Image: Rebecca Stamilio, second from right, tries on a wedding gown during the "Running of the Brides" at Filene's Basement in New York
Mark Lennihan  /  AP
“Every girl dreams about their wedding day,” says Rebecca Stamilio, who braved the February chill and the crowds at Filene’s Basement’s bridal sale in Manhattan to find a gown. “But at the same time, you’re like, oh my gosh — I could pay off this much of my mortgage.”
updated 5/15/2008 3:36:17 PM ET 2008-05-15T19:36:17

The fairytale weddings that many couples have yearned for are starting to come back down to earth — leveled by everyday problems like house payments and rising gas and food bills.

The wedding industry has long been considered one of most recession-proof. Most brides, grooms and their parents see the “big day” as a once-in-a-lifetime event not to be skimped on. But unlike Cinderella and Prince Charming, who didn’t have to worry about a mortgage on the castle, more couples are finding it hard to swallow the average pricetag of items like wedding cakes (about $500), bridal gowns (around $1,300) and flowers (near $2,000).

“Every girl dreams about their wedding day,” said Rebecca Stamilio, who braved the February chill and the crowds at Filene’s Basement’s bridal sale in Manhattan to find a gown. “But at the same time, you’re like, oh my gosh — I could pay off this much of my mortgage.”

Stamilio, a 27-year-old physics instructor at Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro, N.C., found a long, simple, white gown for $249 that was originally $1,600.

“I just don’t want to be in debt,” she said.

Many other couples apparently share that sentiment and are cutting some corners as they put their weddings together. Wedding trend tracker The Wedding Report Inc. estimates the average cost of a wedding will dip slightly this year to $28,704, compared with $28,732 in 2007.

That runs counter to the trend of the past 15 years, when wedding spending has nearly doubled, according to Conde Nast data. Tammy Elliot, president of the Perfect Wedding Guide wedding planning Web site, noted that the market is growing quickly due to the children of baby boomers.

Spending on the actual ceremony and the rehearsal dinner appear to be up this year, according to The Wedding Report data, while outlays for the reception and rings are declining.

It’s important to note that the data includes inflation, so with food, energy and metals prices on the rise, many couples are really getting less for their dollar. The wholesale price of gold is up more than 30 percent from a year ago, while platinum is up more than 50 percent, and retailers are having to pass these increases on to consumers.

With costs surging, some new wedding trends are sprouting. Liene Stevens, a consultant at the wedding and event planner Blue Orchid Designs, said she’s noticing couples opting for more do-it-yourself wedding items, such as table centerpieces. They’re also planning more brunch and afternoon weddings so they can shell out less for food and alcohol, she said.

Stamilio is accustomed to being frugal; financially independent since the age of 16, she paid for her first car, her first computer and her college tuition. But she’s not the only one keeping track of her receipts (she’s aiming for under $10,000 in total) — bigger spenders are seeking out ways to save money, too.

Erin Robertson and her family are willing to budget as much as $30,000 for her upcoming wedding, but Robertson went bargain shopping with Stamilio at Filene’s Basement for her dress. She ended up with a $730 ivory silk dress, tax included, that was originally $3,500.

Another popular way for newlyweds to save is tweaking or rethinking their honeymoons (an expenditure that is not included in The Wedding Report’s annual spending estimates). Barb Maxwell, who specializes in honeymoon vacations at the travel agency Viking Travel, said requests for European trips have sharply declined over the past several months, and that couples are increasingly choosing packages that include extra benefits and amenities, like free breakfast. The declining dollar, which makes travel abroad more expensive, certainly has had an impact on honeymoon planning.

Portofino, Italy, had been 30-year-old Kate Witten’s ideal honeymoon destination for four years. Witten, a yoga instructor who lives in Atlanta, and her boyfriend chose the Mediterranean fishing village just a few weeks after they started dating. But when they realized a few months ago how expensive it would be with the euro worth about $1.55, they nixed the idea and decided on South Africa instead.

“Who knows how long the euro is going to stay this way?” said Witten. She noted that their two-and-a-half week trip to South Africa will add up to a relatively hefty $8,000, but they will be able to stay at high-end hotels. “We would’ve had to really pick and choose carefully in Europe.”

With brides and grooms looking for ways to pare wedding budgets, retailers and planners are noticing some business shifts.

Anna Podore, a buyer for Filene’s Basement’s wedding dress sale, said moderate-price bridal retailers are not selling quite as many dresses as in the past and, as a result, have more inventory to sell to Filene’s at marked-down prices. Brides in the market for dresses over $3,000 appear resilient to the economic downturn, Podore said, but mid-range dresses — $1,000 to $2,000 — seem to be finding fewer takers.

Brides are also cutting back on extras. Lauren Walling, marketing director of Catalina & Co., a small bridal gown shop in Brooklyn, said that although orders for designs and alterations keep increasing, orders for cleaning and preservation have declined.

“Higher-end venues and vendors are going to have to reposition themselves as things tighten up,” the Perfect Wedding Guide’s Elliot said. And for smaller players in the wedding business, “it’s going to be hard to compete.”

Of course, many couples — some even from middle-class familes — are still paying well over $100,000 for their weddings. And although wedding spending appears to be plateauing right now, most experts expect it to resume its climb.

“Remember, it’s the dream,” Elliot said. “Many will spend on the dream in good times and in bad.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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