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Shortly after I got engaged in November 1995, a co-worker chuckled: "You'll have it easy. You're the groom. All you have to do is show up at your wedding with your hair combed."

Yeah--and my wallet open. People like my bride Karen and me (and most especially, people like our parents) kissed $35 billion good-bye at weddings last year. That's an average of about $16,000 per blessed event, including simple city hall ceremonies. It's amazing how quickly costs can get out of hand. Even before Karen and I had set a date, for example, I was in hock to my 401(k) retirement plan (I refuse to divulge by how much) to buy the ring. And within hours of the engagement announcement, our moms were combing our family trees in search of long-lost cousins to add to our 195-person guest list (reception cost: $55 a head) and plotting what kind of special effects we should have on our professionally filmed wedding video ($1,100). It is a challenge--to say the least--to have the once-in-a-lifetime celebration everyone wants and at the same time to hold the line on expenses.

But it's not impossible. I figure our clan did pretty well: All told, Karen and I and our parents plunked down about $17,000 on our September 1996 nuptials--not bad for suburban New York, since prices on both coasts can run as much as 50% higher than the $16,000 norm. Still, as I learned reporting this story, we could have spent far less without spoiling a thing. I am convinced that whether you are tying the knot yourself or marrying off your offspring, you can save 25% on your wedding without any of your guests noticing. The main thing is to target the 10 wedding-related items that figure to dent your wallet the most.

--The rock. Compromise on a diamond's clarity (how flawless the stone is) but not on its cut (how it is shaped and polished). "Cut, not clarity, is what makes a diamond sparkle," says Guy Spaulding, a gemologist at Kay Cameron Fine Jewelry in Sayville, N.Y., who clued me in. For example, a one-carat white diamond with the highest cut grade (1A) and the highest clarity (flawless) retails for a minimum of $20,000. A diamond of the same size, color and cut but lower clarity (SI2) looks identical to the naked eye but sells for just $6,000 or so.

--The garb. The typical wedding gown plus accessories costs $1,335, according to Bridal Bargains by Denise and Alan Fields (Windsor Peak, $11.95). We cut 47% off that figure by following two simple rules:

--Ask recently wed friends for recommendations on a bridal shop with reasonable prices. Karen chose the Bridal Bazaar, a small Sayville store where she found a simple white satin dress she loved for about $550, plus $75 for alterations. If you're not satisfied with the prices in your area, try mail order: Discount Bridal Service in Baltimore (800-874-8794) offers 20% to 40% discounts on dresses made by more than 100 manufacturers.

--Slash spending on accessories, which typically increase the cost of a gown by 34%. Karen cut the cost of her veil from $140 to $40 by asking her mother to make one, borrowed a slip from my sister, decided against gloves and found white satin shoes for just $40 at a local store.

--The invites. We spent $150 on invitations--$50 less than the national average--primarily because we chose thermography rather than classic engraving. The thermographic process brushes a resinous substance over freshly inked material, creating raised letters when the print dries. Result: invitations that look and feel engraved at two-thirds the cost. We could have saved even more if we'd patronized a mail-order source like Rexcraft (800-635-4653), whose invitations cost as little as $22 per 100.

--The ceremony. If you know where you want to wed, as Karen and I did (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in her hometown of Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y., which billed us $175 for music, plus a $200 "contribution"), you don't have much bargaining room. But if you're more flexible, be sure to shop the rates at several places of worship or civic sites in nearby towns. Many cities rent out parks or gardens for less than $100; call local town halls or bureaus of tourism for details.

--The blossoms. We spent $1,400 on flowers, significantly more than the national average of $800, mostly because of our large 15-person bridal party. But we did discover a few ways to save:

--Stick to in-season blooms. For bridesmaids' bouquets, we passed on tulips (cost: about $3 a stem in autumn, vs. $1 in spring) in favor of simple clutches of lilies (about $15 a bunch year round).

