The Blowout
This young Texas couple was determined to stage the wedding of their dreams. Six months later, they were $30,000 in debt and wondering if they'd gone too far.
By Jean Chatzky

(MONEY Magazine) – When Tina Stansel and Doug Koch got engaged in May 2004, the Houston pair didn't agree on much about their upcoming wedding. She wanted a church. He wanted a beach. She wanted tuxes and tails. He preferred a casual event. The one thing they did agree on: They were going to do this only once, so they were going to do it right. "Five years from now we didn't want to look back with regret," says Doug. "We didn't want to think, 'Gosh, we should have gone with the trumpet player because that's what we really wanted.'"

If the Koches look back with regrets, it won't be about the lack of a trumpet player. Their wedding turned out to be as memorable as the couple had planned, albeit a lot more stressful and a whole lot more expensive. By the time they walked down the aisle in March, Tina and Doug had strained relations with her parents, argued with each other and suffered through an 11th-hour change in venue. They'd also charged more than $30,000 on their credit cards to pay for the event, adding mightily to the $120,000 in school and car loans they were already carrying.

Tina and Doug are certainly not the first couple to discover that a wedding, at an average cost of more than $26,000 today, is a major financial commitment, as well as an emotional milestone. Whether the bride and groom foot the bill, or their parents pick up the tab, or the whole family contributes, the burden is heavy (see the box below). Parents raid their retirement accounts and take out home-equity lines of credit. Some 40% of brides and grooms lean on plastic. And no one seems to consider all the other ways they might put the money to good use--say, by paying down debt or saving for the future. (Consider that $26,000 invested at 6% annually will grow to nearly $150,000 over 30 years.)

Whether you're planning a wedding, a bar mitzvah or a 25th anniversary party, "you need to make a conscious choice about whether it's more important to you to spend tens of thousands on the event or save the money for some future financial need," says Ross Levin, a financial planner in Edina, Minn. "There isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer, but the decision ought to be intentional."

Once you've considered those priorities, the key to keeping the event costs in line is to set a budget and stick with it, says Alan Fields, co-author of Bridal Bargains. But while Tina and Doug tried to do just that, it still wasn't enough to stop the tempers, the tears and, most of all, the money from spiraling out of control.


The $30,000 Wedding

Doug, 25, a master plumber with his own business, and Tina, 28, a litigator, began dating three years ago, broke up and then reconciled on New Year's Eve 2004. Doug's plea to take it slow didn't last long. Within two weeks, he'd asked Tina to stop seeing other people. Five months later, he proposed.

Planning for the wedding began in earnest soon after, with Tina taking charge and Doug content to weigh in as asked. Her first step was to figure out a budget, using a calculator on You plug in how much you can spend and the number of guests, and the site generates a suggested allocation for flowers, a gown and other details. The $20,000 budget came with advice like "Think pasta." The $40,000 budget suggested, "Look to top designers for your gown" and "Offer an open bar for cocktails, then finish the evening with white wine, red wine and champagne!" Tina settled on something in between: a $30,000 budget that allotted $2,000 for a gown and $45 a head for dinner.

Coming up with the money was a challenge. Although Tina and Doug earned nearly $200,000 combined, they also had huge debts. Tina had $60,000 in law school loans and another $10,000 on credit cards. They owed $60,000 on their cars. And they'd recently bought a $225,000 house together, with a $210,000 mortgage. They agreed to finance most of the wedding on plastic. Says Tina: "We figured we'd charge as we went, then try to pay the bills off as quickly as possible."

Doug's parents offered to pay for the flowers and rehearsal dinner. Her parents, though, didn't offer any help, and Tina was reluctant to ask. Her mom and dad had put her through college with no loans and had substantial medical bills. Then there was the elephant in the room: Tina outearns her father, a meter-measurement technician at a chemical company. So instead of asking them for a specific amount, she said over lunch, "Anything you can give us would be greatly appreciated. But I don't want you to feel obligated to pay for anything."

Silence. Finally her father asked: "Just how much is this wedding costing?"

"About $30,000," Tina answered.

More stunned silence. Tina tried to explain how expensive even the little things can be. Her dad stared at his plate. Her mom didn't say anything either. Says Tina: "I never brought it up again."


The $38,000 Wedding

Throwing a wedding is about more than the wedding itself. There are other, related events to pay for: an engagement party, bridal showers, bachelor and bachelorette parties, the rehearsal dinner. Tina considered hiring a wedding planner to help. But the cost--typically 10% to 15% of the event total--stopped her.

Tina started by checking out venues online. Her first choice was The Corinthian, an upscale catering facility in Houston's historic district. But with a $9,500 rental fee and a $150-per-person charge, the price would've eaten up her entire budget. Another facility, Ashton Gardens, had many of the same features (including an all-glass chapel set in a 20-acre forest that was outdoorsy enough for Doug) and cost half as much. The hitch: It was still under construction. But the work was scheduled to be completed in December 2004, and the wedding was set for March 2005. Tina put $2,640 down as a deposit.

