The Brides of March have it right: American weddings have become something far more, and less, than what they were in the old days. I've been to my share of weddings, but I've always felt a sort of distance from the traditional elements. The first dance is sweet but often awkward. The bouquet tossing seems assumes that every woman must want to get married. And that garter thing is something I'd like to reserve for the privacy of my honeymoon hotel room, thanks, assuming I even bother wearing garters that aren't attached to hose. As I started planning my own wedding, my lukewarm feelings occasionally turned to horror. Even if I'd wanted to have a traditional wedding, I'd have had to take out a second mortgage to afford it! How much does the average wedding cost? Dear lord. And what's this about a cake cutting fee? Yes, that's an extra cost on top of what you pay for a caterer, the caterer's staff, and the cake itself.
Clearly, the Wedding-Industrial complex is out of control in America. This came as a surprise to me because, for all the weddings I've attended, I had never fantasized about my own wedding. I'd never picked up a copy of Modern Bride or Martha Stewart's wedding magazine, nor priced caterers or dresses. So when I picked up a couple of the magazines recently for my own wedding (know thy enemy), I was horror-struck and promptly gave them away. They featured armies of pale skinny "beauties" with hair piled wiglike on the tops of their heads, all in almost-but-not-quite identical strapless A-line white gowns. For variety, there were women dressed up like ballerinas or a little girl's fantasy of a fairy princess. It's one of the last bastions of hardcore femininity and softcore gender roles. Looking at baby clothes with their pink-and-flowers for girls and tools-and-sports for boys evokes a similar response in me. If this reaction made you think I'm some kind of feminist, you're right. But it's not so simple. Feminists nowadays aren't as easy to spot. We're not opposed to looking pretty. We're opposed to what certain expressions of gender are supposed to represent. I wear feminine clothes, slacks and skirts and tight sweaters. But there's a difference between looking femininely professional and the symbolism of a wedding: The difference between being a priestess of science and being a powerless princess, waiting for her stallion-riding man to save her from spinsterhood.
Mind you, plenty of people I know love this stuff, or at least don't have negative visceral reactions. I have no problem with them doing it for their own wedding. It's nice seeing my friends looking gorgeous, as princesses or not. I just don't want it for myself. And while I don't mind that some folks make their livings by ensuring that a couple's special day is exquisite, I hate the normative implications of advertising. Advertising is all about making you think you need something you don't, so wedding advertising is full of crap about how you must have this sort of floral arrangement or perfect hand-tied pillow crystal favor champagne glass or... or what? Your guests will think you're cheap? That you're not classy enough? That your wedding isn't as "good" as your friend's? That's the implication.
So, my fiancé and I are having a cheap, classless wedding. Ok, it'll be a little classy, but not much. We've already decided to annoy our families by having it be Jewish (his family is Catholic) and large (my family... let's just say they wouldn't want a large wedding). And large usually means expensive. But no! We've decided to have a wedding at a fifth of the price that people usually spend where we live. Most of our friends tend to be of like minds with us, so they've been genuinely helpful with brainstorming non-traditional cost savers.
And I have to admit, so far it's been kind of fun. Both my fiancé and I are simultaneously iconoclasts and in other ways traditionalists. So, no giving away, no obeying, no bouquet toss, but glass stomping is good, as is gathering with family and friends after the ceremony. It warms my heart to shock the representatives of the Wedding-Industrial Complex, especially after they shock me. And I also get a little thrill when vendors understand what we're trying to do (we do live in California, after all). Conversations tend to go like this:
Helpful person: So, have you decided what your "wedding colors" are?
Toots: (wonders what that is, figures it out.) Um, no, not really. Though my chuppah bearers (attendants) chose black dresses. I think we'll have some splash of color somewhere.
Helpful person: (blanches) Black?
Toots: I'd like to buy a dress.
Female vendor: What for?
Toots: I'm getting married.
Female vendor [squealing like a 9-year old girl]: Congratulations!!!1!1!!!
Toots: Thanks. I've never done it before. [Innocent smile.] Anyway, there's a lot of things I don't want to wear, and I'm looking at other options. I don't need to wear white, for example. I'd like a non-traditional wedding dress.
