Some sought-after wedding vendors convince brides that it takes a year or more to plan a wedding. After all, don’t all the best venues and suppliers book far in advance? Not necessarily. While they don’t like to advertise it, many hot spots can host several weddings at once, even on prime time Saturday nights.

Shhhh … here’s another secret: If you have a little flexibility and make decisions fast, you can save big bucks on your wedding day.

As Chris Mohr, a longtime wedding minister at Foothills Chapel in Colorado, explains, “People pull off pretty elaborate funerals in just a few days all the time.” Not to be macabre, but weddings aren’t that different — location, ceremony, flowers, music, food …

According to Alan Fields, co-author of “Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget,” the average American wedding costs between $25,000 and $35,000, depending on whether jewelry is included. However, Fields believes averages can be misleading. “A few weddings over $100,000 throw off that figure dramatically,” he says. “The true median is closer to $15,000.” That means half of all weddings cost less than $15,000 and half cost more.

5 ways to cut wedding costs

  1. Negotiate discounts, custom packages.
  2. Winnow the guest list.
  3. Plan simpler events.
  4. Select off-the-rack options.
  5. Be adaptable.

“There are a number of things the wedding industry promotes to puff up its image: that it is recession-proof; that everybody is spending $35,000 on a wedding,” Fields says. “But, we’re seeing a lot more last-minute weddings in the last year.”

1. Negotiate discounts, custom packages

Some wedding vendors, such as reception sites, caterers and disk jockeys, offer discounts for bookings made with little advance notice (one to 10 weeks usually) because they’d rather fill gaps in their schedules than let the slot go fallow. Such discounts can range from 15 percent to 30 percent off advertised rates. “We’re hearing from more and more wedding vendors that they would much rather book a wedding and strike a deal than let the person walk out the door,” Fields says.

While Fields likens counting on last-minute deals to “playing chicken with your wedding budget,” he believes that politely negotiating discounts or custom packages is always a good idea.

Wedding vendors typically work based on set packages with set pricing, which they hope ensures everyone spends a minimum amount. It’s common inside wedding industry circles to hear vendors such as a DJ say things like, “I won’t leave the house for less than $1,000.” But, that’s not always true.

The trick, Fields explains, is to ask for a custom package that better fits your budget. “You have to remember that most wedding vendors view themselves as artists — artistes,” he says. “So, you kind of insult them if you ask, ‘What kinds of discounts do you have?’ You have to make them feel like they are still creating art. By custom designing a package for you, it makes them feel like they are putting a little bit of personal expression into it.”

Vendors most likely to negotiate

  • Reception site managers and caterers.
  • Bakers.
  • Gown shop proprietors.
  • Florists.
  • DJs and bands.
  • Photographers and videographers.

Essentially, wheeling and dealing is easier for vendors who have unused capacity and more flexibility. A baker and support staff, for example, can handle perhaps six cakes in one day, whereas a photographer can shoot only one wedding at a time.

2. Winnow the guest list

Shorter notice typically means fewer guests attend, and the more time families ponder guest lists, the longer the lists get.

Precious Knudsen started planning two weeks before her Aug. 5, 2006, wedding in the Hamptons. Prior to her fiancé’s redeployment to Iraq, she threw together a simple beach wedding and restaurant reception for under $7,000. “The wedding wasn’t going to be big anyhow because we gave people 10 days’ notice,” she says. “We invited 50 people and around 30 to 40 showed up. We saved thousands upon thousands of dollars, without a doubt. If we’d had more time, we would have invited more people, and more would have shown up. We would have needed a bigger venue, a more traditional type of venue.”

Fewer guests also mean less food. Many quick-planning brides opt for nicer food for fewer people, rather than passable food for hoards. Even with the gourmet upgrades, the food bill is much lower. Compare a $20-per-person buffet for 200 guests to a nicer $50-per-person sit-down meal for 40. That’s $4,000 on food alone versus $2,000.

3. Plan simpler events

Less time results in simpler weddings. All those personalized extras cost time and money. When you don’t have time, you’re less likely to fall into the bridal vortex that convinces you oodles of add-ons are necessary. Guests don’t notice if the candy is monogrammed. They really don’t.

“Some of this actually goes back to the way we used to do weddings. Keeping them simpler,” says Elise Enloe, a master bridal consultant certified by the Association of Bridal Consultants, who plans weddings in Florida.

“You don’t have to serve a seven-course meal and have a 20-piece band,” Enloe says. “With this economy, that’s what we’re seeing. People are cutting back and doing with smaller weddings, or they are delaying the date, but the number one response is to cut back.”

One often-overlooked option is to host the wedding at home. After all, you know for sure your place isn’t already booked, and its size likely will keep the guest list small.

4. Select off-the-rack options

More stores offer inexpensive wedding dresses in many sizes right off the rack or for delivery in two to three weeks. No rush shipping. No drawn-out alterations.

Fields explains that gown stores are under increasing pressure to compete with online discount dress outlets. “The reality is that many gown manufacturers and bridal accessory makers say you need eight weeks for special orders. But often brides go into the shops and say, ‘I’ve only got six weeks.’ Then they tell us a miracle happens. All of a sudden, bridal shops figure out how to get these things without rush fees.”

And, even if there is a fee, it’s typically just $50 to $100, which isn’t terrible if you’re saving big bucks elsewhere.

Zaira Knudsen, whose wedding to Precious Knudsen’s uncle came after just three months of planning, admits she walked into a discount bridal store, picked out a dress and walked out that day with it in hand. “When you don’t have so much time to think about it and make decisions,” she says, “then you have to do it fast and pick your best option.”

With only a few weeks or months, she adds, “You don’t have the chance to change your mind.”

5. Be adaptable

Melissa Bauer, spokeswoman for TheKnot.com, a popular online wedding site, doesn’t recommend fast planning as a money-saving strategy. Instead, she suggests that all brides comparison shop to find good deals.

But when prodded to categorize what kind of women best fit the quick-plan scenario, she describes brides who:

  • Are incredibly flexible and willing to take what’s available as far as dates, times, venues and vendors.
  • Focus more on the big picture rather than the tiny details.
  • Are willing to compromise and potentially toss out their favorite things.

For example, rather than a Saturday wedding, you might need to settle for a Thursday, Friday or Sunday. And compared with an evening affair, morning and afternoon time slots often cost significantly less. Add these concessions to a wedding planned fast and you compound your savings.

4 ways to make wedding planning easier

  • Leverage the Internet and telephone to do research before you burn time (and gas) seeing places and people in person. Then negotiate face to face.
  • Choose venues that offer package deals and let them bundle services for you.
  • Be decisive. Don’t sweat every detail.
  • Consider hiring a wedding planner (typically $50 to $75 per hour), especially if you want to get married in peak season. Rather than making 30 or more calls to find each vendor, a planner can likely make less than five and get you hooked up, including special rates.

Despite what traditional wedding planning timelines say, it’s entirely possible to do it in much less time.

Says Enloe, “If you’re going to plan a wedding in a year or 18 months, chances are you’re going do to a lot of stuff in the first three months and in the last three months, with a three- to six-month window in the middle where not much happens.”

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