--Don't get flowery at your ceremony site. Most guests won't be able to see the flowers too well to begin with and, as Sue Winner, an Atlanta bridal consultant, points out, "They will be there for less than an hour anyway." Florists recommend pots of large, relatively inexpensive flowers such as gladiolus (at $1.50 a stem) and football chrysanthemums ($3).

--Consider letting your reception flowers double as party favors. We urged our guests to take home the centerpieces of peach roses in crystal vases, saving the $300 or so we otherwise would have spent on trinkets.

--The wheels. Here's where we got torched--mainly because of the unusually long five-hour lag between our noon wedding Mass (the only time the church was available) and our 6 p.m. reception. We paid a whopping $900 for the entire wedding party to tool around in two stretch limos for five hours, taking photos along the way, vs. the $450 we would have paid if the reception had begun right after the ceremony. We would have saved even more if we'd chosen a luxury car like a Cadillac DeVille (about $75 a day) over a limo (about $60 to $150 an hour for a minimum of three hours).

--The snaps. We spent just about the national average of $1,500 on still photography for the entire day, including albums for ourselves and our parents. To cut as much as 50% off that figure, consider having a photographer shoot only the ceremony and formal pictures at the wedding site. For photos of the reception, you could place baskets of disposable cameras (about $11 each) on the tables and let your guests click away.

--The video. The best advice is simply to pass on a wedding video. But if your heart is set on reliving the day with full sound and motion, shop around. Prices range from $800 to $3,000. Hire one camera, not two; you're filming a wedding, not Apocalypse Now. And say no to heavy editing, which not only runs up costs but can make the final product look cheesier than a Wisconsin dairy. We failed to take that last piece of advice and wound up paying $1,100 for tapes that included "special music" (Kenny G dubbed over scenes of our cocktail party) and "special effects" (shots that looked as though they were taken from the monster's point of view in The Fly).

--The reception. This, of course, is where you will spend the bulk of your money--$8,400, on average, for a 200-guest wedding. But it's also where efforts at saving will pay off the most. For example:

--Time it smart. Most of the world wants to get married on a firefly-filled summer Saturday evening. If you're willing to hold the reception on a Sunday, a weekday, an afternoon or an off month, you'll be able to haggle as much as 20% off the price. Because we were inviting lots of out-of-towners, I felt we had no choice but to hold our reception on a Saturday evening. To my mother-in-law's everlasting dismay, that increased our bill by 10%, to $10,725.

--Consider a site that doesn't have in-house catering, such as a historic home. You'll typically save by getting separate bids for food, beverages and tables. We didn't do this, because competition among the many banquet halls on Long Island tends to keep catering prices to a reasonable $50 to $100 a guest. We picked a $55-a-head package at the East Wind Estate, a catering hall in Wading River, N.Y.

--Cut the hard liquor. If you limit the bar to beer, wine and champagne, you can lower your catering tab by as much as $10 a guest.

--Slice your cake budget (typically $2 to $3 a guest) 10% to 15% by telling your baker and caterer you want to serve the entire cake. Otherwise, they usually assume you want to save and freeze the top tier for your first anniversary. Unless you truly relish the thought of peeling tinfoil off year-old icing, dispense with this tradition.

--The tunes. Opt for a good disk jockey instead of a band, as we did. DJs (average price: $300 to $1,000) cost less than bands ($1,000 to $2,000), eat less and take fewer breaks. And good DJs draw from a wide repertory of musical styles, so they can please everyone at least some of the time. Ours was a mild-mannered Islip, N.Y. man named Robert Pandolfo, who morphs into sequined funkmaster "Bobby Bear" at night. He was worth every penny of the $650 we paid him. He let Karen and me request all of our favorite romantic songs and silly dances in advance and played everything from Benny Goodman's rendition of "In the Mood" to James Brown's "Sex Machine." We knew the wedding was a hit when my 81-year-old grandmother said approvingly: "It was just like a floor show in the Catskills."