Maybe it's that I'm in the thick of planning for my son's Bar Mitzvah. Maybe it's that a good friend is getting married — with two big shindigs, one destination and one at home — in the next few months. Whatever the reason, my mind these days is often occupied with the idea of big celebrations ... but at a reasonable cost.
What do you think a wedding costs these days? As with everything else, the cost has just gone up over the years, and weddings will now run you about $22,000, according to TheKnot.com. And that's just the average. Your tab will likely be higher if you're hosting the event in a more expensive region — New York, for example.
That doesn't mean you need to head for City Hall. Sure, we all have friends who've thrown lavish receptions, hiking up the average with full orchestras, scads of peonies (out of season), and gift bags that compete with Oscar swag. But what do you remember about those weddings, the best man's speech or the flowers?
The fact is, you can spend as much or as little as you want — the idea is to create a memorable occasion that will carry you into a happy marriage. "If a guest can go to a wedding and walk away knowing more about the bride and groom, and feel as if they've stepped into something very personal and learned a story about two people, that's what makes a wedding much more unique," said David Tutera, a celebrity wedding and party planner.
So how do you throw an experience that you and your guests will remember for years to come, while staying within the confines of a budget?
- Do the math. In order to stay within bounds, you have to actually set a budget. Your first priority may be flowers, but you're off to the wrong start if you allocate money to buy them without first determining how much you can spend on the entire occasion, including engagement ring, honeymoon, and everything in between.
Once you've put a cap on spending, evaluate your priorities. "I tell brides and grooms that they shouldn't take a large portion of their budget and use it in one area. That will allow for other areas to fall short," explained Tutera. A budgeting tool, like the one found on TheKnot.com, will help you divvy up the money so all your bases are covered. Don't forget to create a buffer of about 10 percent of the overall budget in case you go over as Tutera predicts 8 out of 10 couples will.
- Consider a destination wedding. It sounds more expensive, but it actually isn't, especially if you choose your location carefully.
"Hotels have incentive to give you a great deal, because their business is built upon guests staying there," explained Carley Roney, co-founder and editor-in-chief of TheKnot.com. "So if you're going to bring them 50 rooms for three nights, they'll want to work with you." Also, many beach hotels and resorts are all-inclusive, meaning meals and drinks are included in the price of your stay. But be wary of the wedding packages offered — they may come across as a great deal, but many services are ala carte.
- Throw your weight around. Vendors want your business, so there's no harm in trying to strike a bargain. In fact, not negotiating is downright silly. When buying your dress, it's always a good idea to shop around — most bridal stores can order any dress, so if you have a picture of what you want, bring it to a couple shops and compare prices.
Once you've decided, then offer to purchase the bridesmaid dresses from the same store — for a discounted price. By the same token, you can ask the caterer if they'll throw in linens, or any other services not already covered, for free or at least at a discount. These little things can really start to add up fast.
- Get creative. People tend to put so much emphasis on proper wedding etiquette, forgetting that this is their day. I'm definitely not suggesting you skip the thank-you cards, but it's OK to stray from the norm in other areas.
"The uncomfortable issue that surrounds people with weddings is that they are always concerned with doing the right thing. As guests, we go to these weddings, go for cocktails, sit for dinner, then get up and dance — we all become robots. If you break that formula, you're actually providing something that is really unique," said Tutera. You can save big by skipping the sit down dinner in favor of an extended cocktail party with passed hors d'oeuvres, for instance.
- Make some cuts. Rather than trimming the people you want at your happy occasion, think about trimming say, two courses from your five-course meal. Then get rid of the fully stocked bar and offer a signature cocktail instead says Roney. "Have a fabulous cosmopolitan or vodka bar, but don't have every single top-shelf liquor. This keeps costs down because you'll have less open bottles, and you pay for every bottle that's opened."
- Let the experts be experts. Your job with vendors is to be upfront and firm about your budget; their job is to stay within it. Go into meetings with a clear idea of how much you can spend, and ask what they can do in that price range. If they're good, they'll be able to offer lots of suggestions: florists can substitute flowers that are in season, but still offer the same color scheme and feel; the bakery can create a small version of your dream cake, and then a similar sheet cake to serve; and wedding invitations can be done without the fanciest paper or designs.
"You don't need to be embarrassed about having a budget," said Roney. "Everyone should have one, and people will respect you more for having one."
— With reporting by Arielle McGowen
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .