When Robin Catesby and her husband Dave were planning their wedding, they made a deliberate choice to make the big day as low-cost as possible.
"He was in culinary school at the time and we knew we'd have big student loan bills after he graduated, so we opted for an almost entirely do-it-yourself wedding and stayed well within our tiny budget," Catesby said.
Dave's sister, on the other hand, went for a huge, fancy wedding with all the trimmings.
"We never heard the exact figures, but it sounded like [his sister's] wedding ran toward the $15-20K mark," said Catesby, currently a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon. "They were very much taken in by all the glitz and foofery."
Catesby's story is typical of many young marrieds these days. Enticed by visions of fairytale celebrations with expensive and lavish settings, many couples are racking up huge debt in the name of the perfect day -- and unlike previous generations, parents are no longer shouldering the burden as much as they once did, so wedding expenses are increasingly being picked up by credit cards.
The result, according to Consolidated Credit Counseling Services (CCCS) founder Howard Dvorkin, is an average wedding debt of $25,000.
"And when you factor in penalties and interest, and if they only make the minimum payment, we're talking debt levels of $100,000 or more over the life of the debt -- that'll take longer to pay off than most marriages last!"
Dvorkin founded CCCS to help consumers deal with crushing debt from various sources and get their financial lives on track. Increasingly, that involves paying off huge credit card debts resulting from lavish weddings.
"The idea of parents paying for the big day just isn't a reality any more," he said. "The culture pushes this idea that women, in particular, should have this one perfect day so much that they'll do anything to get it. I don't think many really realize what running up that kind of debt means."
Abigail G., an educator from Netcong, New Jersey, agrees with Dvorkin's assessment.
"Many little girls dream of their weddings and as the media feeds us all the stories of insanely expensive celebrity bashes, young women -- and some young men as well -- get this idea into their heads that the wedding day has to include a long list of very expensive things," she said.
"Most people don't have the kind of wealth it takes to put on a wedding like we see in movies or on TV shows, and credit cards make it all too easy to purchase the illusion of it -- at a very high price down the line."
TheKnot.com, a site devoted to wedding planning and preparation, frequently conducts surveys of its members to find their primary stresses when it comes to the big day.
In a survey for Bank of America in 2004, 70 percent of TheKnot.com respondents planned to spend $10,000 or more on their wedding, and 15 percent planned to put the costs on their credit cards.
In another survey conducted for American Express in August 2006, TheKnot.com surveyed 500 newlyweds found that 80 percent named "money" as their prime source of stress from the wedding; 14 percent of the respondents admitted to going over the budget limits they'd set for the wedding.
American Express conducted the survey as part of the launch of its credit card co-branded with TheKnot.com, specifically designed to cut costs on wedding-related purchases.
Dvorkin emphasized that much of the problem was cultural.
"Men, we really don't care. Just give us a few beers and we're happy," he joked. "But women get it drilled into them that this is their big day, and that they need to show off their catch to their friends and their family, and their family's friends, and so on."
Interestingly, Dvorkin noted that it's the wives who most often come to use his service, as they tend to be more pragmatic and upfront about dealing with the spiraling debt problem.
"Men tend to stick their heads in the sand and hope everything'll be okay," he said. "The women I've encountered are much more like, 'Hey, we got a problem.'"
Cut the Costs Before Cutting the Cake
Everyone we spoke with for this article said the same thing when asked how to prevent credit card debt from weddings -- stick to your budget and be creative and cheap.
"If you can't afford a $25,000 wedding, don't have one," Dvorkin said. "I've had two weddings myself. I know from experience that you can have a great day without breaking the bank."
CCCS provides a "wedding planner brochure" that details potential costs couples can run into when planning for a wedding, and suggestions to avoid them. The advice includes:
• Start saving immediately. Put aside 15-20% of your combined disposable income into a high-yield savings account, or open a Certificate of Deposit (CD) to get more interest off the money you've already saved, and use that to cover the heaviest wedding costs.
• Be creative. Dvorkin's tips include having weddings in public parks and beaches, or during the morning or afternoon, rather than renting out expensive halls for the evening. Couples can design their own invitations, bake their own wedding cakes, and craft their own floral arrangements and even wedding gowns to save money.
• Keep it simple. Invite your family and your closest friends, but draw the line at your sister's friend's cousin. Set limits on who can be invited and who can't, and stick to them.
Outside the Loop
Stefanie from Lisle, Illinois, is currently planning her wedding to her longtime boyfriend, and was "shocked by the complexity and costs" of everything that came with the wedding day. "Both of us wanted a downtown Chicago wedding," she said.
"After we started seeing the quotes (plates starting at $160.00, plus 20% gratutity, and over 10% for tax), we had to reconsider a Chicago wedding. We could have used our credit cards and we could have gotten a loan but the idea of being in that much unsecured debt for one day was not some thing we wanted. So instead we found a nice place in the suburbs of Chicago."
"Do your research. Get quotes, compare, and interview your vendors," Stefanie said. "Consider carefully what you want to purchase so you are not stuck with $200 of silk flowers or 50 vases you have no intention of using."
There were things Stefanie didn't want to scrimp on, such as the wedding photographer, and as she says, "ultimately it's up to the couple to decide what's important to them."
Anjie K. from Frederick, Maryland, foreswore a traditional expensive wedding in favor of a simple ceremony in front of a fireplace.
"We spent maybe $85 for the day (license, fee, and lunch) and at the end of the day, we were married just as legally as if we'd done the fairytale thing," she said.
"If we had it to do over again, I'd do it the exact same way. It was a beautiful day done our way, and our credit thanked us."