THE $60,000 WEDDING Striving for both formality and fun, people are spending that much and more without really trying, as this couple's story shows.
(MONEY Magazine) – From high atop San Francisco's fashionable Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel comes the midnight cry of the wedding party: ''Bring on the tequila poppers, waiter! We want tequila poppers!'' It was the night before the Big Day, and 12 pals were helping Andrea Debo and Mark O'Brien prove they knew the meaning of ''let's boogie till we drop.'' The rehearsal dinner and the bachelor party were merely memories now; all that stood between the revelers and the church was a lesson in the art of 80-proof Mexican elbow bending. ''Pour the 7 Up to the rim,'' instructed the willowy 28-year-old bride-to- be. ''Put your left hand over the glass. Now bang the drink on the table so the mixture fizzes.'' Pop! ''Lean back, open wide and down the hatch!'' Whoa! All eyes were on Andrea as the tequila curled her toes. Then everybody followed her example, including Mark, 30, no novice in the liquid arts. He inhaled his popper, gave his high-spirited fiancee a big hug and howled, ''I'm a lucky guy!'' The happy couple deserved the libation and the laughter. They were graduating from a six-month course in the cost of getting married by spending more than $30,000 for one glorious weekend. That was three times more than Mark had guesstimated on the day of their engagement and nearly twice what he paid for his bride's wedding present: a new Honda Accord. Counting Andrea's dazzling $25,000 diamond ring, a $3,000 prenuptial visit to Australia and the $2,000 honeymoon, the soon-to-be-newlyweds had undertaken a $60,000 wedding -- and they were paying for it entirely out of their own savings. Not that their contribution to the $20-billion-a-year wedding industry was the result of reckless abandon. They knew the value of a dollar and worked hard to save money for the extravaganza. Like many other couples paying for their own nuptials, though, they simply let their generous instincts guide them -- right over the edge. They learned that incidentals -- from the $120 blood tests to the $700 invitations -- add up. The tequila poppers? A mere $227.90 plus tip, thank you very much. Even so, the groom looked relieved when his best man reached for the bar bill and said, ''Don't worry, Mark. We'll pay.'' Traditionally, the bride's family assumed the entire cost of ''giving away'' their daughter. Now that ''Daddy's little girl'' is often a working woman pushing 30, however, many parents no longer feel obligated to pick up the tab. & Of the 2.4 million couples who will get married this year in the United States, at least half will pay a portion of the expenses. And with big weddings (150 or more guests) back in style, the day's bills can easily equal the 20% down payment on a $150,000 house. According to industry experts, the average 200-guest wedding costs $15,000 to $30,000. ''I figured 50 people and two bridesmaids,'' said Andrea as she contemplated the scheduled arrival of their 17 attendants, two limousines and 175 thirsty guests. ''The whole thing snowballed,'' says Mark. ''It's overwhelming when you think of spending this kind of money for one day. But if you haven't done it before, how can you know how much it's going to cost?'' (For tips on keeping your wedding costs under control, see page 126.) The lovebirds met at 31,000 feet over Ireland, flying from London to New York on TWA Flight 701. It was spring 1989, and Andrea was an international flight service manager (translation: head stew) living in New York City, a live wire with Bette Davis eyes and a sexy laugh. Mark was a hyperdynamic graduate student in physiology at the University of California at Berkeley. A hunky middle-distance runner who had competed in major track and field events, Mark had a reputation among his friends as a serious scientist during the day and something of a party animal after hours. Andrea remembers being swept away by her Aussie's ''adorable little accent'' and his obvious vitality and ambition: ''I knew I was going to marry him after the first cocktail.'' Mark had other plans. ''I wasn't prepared for marriage,'' he recalled. ''I was going to continue my studies, graduate and play for a couple of years.'' But as he got to know Andrea, he changed his mind. As he explained: ''The right person came along.'' For a few months, the blossoming bicoastal romance was a telephonic affair. It got so intense that an operator interrupted one conversation to warn Mark that the phone company suspected unauthorized calls were being billed to his number -- he'd run up nearly $1,000 in long-distance charges that month. ''Not to worry,'' he said. ''I've just changed my dating habits.'' By late summer, Mark and Andrea got serious. During a camping trip to the Sierra Nevada, the pair climbed to the top of the highest peak in Squaw Valley, 9,050-foot Granite Chief. When they returned to sea level, they were engaged. They decided to hold the wedding six months later, on Feb. 17, a Saturday. Their money began to gush early on, when they visited Crescent Jewelers in San Francisco to pick out a suitable token of their betrothal. Mark expected to select a simple solitaire diamond in a Tiffany setting, like the one his mother wore. Andrea, however, found that style too plain. Then suddenly she was ''jumping over the moon,'' as he put it, at the sight of a two-carat, brilliant-cut diamond surrounded by 16 twinkling baguettes in an 18-karat-gold setting. Realizing what he was in for, the