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Love is priceless; weddings cost
More money, more time planning, more weddings than ever.
June 2, 2003: 10:14 AM EDT
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money Staff Writer

New York (CNN/Money) - So, you're getting hitched? You've got plenty of company. Some 2.3 million couples will exchange vows this year.

They'll be plenty of variety, from lavish, celebrity-studded affairs to intimate family gatherings. But there are similarities, too.

Want to know how unique (or common) your big day will be? Read on.

What they cost

Love may be priceless. Weddings aren't. These days, an average wedding runs $22,360, according to Conde Nast Bridal Infobank. Though the final tab will vary widely depending on where and how you say, "I do."

If you want a bargain, for example, head down south, where weddings average a relatively inexpensive $18,624.

On the other end of the spectrum: New York City. This year, a typical ceremony in the Big Apple averages $33,424. As a result, many urban brides and grooms are finding clever methods to trim costs.

Consider Alicia Barnes, 31, whose Manhattan wedding will be held this June. After her fiancť, Olivier Saba, 33, popped the question, Barnes began to network, asking friends for suggestions of wedding locations and references for caterers, dress makers and other vendors who wouldn't charge a bundle.

Half joking, she adds in a Virginia accent that hasn't fully lost its lilt, "I was tempted to elope, but I'm from the South. My mother would have died if I didn't have a wedding."

So Barnes employed a multi-pronged strategy to keep bills in check. Still, she acknowledges, she knew her wedding would run "somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000."

Instead of a small army of bridal attendants, she's chosen just two bridesmaids. (Average cost of bridesmaids dresses -- assumes five of them -- according to the Conde Nast Infobank: $735.)

A dressmaker is creating a wedding gown for far less than what she would have paid at an upscale Madison Avenue bridal boutique. (Average cost of a wedding dress: $799.)

To find out how much flowers cost, she went to New York's flower district, where the wholesalers ply their buds. That information helped her bargain down her florist. (Average cost of flowers: $967.)

Instead of a sit-down dinner with lots of waiters, she's serving from a single buffet station. (Average cost of reception: $7,360.)

She won't scrimp on the cake, though. She'll have a gorgeous four-tiered one from Cheryl Kleinman bakery in Brooklyn that's adorned with white rolled fondant and Gerbera daisies.

"You have to decide what's important to you," said Barnes, who also insisted on a traditional, religious ceremony. "If I were younger, my wedding would have been more of a production."

Who's paying the tab

No matter what your wedding costs, you may be surprised (or disheartened) to discover that it's no longer tradition for the bride's family to foot the entire bill. In fact, only 27 percent of weddings are paid solely by the bride's parents. That's just as many weddings that are paid for by the bride and groom alone.

As the cost of wedding ceremonies climbs, many families are concerned about protecting their investment. Enter wedding insurance. Touted as a way to protect yourself in case of most mishaps (e.g. cancellations due to hurricanes are covered but changes of hearts are not), the insurance may or may not be worth the cost.

If you're trying to protect against losses due to theft, fire or other mishaps, wedding insurance is probably a waste. That's because your homeowner's, condo/co-op or renter's insurance already cover such losses.

The engagement that wouldn't die

These days, couples are spending more time than ever getting to the altar -- on average, 16 months -- the gestation period of a Javan rhinoceros.

"People are very specific about what they want," notes Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Bride's Magazine. "Rather than giving up what they want, couples are saving to have 'X,' whatever 'X' is for them."

There are several reasons for the shift.

For one thing, many couples are older. First-time brides now average age 27, and grooms 29. Because they're more set in their ways -- and have worked longer -- they have the cash to call the shots. Instead of immediately heading to a country club to get hitched, for example, they may invite guests to their favorite ski resort for a ceremony in the snow. That's made weddings far more personalized than ever, said Bratten.

Many find that it may help to hire a wedding planner, especially if far-flung relatives aren't around to help pitch in. If that's an option you're considering, decide what's most important to you -- and settle your budget -- before you hire a pro, says Bratten.

"You're in charge but a planner can work for you in a variety of different ways," Bratten adds. "You can hire someone for the [wedding] day to make sure everything runs smoothly. Some people hire planners from the minute they get engaged. Others hire someone on a project-by-project basis, to find a site and so on."

Use personal references or contact groups like Association of Bridal Consultants for names of reputable pros who can help.

Ice sculptures vs. marble statues

Flowers are often a must at weddings, and roses still rank the No. 1 bloom of choice. Forget about red roses, however. Most brides stick to soft colors: cream, white, lavender.

That's true for dresses, too. White still beats ecru and other off-white gowns. And bridesmaids' costumes? They continue to run the gamut of colors you'd never wear anywhere else.

As for that first spin on the dance floor with your beloved? If you're looking for unique music, you may need to dig. The most popular first dance tune for couples, regardless of age, remains "At Last" by Etta James, according to the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank.

Our advice? Commonplace can be special, too. So enjoy the music and savor the moment:

At last . . .
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song!
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