By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
This summer wedding season, a new song could rival Laura Nyro's bride-yearning classic Wedding Bell Blues.
Call it Wedding Bill Blues.
Even with a slight drop in "I Do" spending during recent tough economic years, many couples are beguiled beyond their budgets.
The average couple has a $26,989 wedding, according to Brides magazine. Even though that's down from a peak of $28,082 in pre-recession 2008, nearly one-third of all brides still bust their budgets, Brides says.
Couples are victimized by their own fantasies, cajoled by media visions of celebrity nuptials, and pressured by friends, family, even strangers posting idyllic photos on Pinterest.
"It's emotional. Practicality goes out the window," says David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.
Jones sees many ways debt entraps people. As a grandfather, however, Jones still found himself a shocked participant in runaway wedding spending for his granddaughter's wedding.
While Jones and his wife contributed cash, their son, father of the bride, "had to work overtime for months after the March wedding to pay off the credit card bills," Jones says.
The "lovely but not outlandish" spring wedding "went 15% over budget," Jones says, starting with the first purchase - a $6,000 gown, when $3,000 was planned.
Linda Morado knows all about that. She owns Le Dress Boutique, a luxury gown consignment shop in Atlanta, where she serves a parade of women suffering "bridal guilt" after going overboard on the first major purchase of their wedding.
Typical: A client who can't unload a never-worn $4,800 duchess satin designer gown after she downsized from a formal wedding to a simple beach ceremony. Indecisive brides trying to unload three dresses because they couldn't stop shopping at one. Brides whose weddings never happened. Morado tells them better to lose on the dress than wed a loser.
Kari Nesbitt, 28, of Atlanta, says she wed the right man in 2010.
But she did it in a lavish $6,000 designer gown from Rivini - far above her $2,000 plan. When she neared the cliff's edge of budget disaster a month from the wedding, she slashed the plans to fit the finances.
"I started out thinking I would have a big blowout wedding. Crystals everywhere. Flowers everywhere. Lots of drapery and fancy lighting, ice sculptures and all that jazz," says Nesbitt, who works weekdays in marketing for a non-profit group and Saturdays at Le Dress.
The couple thought they would spend "about $30,000, but suddenly I looked up, and we had 200 people coming, and the costs were heading for $10,000 to $15,000 over budget," Nesbitt says. "We cut the up-lighting. We cut the draping. We cut the special wooden dance floor, and no one missed it."
Resisting is hard, say brides, citing wedding planners who overwhelm them with choices for décor and doo-dads that seem irresistible. Couples can also be lured off their financial feet by bank commercials that encourage borrowing for wedding costs.
Royal Bank of Canada advertises a spend-now-pay-later "MyProject" MasterCard with images of a dazzling bride, "like a passport to a grandiose wedding you'll pay for in money stress later," says Rob Carrick, personal finance columnist for Toronto's The Globe and Mail and author of How Not to Move Back in with Your Parents.
Ilyce Glink of Chicago who publishes advice on financial security at thinkglink.com, is shocked by frequent letters from people who ask if they should borrow on their home or raid retirement funds to pay for a wedding.
No! Glink says.
Most people don't have an emergency account or savings. The typical family has $50,000 for retirement.They don't have six to nine months of savings set aside and even if they did, it wouldn't be $26,000. Even if young couples are increasingly sharing the costs, they're facing student loans and credit card debt even before the first wedding invitation flies out.
Experts cite price options
But wedding industry pros say hold off on casting blame.
"There is no need to go into debt. You can have a lovely, unique, personal wedding at any price point," says Anne Fulenwider, editor in chief of Brides and Brides.com. The cover of her July issue featured an $899 gown, well below the average $1,300 price tag.
No one at TheKnot.com will take the fall for overspending, either. The Knot is a juggernaut of the wedding industry, with its sister site WeddingChannel.com streaming ideas and images 24/7, a quarterly magazine called The Knot Weddings, and numerous planning apps.
Anja Winikka, site director of TheKnot.com, says, "We're talking about normal people who want dinner and dancing on a Saturday night," but they don't all want to reinvent the idea of weddings or compete with their friends for the splashiest event.
On their upbeat message boards most only post regrets for what they didn't spend, not what they did.
The Knot's 2011 research finds couples averaging more than $12,000 for the reception and $5,000 for the engagement ring, the biggest-ticket items in their breakdown of an average $27,000 wedding (not including the honeymoon) in 2011.
But there's plenty to guide and support the budget-wary who go for the current rustic trend with a flowers-in-a-mason-jar look or a Sunday brunch with a Bloody Mary bar and a jazz band, Winikka says.
TheKnot's research finds that more than 75% of couples are either paying for the wedding or contributing - along with their parents, grandparents and extended family.