groom-to-be took his defeat graciously. He'd gone in for one sparkler and walked out with 17 on one band. The instant heirloom set him back $25,000. Andrea was impressed. ''Honey,'' she joked, ''I think you better get a loan.'' Clearly, the man from Down Under was no ordinary struggling graduate student. Arriving in the United States in 1985 with $10,000 in his pocket and the prospect of $25,000 in graduate school tuition bills for the coming year, he embarked on a superhuman effort to finance his education. First he started his own company to sell computers to buyers back home via ads in the Sydney Morning Herald. Thanks to favorable exchange rates, Mark's firm could underprice local Australian dealers and still take out a solid profit. Before the competition caught up, he netted as much as $12,000 a month on the operation. At the same time, he taught classes in Berkeley's physical education department during the day and spent his nights at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco in Embarcadero Center as the assistant manager on the graveyard shift (11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.). During summers, he returned to Australia, working as many as three jobs at a time. Augmenting his labor with a lucky stock investment, he had a considerable cushion by the time he met Andrea. Andrea was no sluggard either. After moving west in October 1989 to be with Mark, she commuted coast to coast to her airline job in New York City for several weeks before taking a job as an assistant manager at Casual Corner, a women's apparel chain store. Their combined schedules didn't allow many quiet moments, but they could console themselves knowing they were pulling down more than $100,000 a year. Every cent of this hard-earned cash came in handy when they discovered how much it can cost to get married. First there was the ceremony. Mark wanted a proper Episcopal service, but because they hadn't gotten around to joining a neighborhood parish, no local minister would marry them. They discovered, however, that anyone with a baptismal certificate and a checkbook could be married in Grace Cathedral, the magnificent neo-Gothic edifice on Nob Hill. The price: $2,042. Their reaction: ''Holy Toledo!'' Here's how it added up: The cathedral's relatively cozy Great Choir section was damaged during the October 1989 earthquake, so Mark and Andrea had to take the larger nave, at $1,500. There were fees for the organist ($162), the priest ($150), the assisting verger ($76), the sound engineer ($54) and two mandatory sessions of premarital counseling with the presiding priest ($100). They passed on choristers ($1,000 for 15 men and boys). One last thing: did they want the bells rung for 15 minutes before and after the ceremony? (Maybe.) That'll be $200. (No, thank you.) Next came the guest list. As relative newcomers to San Francisco, Mark and Andrea had friends and relatives scattered across three continents and several states (Andrea grew up in Seattle). And by the merciless dictates of etiquette, you can't invite Aunt Sophie from your mother's side without including Aunt Molly from your father's. The tally of friends mounted in the same way. As the wedding took on a certain size, restraint started to seem pointless. ''Finally,'' said Andrea, ''we said, 'Forget it. If we're going to have all these people, let's have the biggest gala we can.' '' The ultimate count: 250 invitations went out; 190 people said they'd come; and 175 actually showed up. Moreover, the bride and groom arranged to cover some of their guests' hotel bills at the convenient but expensive Mark Hopkins, a block and a half from the cathedral. That added $1,500 to their outlays. The guests, however, weren't the only ones traveling. Mark's parents couldn't make the trip from Sydney, so the groom took his intended home to meet the O'Brien clan. That $3,000 detour wasn't a wedding expenditure per se; still, it was an indispensable part of the event. The trip provided one unexpected benefit -- Andrea found bridesmaids' dresses she loved in a Sydney shop and snapped up six of them for a reasonable $200 apiece. Her gown, however, was no bargain. Perusing a bridal magazine with a practiced eye, she came upon a gorgeous $2,500 Ilissa by Demetrios in satin, loaded with sequins and beads and an appropriate seven-foot cathedral train. She found a bridal shop on Union Street that sold her the right model off the rack, eliminating the customary two-to-three-month wait to have a dress made. Mark, meanwhile, was trying to arrange for a cable car to take the wedding party on the 10-block ride from the church atop Nob Hill down California Street to the reception at the Hyatt, where he still worked as assistant night manager. The catch: the San Francisco Municipal Railway would guarantee to have a car outside the cathedral at a specific time only if he rented one -- at $676 for a minimum of four hours. He passed. With the wedding drawing closer, it was time for the inevitable costly last- minute crises to crop up. One of Andrea's buddies called to say she would be available as an attendant. What was a bride to do? ''I had a backup bridesmaid's dress fitted by the local tailor,'' says Andrea, who felt it was worth the extra $75 to include her tardy pal. One snafu actually saved money. Mark tentatively booked a five-piece band for $1,500, and then promptly misplaced the contract. Two days before the event, he got word that the group had lined up another gig; the booking agent was sending a $500 disk jockey instead. The saving was $1,000, but that didn't