SIOUX RAPIDS, Iowa — It wasn't your typical rehearsal dinner, but it was everything Liz Jones and Josh Dilworth hoped it would be — authentic, casual and relatively cheap.
Guests by the dozens gathered in a barn on the Jones family farm for a simple picnic-style meal. Afterward, they played croquet, horseshoes and badminton, shadowed by towering grain silos and within earshot of lowing cattle.
When the sun set, they returned to the barn for an "open mic" that included guitar-playing, poems and the bride's 5-year-old nephew singing "You Are My Sunshine."
Her father also offered a little advice to the guests, many of them East Coast city folk from the groom's side of the family.
"If you're watching out here in the cornfield tonight and it gets a little later, you'll see some guys come out of there and ask, 'Is this heaven?" Curt Jones said, grinning. "And you say, 'No, it's Iowa."'
Turns out, it was heaven, indeed, for a young couple looking to save some cash.
More bang for the buck
They might have have opted for a wedding in Austin, Texas, where Jones attends graduate school and Dilworth works in public relations. But while they'd been saving for a few years — with a working budget of $10,000 — they knew they'd get more for their money in northwestern Iowa, where she'd always enjoyed taking friends after she'd left home for college.
"It also meant we could say to people, 'If you can get here, it'll be cheap for you while you're here,"' Jones said.
She and Dilworth, both 28, married on a recent Sunday morning outside a state park lodge on the shores of West Okoboji Lake, just north of the farm. Renting the lodge for the entire day cost all of $200. Brunch for 130 guests, done by a local resident who caters on the side, was $11 a head.
Looking for ways to save on wedding expenses is an increasingly common scenario for young couples, faced with hefty student loans, credit card debt, a tough job market and ever-increasing living expenses. Many couples are choosing lower-cost locations, as Jones and Dilworth did, or planning smaller "destination" weddings away from home for family and their closest friends.
Teddy Lenderman, an author and longtime wedding consultant in Terre Haute, Ind., has noted the growing concerns about wedding costs among her clients.
"We just work at compromising and spending those wedding bucks where we can get the most impact," said Lenderman, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Perfect Wedding."
The average cost of a wedding is just under $29,000, according to the Wedding Report Inc., which tracks trends in the industry.
But these days, Lenderman says, couples are more likely to haggle with wedding vendors. Still others are buying wedding supplies from online discount merchants and other wholesalers. And couples are doing a lot more of the work themselves, with the help of family members and friends.
The whole notion of planning a low-cost wedding can be stressful. Beth Hoops, a 23-year-old recent college graduate in St. Louis, says even thinking about it causes her "panic attacks."
"For me, the economy might have a devastating effect on the type of wedding I have," said Hoops, who's already worried about paying off $50,000 in student loans. She and her 27-year-old fiance Steve, who works for the federal government, are considering flying off for a smaller wedding.
"I know I can't afford a blowout here at home, and I don't want to be embarrassed," Hoops said. "According to society standards, weddings are supposed to be glamorous and expensive."
But others say it doesn't have to be that way.
Susan von Seggern, a bride from Los Angeles who got married in July at her parents' home in suburban Rochester, N.Y., says she and her husband John had to cut costs because they are starting an organic gardening business together.
Their parents helped pay for the wedding. But they also found ways to save, including getting help from friends who did the wedding photography and her makeup and helped design her dress — all for free or at cost, as a wedding gift.
"I feel great about it. I saved money and involved the people I love in a meaningful way," von Seggern says. "And really, when you are the bride and getting ready to walk down the aisle, you are so preoccupied you barely notice the details around you."
Thinking outside the boxThere's also a chance to get creative. Rather than having the caterer do dessert, the von Seggerns ordered cookies and brownies from the bakery at a Wegmans supermarket, which she calls "a Rochester legend."
In Iowa, Jones and Dilworth also decided to forgo the wedding cake.
Instead, they arranged for Kate Shaw, a resident of the nearby town of Spirit Lake, to arrive in her 1967 vintage Ford ice cream truck to offer frozen treats to the couple's gleeful guests. That cost $200.
After that, the wedding-goers changed clothes so they could swim and play more games, Wiffle ball included.
"It's very much a find-your-own adventure wedding," said Dilworth, who now shares the last name Jones-Dilworth with his wife. "We went into it knowing we didn't have a lot of money to spend, but it came out even better than we thought."
There were friends and family who were unable to travel to relatively remote Iowa, some because of the high cost of airfare. But once there, Zach Dilworth, the groom's 22-year-old brother, said he needed only "about 40 bucks" for the entire weekend.
"They've shown me that a wedding doesn't really have to be expensive — and it's still all there," he said. "That's what Josh and Liz are about — using what you have. They're very resourceful."
Among other things, the couple decided to e-mail their wedding invitations instead of mailing paper ones. They designed and printed their own wedding programs and had centerpieces that consisted of simple table runners, small Texas cacti and old photos of themselves and their loved ones.
Altogether, they and their parents spent about $9,300 on the wedding weekend, including the dress and tux, several meals for guests, and compostable forks, plates and napkins, made partly from corn. That's still a lot of money, they say — but thousands less than many of their friends' weddings.
And even with a smaller price tag, their guests still raved.
"I can't imagine anything better than this," Liz's uncle, Sohrab Gandomi, said as he gave the groom a hug at the reception. "It's just wonderful."