The industry is well aware of the cost-conscious bride, says Rita Vinieris, designer for Rivini which made Nesbitt's gown. Rivini's primary client is the "aspiring bride in the $4,500 to $10,000 range."
But, Vinieris says, every major company, including hers, has a "diffusion line - a lower price point with a high-style sensibility." Her Alyne line gowns sell for $1,500 to $4,000. Vera Wang's "White" line sells at mass market David's Bridal for under $1,400.
Choosing a gown, Vinieris says, is buying "a magical sensation that will set the tone for the day."
Ah, magic. Brides have been groomed for magic ever since they played Disney princess. Once engaged, they're primed for "the irrational exuberance of the wedding market," says Matt Mendelsohn, who has photographed 500 Washington, D.C.-area weddings in 12 years.
Mendelsohn wants to reach through the crystal and lace onslaught and tell them, "Simplify! You are planning a celebration of love, not the Academy Awards."
Are you sure? asks says Pam Danziger of Unity Marketing, which tracks the luxury market. "For some, extravagant weddings have become a true status symbol with people competing with their friends and their families to put on the most lavish show," Danziger says.
At a time when the median U.S. income is around $45,000, no one should be spending $27,000 on a event they imagine will be the social event of the year, Danziger says.
Many brides are trying to rein in the extras and refocus on what matters most to them - the food, the music and a circle of guests who mean the most to them, says Sheryl Evertson of the Saratoga Event Group in Atlanta.
She manages weddings at four venues in the Atlanta area, from a formal pavilion to historic homes. Their average wedding now runs $18,000 to $26,000, "whereas, I used to get $46,000 without batting an eye."
"But I'm happy to see them and help them stay in budget, no matter what. I say, 'Let's look at where we can cut. Wouldn't it be better to have something smaller?' I don't want to stress people out," Evertson says.
Couples are meeting the challenge by cutting the reception guest list to save on food and liquor costs and going with seasonal décor. Evertson redid many of the props in "rustic luxe look" for those who want burlap linens instead of brocade. ("Here we are in the big city, and they want to look like they're at a barn in Connecticut," she quips.)
Economy moves such as cocktails-and-buffet receptions have the added advantage of cutting the drama on seating charts in the era of divorce and blended families, Evertson says.
Still, all agree wedding budgets defy dollars and cents.
"If it were up to us, we would have a taco truck and a DJ," jokes Daphne Adato, 29, news director at a Minneapolis radio station, getting ready for her mid-August wedding in San Diego with thrift in mind.
Friends and family are doing the invitations, simple seasonal sunflower centerpieces, the favors and more. Yet, there's no avoiding the big reception bills that come with a guest list of 200, which includes her big, beloved family of 100.
There won't be post-honeymoon bills, however, because there will be no honeymoon for at least a year, and the bills are already here. They're going into married life burdened with $30,000 in credit debt from his-and-hers student loans, and "never making enough money to live on."
The couple never set "a magic wedding budget number" because, Adato says, her parents are picking up the tab.
The budget number Katy Roland, 31, of Atlanta, had in mind, $15,000 for a mid-August wedding on the rooftop of the Peachtree Club, was blown away almost immediately - by her parents.
Every time Roland looked, her mother was adding more guests, at $100 a head, for the reception.
"My parents have lived and taught here for 40 years, and they know everyone. We are at 170 guests now. The original plan was for 100 to 125," says Roland, a new media specialist for a marketing agency.
She also couldn't stop family from adding on "frou frou," such as favors that Roland calls "ridiculous" and her aunt, picking up the tab, calls essential.
Roland says, "It makes my head spin to do the numbers. My parents are both retired, and I hate that they are spending so much. We can't afford the wedding bands we originally picked out. And we'll still come home from the honeymoon to a stack of bills."
They'll be coming home from a Florida condo owned by her fiancé's parents, an ocean away from their original (now unaffordable) choice, Greece.
A wedding breakdown:
Weddings bells sound like a cash register -Ka-ching! The average 2012 wedding (not including a honeymoon) will cost $26,989, up from $26,501 in 2011.
A May 2012 survey of 1,272 Brides magazine and website readers found:
•91% of couples set a budget, but 32% overall, and 40% of those who plan a destination wedding, cross that line.
•72% of couples used savings to pay for their weddings.
•30% use credit cards, and most expect to pay off credit cards within six months of their wedding.
•54% of couples said paying for a wedding would not hamper their plans for "buying a house or a car, starting a family, etc."
•62% of couples say they're contributing or paying entirely for the reception costs, including 36% of couples who expect to pick up the entire tab themselves.
•Couples are almost as likely to have a sit-down plated meal at their reception (42%) as a buffet style meal (41%).