change the overall score: Excedrin 10 -- Debo-O'Brien 0. The $1,000 windfall vanished as quickly as it appeared. ''Just when you think it's over, something else comes along,'' said an exasperated Mark. ''You don't think of things like party favors.'' To give the other guests something to take home, Andrea and a girlfriend spent a day stuffing royal blue netting with Jordan almonds and satin roses. The materials cost $200; the labor was free. Members of the wedding party, meanwhile, received various luxury trinkets at a total cost of $1,250. With four days to go, the groom blew a gasket. Andrea came home to their apartment in Berkeley and found him steaming about the relentless rounds of nonstop planning, shopping and spending. He'd had it. ''Poor thing,'' said the bride after he'd escaped to cool off. ''He hates to shop, and he's been doing it every night for months.'' The night before the main event, Mr. and Ms. Stressed-Out were still scrambling. It didn't help that in the midst of a four-year statewide drought, San Francisco had a monsoon. All their friends' flights were delayed, and the couple ended up making nine airport round trips to pick up their frazzled guests. But what the heck. They weren't going to let a little rain daunt them. After all they'd been through, they wouldn't have let a replay of the October quake change their plans. As the weekend began, they were still hemorrhaging cash. They were in so deep it was hard to care. Once the two brothers-in-law, two sisters, four Debo parents and stepparents, five cousins and assorted pals were all settled into the Mark Hopkins, 12 of them dropped by Andrea's room for breakfast, adding another $75 in room-service charges to the bill. Later, the bride stood outside the hotel entrance handing out $5 bills to the wedding party for the half-mile cab ride to the rehearsal dinner. ''You stop at the end of the day,'' said the groom, pondering his wallet, ''and you say, 'Where did that $1,000 go?' '' To provide a break from the weekend's pomp, the rehearsal dinner was held at the decidedly informal Front Room pizza parlor. Even so, the bill stretched like mozzarella to $400. Luckily, the father of the bride absorbed the cost. On the wedding day, it was win some, lose some. The weather was foul. The groom mislaid the marriage license. He also forgot to bring the party favors (he later threw them out). The cathedral powers-that-be decreed that guests could not throw rice. The bride had to dash across the Bay Bridge to pick up the bridesmaids' petticoats at a Richmond bridal shop. The maid of honor's gloves, purchased at the last minute, didn't quite match those of the bridesmaids. And during the ceremony, one of the attendants had to sit down to avoid toppling in a fainting spell. On the other hand, the nave didn't collapse, and the two-year-old flower girl made it all the way down the aisle without adjusting her underwear. Plus the rain stopped as they left the cathedral, and a cable car came rumbling along almost as if Mark had paid for it to appear. Pedestrians cheered as the wedding party ding-donged through the financial district. At the Hyatt, everyone tucked into a $66-dollar-a-plate spread -- $30 more per person than the hotel's cheapest banquet offering. White-gloved waiters served champagne and hors d'oeuvres from silver trays. The wedding cake was a three-tiered marzipan confection ($500). Even at that, the couple could have spent far more. Instead of putting on the Ritz and adding thousands to the bill, they settled for simple floral centerpieces and so-so vino. Not that the small economies dampened the five hours of big moments. The highlight of the evening was the surprise appearance of Mark's family from 7,000 miles away -- on videotape. His parents, along with Great-Aunt Ace, 96, sent best wishes to the newlyweds. Then Mark's mom held up a stuffed bear for the camera and asked, ''Now that you're married, son, is it all right if I give Teddy away?'' The last word, however, was delivered by the married couple's landlady. Being a lecturer at Berkeley, she had a fair idea of what the average student could afford. Raising a glass in honor of the bride and groom, she said, ''Now that I've seen how much you spent on the wedding, I'm going to raise your rent.'' On the phone a few days after the blowout, the groom sounded elated but depleted -- obviously ready for the 10-day honeymoon in the Bahamas. Since his bride now had all the memories she'd hoped for, he considered the wedding a success and the expense worthwhile. At the same time, he wryly contemplated some arresting arithmetic: The 27 hours from rehearsal through reception had cost them nearly $20 a minute. ''I had fun,'' said the groom, weighing his sentiments against his bank balance. ''But not that much fun.''
BOX: WHERE DID THAT $60,000 GO? Andrea Debo and Mark O'Brien learned that getting married these days involves two key phrases: ''I do,'' and ''I pay.'' Here is their breakdown of what they spent:
A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND Engagement ring $25,000
PRELIMINARIES Invitations, postage 800 Blood tests 120 Marriage certificate 35
VOWS & REVELS Reception food and wine 11,500 Wedding gown 2,500 Wedding rings 2,450 Cathedral 2,042 Bridesmaids' dresses 1,275 Flowers 1,000 Photographer 1,000 Music 500 Wedding cake 500 Event coordinator 300 Groom's suit 125
THOSE LITTLE EXTRAS Australia trip 3,000 Honeymoon 2,000 Hotel rooms 1,575 Limos, rental cars 1,450 Wedding party gifts 1,250 Relatives' air fare 1,000 Trousseau 1,000 Party favors 200 TOTAL $60,622