NEW YORK – Maria Ayson and Nolan Green Jr. should be married by now.
The couple set a date, picked their reception hall, bought the dress, booked the photographer and ordered the cake for a Saturday last August. Then came the bad news.
"When he got laid off, we were kind of caught with our pants down," said Ayson.
Rather than trying to plan a wedding while Green was looking for a new job in electronics retailing, the couple decided to push their date back a whole year. Ayson said putting off the wedding "was the best thing for our sanity and for ourselves." Especially since his new job forced a move to Los Angeles, while she remained in San Francisco.
The delay until Aug. 9, 2009, also gave them time to rethink their wedding plans and try to find ways to scale back the party, without sacrificing on the celebration.
That's a step that countless couples are taking, as economic reality confronts one of consumer culture's most cherished institutions, the dream wedding. From do-it-yourself decorations to dancing to an iPod instead of a DJ, couples are scouring for savings.
The numbers tell much of the story: This year couples are expected to spend an average of $20,400 on their weddings, down 6.5 percent from 2008. The forecast also marks a 29 percent drop from 2007's average of $28,700, according to The Wedding Report, a market research company based in Tucson, Ariz.
Tough times offer some a chance to embrace their inner tightwad and, in select cases, toss a little scorn at the $60 billion industry that bridal bloggers sometimes refer to as the "wedding industrial complex."
Indeed for many it's a chance to use talent and ingenuity to find ways to have a party fit for a princess on a less-than-royal budget.
After looking around and comparing prices on various items, Christina Duffy Erdman came to a conclusion: "I had to cut back." All told, her June 2008 wedding in Los Angeles came in at about $10,000. "I felt like a princess, but (spent) a lot less money."
One move Erdman made may be a telling sign of a recession-era wedding: She bought her dress on eBay.
Erdman said she searched numerous bridal shops and found the perfect strapless gown by designer Maggie Sottero, but the $1,200 price tag was just too high. Then the resident of Thousand Oaks, Calif., checked the online auction site and found the exact dress for just $200.
That's a mere fraction of the $841 The Wedding Report projects will be the average spent on a dress this year — a price tag that's 8 percent lower than the 2008 average of $916.
"I didn't know what I was going to get," Erdman said, admitting she had some reservations. "I didn't even have to alter it. It looked stunning on me."
Erdman, an interior designer whose business stumbled as the housing market crashed, used some of her creativity to craft her own decorations, including a "Wish Tree," to display ornaments with tags bearing wishes from their guests. She couldn't find one online for less than $200, so she made her own for less than $5.
But she and her husband Ted did have to cut out some extras. "There were some little details that I let fly." she said. "Then you realize that nobody cares."
The DIY spirit
"I never wanted to be one of those women who cared about the color of the napkins, but you can't avoid it," said Marisa Telles, a Knoxville, Tenn., bride-to-be. She's hoping to spend about $3,000 for her May wedding to Joey Martin.
Echoing Erdman's online find, another bargain was scored by Telles, who paid $250 for her gown on eBay. "I was really proud of that one," Telles said.
She's planning to walk down the aisle to her fiancee in an outdoor ceremony at their home. She and Martin decided to put about $3,000 toward renovations rather than renting a reception hall. She'll carry roses cut from her own garden, and her bridesmaids will wear their own dresses.
The guests will be served on off-white-and-green stoneware she purchased at a dollar store. And she's toying with the idea of preparing at least some of the food herself.
Telles may be willing to take on more work than most brides, but Carolyn Garcia, the regional catering sales director at the Wedgewood Wedding & Banquet Center in Northern California, said she's seeing many couples face some hard economic facts.
One strategy is switching their event from Saturday night to take advantage of lower rates. For 2009 and 2010, "We've actually filled up more Fridays and Saturday and Sunday afternoons than we have booked out Saturday nights," Garcia said.
Another trend is group purchases, according to Margaret Wong, co-founder of ProjectWedding.com, a social networking site. For instance Ayson, who postponed her wedding, said she found other brides willing to split the cost on certain items, like a cake topper. "I'm finding different ways to still get what I want, but at a fraction," she said.
Joyce Scardina Becker, president of the Wedding Industry Professionals Association, said she started to hear from members last year that business was slowing down. Becker, who owns Events of Distinction, a wedding planning service in Marin County, Calif., advises couples to be honest about how much they have to spend, so that they can work with planners to economize in certain areas.
"In the past, brides and grooms liked to hold their budget as if they're playing poker," she said. "They need to be more forthcoming, and lay their cards out on the table."
Friends and family
One of the hardest decisions comes with the guest list. Ayson and Green's invitations are now down to about 220, cut from 300 last year.
The concern about costs extends beyond what the bride and groom will spend to include worry about asking far-flung friends and relatives, who are also feeling the effects of the downturn, to spend money to attend their wedding.
Ayson noted that the hotel where they're holding their reception only offers a $10 discount to wedding guests. She expects many overseas and out of town invitees won't attend. "I still want to send them the invitation, because I want them to feel included and welcome," she said.
She is likewise cautious about asking for pricey gifts in a registry. "I don't need stuff," she said. They have so far registered only on a honeymoon site, asking guests to help pay for their trip.
Honeymoon registries have popped up all over the Web, and can be one way to help support that tradition. But the post-ceremony getaways are not being spared from cutbacks. More couples are planning to stay in the U.S. rather than head overseas, and many are trimming the number of days they vacation, something the industry is referring to as a "mini-moon."
Alternative registries like honeymoon sites or even charitable sites are becoming more common choices, according to Rebecca Dolgin, executive editor of TheKnot.com. It's part of a broader trend she has seen among users of the site toward asking for more practical gifts.
"Even if the couple is not doing badly, they've very concerned about their guests," she said. "They just want to have a lot more varied prices on their registry."
While some couples might feel bad about watching the bottom line, many brides recognize that they're not alone. "Is it bad that we're looking at our guest list as dollar signs?" Ayson said. "I think a lot of people go through that."