times)