A designer gown, gorgeous flowers, candles on every table, the biggest cake you've ever seen, and a steep price tag. That's right, wedding season is almost here, and recent reports indicate that the average wedding now costs upwards of $26,000. But a wedding that costs more than a new car just isn't realistic for many couples.

Do all of your dreams for a beautiful wedding need to be sacrificed if you need to stick to a budget for your big day? Not at all!

The big expenses and how to cut costs

1. The Dress is one of the larger expenses for many weddings. There are several options to save here:

  • Consider a pre-owned dress.

Websites like preownedweddingdresses.com connect brides-to-be with newlyweds who want to make a few dollars off their worn-once dresses (in some cases, the dresses were never worn at all). Dresses are listed for anywhere from 30%-80% off retail, so this is a fantastic way to save hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars.

  • Another option is to rent a dress. Websites like rentaweddingdress.com allow you to have a perfect dress for your big day without the big expense of purchasing your dream dress. If you're not keen on walking down the aisle in a dress worn by someone else, try looking at online boutiques to find the dress of your dreams. You can find a new one for much cheaper online than in-store. It never hurts to research all of your options!

2. The Guest List and Venue can quickly drive up wedding costs. Items like extra food, drink, and party favor to cover a larger crowd are pricey, not to mention the need for a larger venue or extra décor. It can all cause your budget to balloon quickly. Instead try these money-saving tips:

  • Invite your closest friends and family only.

Maybe you'd love to have all your coworkers, neighbors, and casual acquaintances celebrate with you, but a more intimate ceremony can be lovely and is a much cheaper way to go. If you want to celebrate with everyone else, consider hosting a more casual reception/ party at your home sometime after the wedding.

  • Instead of renting out an expensive banquet hall, look into less expensive options for the reception. Perhaps your parents or a relative have a large backyard where the reception could be held. Maybe there is a beautiful park nearby. A church hall that is nicely appointed can be a cost-saving option.

  • The cost of a sit-down dinner can be high, and will grow with each guest you add to your list. Have you thought about serving hors d'oeuvres only? It will decrease the cost of the reception by quite a bit, but your guests will still have enough food that they won't go hungry. You may have to shift the time of your reception so it isn't held during lunch or dinner, but you can save a bundle while still having and elegant and memorable reception.

  • If you plan to serve alcohol at your reception, ask the venue if you can provide it yourself. If allowed, you can purchase enough beer and wine for your guests in bulk from Sam's Club or Costco. Buying it yourself, instead of buying it at a marked-up rate from the venue, will help you stick to your budget. You will still have to pay for the bartender to open and serve the bottle, and you'll be saving a lot. If alcohol isn't in the budget, let your guests buy their own from the venue and consider a simple, less expensive wine or champagne toast.

  • Don't spend a fortune on decor. Discount stores often have great wedding decorations or favors, and craft stores typically sell wedding items at a fair price as well. A little bit of crafty know-how and some willing hands to DIY can save you a lot of money in the end. Don't be shy about checking out websites that let brides sell decorations or other gently used (good condition) items as well. A few Google searches can often yield just what you're looking for.

3. Photography can be a big expense, but who can blame a couple for wanting to have beautiful images of their happy day to cherish for years to come? Here are tips to pick the right photographer:

  • Wedding photography is a big business with a big price-tag, but an investment of time in searching can yield an amateur photographer trying to make it big. Look for a photography student or someone with a new business looking to build his or her portfolio.

Photographers without a lot of experience will often agree to do weddings or other events for a much smaller fee in exchange for using the photos to add to his or her portfolio. Just be sure you like the work he or she has already done and don't be afraid to ask for references from any other previous clients.

4. The Honeymoon is another major wedding expense. It is important to remember that while the time away as a couple is important and needed after the wedding, where you go is less important than quality time together. You don't have to spend big bucks to make memories of this important milestone

  • If you want to go somewhere exotic or expensive, you can register for a honeymoon fund instead of a traditional gift registry. For one wedding I attended, the couple had a honeymoon registry through their resort that listed several activities they wanted to do on their honeymoon (like scuba diving or zip lining). Guests could pay for any of those activities in lieu of a gift on the wedding day, and the bride and groom didn't have to shell out as much for activities on the trip.

  • There are many less-expensive options for traveling on a honeymoon. Consider staying within driving distance to cut down on travel expenses. When you don't have to fly or rent a car, you will have more money to spend on lodging, food and activities. State parks offer some excellent options for destinations and even lodging at attractive price-points. Consider using travel discount sites like Groupon for deals (just be sure to read the fine print). Above all - enjoy your time as a couple. Some of the best memories can be made when you get creative and find ways to be romantic that are budget-friendly.

If you are planning a wedding and looking to keep the costs low, rest assured, it can be done. Why not give yourself the gift of not starting your new life together hindered by the burden of owing money?

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