Then the planning (and spending) kicked into high gear. Tina landed some deals. The $600 deejay she chose cost much less than the $1,800 her budget allotted for a band. And she got her dress at a deep discount ($1,100) because the bridal shop was discontinuing that line. But the photographers, at more than $4,000, cost twice as much as she had expected. The videographer was another $2,000.

As the money flowed through Tina's fingers, Doug started to worry. Although business was booming, his expenses were up. He had to buy two trucks and put another plumber on payroll. Worst of all, Tina had forgotten to add tax and tip to the cost of food and drink for the reception, which raised the total price by 28%. The $30,000 wedding quickly turned into a $38,000 wedding. "I started to think maybe we'd gone too far," Tina admits.

As the holidays neared, Tina and Doug were feeling squeezed, and tempers flared. They started griping at each other over even tiny expenses: $3 on soda or $7 on lunch was enough to spark a fight.

Then, out of the blue, her father invited them to dinner. After the meal, he pulled an envelope from his pocket. "We want to help make the wedding beautiful," he said. Tina opened the envelope and her heart stopped. It was a check for $10,000. "It's too much," she said. "We want you to have it," her father answered. "We want to be part of your special day."


The $1,500 Rescue

Planning a wedding for 200 was not the only project on Tina's agenda. Last October, in the midst of the wedding preparations, she joined a new law firm and began decorating their new house. But while she was getting everything done, she realized she might not be doing it all well. Every night she'd go home from work exhausted yet needing to tackle a long list of tasks for the wedding. Doug told her bluntly, "You need help."

So, armed with a recommendation from a colleague, Tina called wedding planner Joyce Arrington Smith, who typically charged $3,000 for similar events. With much of the planning already done, she agreed to half that fee.

There are, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants, 92 different kinds of vendors that can be hired for a wedding, from bartenders to septic tank pumpers. The value in hiring planners is that they've done the homework on all of those services. And because planners, unlike brides, are repeat customers, they merit favors: A photographer might throw in a few extra prints, a caterer might upgrade from cheddar to Brie.

Then too, some planners can actually save you money. Smith slashed away at the budget--for example, buying invitations at 50% off and eliminating passed hors d'oeuvres at $8 per person in favor of a cheese display for $375, or less than $2 per person. She more than covered her own commission and brought the total cost of the wedding down to $34,000.

Then, when a crisis erupted, Smith stepped in and saved the day. Tina had been regularly checking in with the manager at Ashton Gardens, which was falling behind its construction schedule. A month before the wedding, the manager canceled her bridal portrait session because the carpet wasn't laid yet. Two days later, she was told the kitchen wasn't in decent enough shape for a tasting. Tina, fearing her wedding would take place at a construction site, got the manager to refund her deposit.

Tina then called Smith, crying uncontrollably. Smith let her vent, then got to work. Within hours she'd secured a church to replace the chapel at Ashton Gardens. A new, similarly priced venue for the reception soon followed: the ballroom at the Downtown Aquarium, with a huge dance floor and spectacular views. "Without Joyce's help," says Tina, "we might have just given up and eloped."


A $41,000 Affair to Remember

As Tina spent her way to the wedding, she strategically lumped her expenses on three rewards cards with big credit limits: American Express, Discover and Southwest Airlines. By the time the bachelorette party rolled around, she had enough free miles to pay most of the air fare for a bridesmaids' trip to Las Vegas. The girls dined at the luxury Venetian hotel, took in a show and danced until the early hours. As she thought about how many times she'd pulled out her wallet, Tina said, "I have never made so much money and felt so poor in my whole life."

Then before they knew it, the big day arrived. Doug and his ushers trickled into the church around 4 p.m. At 6 p.m., the trumpeter and organist began the first few notes of "Trumpet Voluntary," and Tina took her father's arm for the processional.

For all the months of planning, worrying and spending that were poured into the wedding, the event itself flew by for Tina and Doug. A few details stand out: Tina will always remember the way Doug looked as they said their vows and how she felt dancing with her dad. Doug will recall seeing Tina in her dress for the first time and seeing the diver in the Aquarium's tank holding a sign from Tina that read DOUGLAS, I LOVE YOU.

At a final tab of $41,000 (including the honeymoon), they're not likely to forget the expense anytime soon either. And they're not done spending yet. There are the photos to buy, the gown to preserve--the interest alone on the $27,500 that remains on their credit cards will cost them $3,000 a year. Doug and Tina have devised a strict budget to help pay off the wedding by their first anniversary. But even if they fall short of that goal, they say they have no regrets. "I don't care if the wedding cost $100,000," says Doug. "It was worth every penny."