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Financial Planning

Five Smart Steps to the Altar

It may be not be romantic, but smart financial planning for your wedding could set you on the right path to happily ever after.

Weddings can be fun, happy occasions for family and friends. But as anyone who has ever planned a wedding knows, the lead-up to the joyful occasion can be stressful for the intended couple, with all the prenuptial decisions to be made and the many little budget surprises that can spring up around event planning.

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What to do? Here's our guide to smart planning for your wedding -- to help ease the trip down the aisle and get your financial lives together off on the right foot.

Rule No. 1: Plan to shoulder some of the costs yourself. The image of Steve Martin's Father of the Bride character panicking over the soaring price of his daughter's wedding is classic Hollywood movie material. But the reality is this: A study by Condé Nast Bridal Media found that only 30% of brides' parents bankrolled their daughter's entire wedding last year. In fact, close to a third of brides and grooms paid for their big day all on their own.

Sure, getting Dad to cough up extra dough for a designer dress or an expansive reception buffet may still be a possible. But be nice to him. The average cost of a wedding now approaches $28,000, according to Condé Nast. The costs can add up fast. After all, besides your attire and reception food, you've got wedding rings, flowers, invitations, photography, videography, attendants' gifts, music, cake and venue rentals to worry about. So you better plan for getting out your checkbook, too.

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No. 2: Discuss money early. If you're just starting out and cash is tight, the last thing you and your new spouse need to worry about is paying off your wedding bills three to five years down the road. Yet that's exactly the situation many couples find themselves in. It can be a harmful mistake -- made worse if you already have student loans, credit card debt or other types of debt to worry about. Money issues are the number-one cause of disagreements among married couples, notes Jennifer Openshaw of Openshaw's Family Financial Network.

Moreover, going overboard on your wedding could hinder you from saving for other important goals, such as buying your first house. Many couples -- consciously or not -- put the wedding before their long-term financial security, Openshaw says. "The smartest thing a couple can do is to decide how much they can afford -- an amount they can pay off within one year -- and then develop a spending plan for that special day."

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Don't just hash out your wedding budget, either. Discuss your money habits, debts and a plan for your future financial lives together. For conversation starters, see Ten Questions to Ask Before Saying 'I Do'. For common pitfalls that can strain a marriage, see Six Money Mistakes of Newlyweds.

No. 3: Keep your perspective. Trying to plan the absolutely perfect wedding is where the trouble begins, say Alan Fields, co-author, with his wife Denise, of Bridal Bargains (Windsor Peak Press; $14.95). "You can get caught up in the wedding frenzy, and that's how weddings get to be expensive and fancy," he says.

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As with any large expense, laying out a budget should be step one of any wedding plan. Step two is to resolve to stick with your budget no matter what. If you find yourself zooming right past your limit, there are the simplest cost-cutting solutions -- either scale back on costs per person or trim your guest list.

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The wedding reception -- no surprise -- is normally the largest expense of a wedding, averaging more than $14,000, according to TheWeddingReport.com. Food service, which accounts for about two-thirds of that figure, is an obvious target for cuts. Pricey venue rental fees can also wreck a budget. Hosting the wedding at your own house could be an appealing alternative -- but be aware that even this option has hidden costs. Read more about Backyard Vows.

If you have family or friends who live far away, or if you're planning a destination wedding, travel expenses may be a concern. Savvy online shopping can help. Check out the 25 best travel sites.

No. 4: Don't let the veil blind you to the possibilities of saving money. Weddings are by nature wrapped up in tradition -- not necessarily a bad thing. But if prices for banquet halls double in your area in June, why not seek out another month for your wedding, when accommodations are less dear? Timing can be a key element, says Fields. Couples who forgo a summer wedding in favor of an early spring or fall ceremony often enjoy less-expensive off-season rates. You can score a bargain not only on the reception venue but also from caterers and other suppliers. Plus, you can take advantage of off-season travel rates for your honeymoon.

Another way to save: Think outside the wedding industry. The bridal business has been very good at marketing itself, but "you don't necessarily have to shop at a wedding store to buy wedding-related merchandise," Fields says. Instead, keep your consumer wits about you and consider all the alternative places to buy. And remember that a number of non-"wedding" specialty retailers now offer stylish bridesmaids dresses that don't cost a fortune -- something your bridal party can appreciate.

No. 5: Enjoy the wedding season. Whether you're planning your own wedding, helping a friend, or attending a ceremony this summer, check out our slide show of interesting wedding statistics -- from average costs of a wedding to the growth of Blue Nile, the latest registry trends, and more.

This article first appeared on Kiplinger.com in May 2006 and was updated on June 6, 2007.

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