Female vendor: [blinking] Oh, of course. Well, I think I have just the thing! Some people say they don't like a certain style, but if you try it on, you might love it. Like this A-line strapless gown...
Toots: No, thanks, I don't want that.
Female vendor: But you will look gorgeous in it!
Toots: I'm sure I'd look great in it. I don't want it.
Female vendor: [brainpan fries] Why don't you just try it? (What a bridezilla!)
Toots: I don't want to look like a princess, or a Disney character.
Female vendor: [speechless]
Toots: I'd feel like I have to break into song.
Female vender: [wonders how she could get any sale here]
Toots: Hey, can I try this (other thing) on?
Female vendor: Oh yes!
Toots: How much is it?
Female vendor: [depending on the store] One / Two / Six / Ten thousand dollars.
Toots: [choking] That's over my budget.
Female vendor: But it's your wedding...
Toots: Yeah, um, anything else? Non-traditional, I said.
Toots: I'd like to look at your dresses.
Bridal gown boutique saleslady: I'm sorry, you have to make an appointment. Please come back when you've made one. We're open <insert during working hours here, with the exception of Saturday for five hours, as if real women don't actually have jobs during the day or at least should prioritize their dress shopping over their jobs.>
Toots: Yeah, whatever.
Toots: [phoning caterer] Hey, we're having, um, a luncheon, on a Sunday, and we're wondering what your prices would be for some bagels and lox and Middle Eastern food.
Caterer: What's the event?
Toots: [sighs] A wedding.
Caterer: [eyes turning to dollar signs] Ooo! $50 a head!
Toots: Um, no thanks. Bagels and lox?!?
Caterer: But we have a wedding coordinator included in that bundle.
Toots: We don't need that, thanks.
Helpful person: So, what kinds of flowers are you going to have?
Toots: Flowers? We weren't thinking of having flowers.
Helpful person: But you have to have flowers.
Toots: No, we really don't.
We ended up going with a caterer who has very, very yummy food and is willing to work with us. No wedding cake? Fine, no problem! After signing with them, I found out that they won an award for best caterer in our area in 2005. I can see why. They were very patient with my constant fiddling with the contract in an attempt to both keep costs down and have excellent food and service.
Mr. Toots-to-be was concerned that our friends and family will be disappointed. They'll fly out all that way for what, bagels and lox? Where's the open bar? But they'll be good bagels and lox, I say. And given where we live, we could spend a lot more and have the food be not tasty at all. Dried out chicken breast, overcooked steak, etc. No thanks. And we live in a tourist region, so let's do a website that offers suggestions about exciting activities they can do.
So, what are Toots' quick cost-saving measures?
First, we decided what was important to us:
As time went on, we realized that we wanted a friend of ours who is a really good artist to do all the art for the wedding. That's not something we planned, but she's very, very good. So we'll end up spending more on that aspect, but we're happy with it.
So here's what we did:
Wedding dress: I bought something from the formal wear store next door to the wedding dress place. Who needs white? Ok, I ended up finding something in ivory, but that wasn't the initial plan. If you want a typical wedding dress, I have a friend who found her wedding dress for less than $50 at a used clothing store. Online shopping (ebay) is also handy. Where else can you save hundreds of dollars and end up with a pretty dress that was only worn once? Most wedding dresses have to be altered anyway. Similarly, wedding veils tend to cost $50-$240 for $10-$20 worth of fabric. Get a friend, family member, or even seamstress to make one. (Savings: about $600 or more, but I wouldn't have gotten a $10K dress anyway.)
Flowers: For some reason, floral arrangements cost in the thousands where I live. I'm not sure why. I am allergic to many flowers, and Mr. Toots-to-be is reminded of his parents' funerals. And flowers die, so what's the point? While I have friends who have recommended CostCo flowers, we are opting with almost none at all. Our wedding is outdoors. For our reception place, we will decorate (it is quite drab otherwise) with potted plants, some bought and some rented. Purchased plants will go to friends and family who have helped us out. We'll have fruit baskets as centerpieces. Folks can take home fruit, and the rest will be donated to a local soup kitchen. It helps that we're in California, the land of cheap summer fruit. (Savings: About $800-1200.)
Wedding cake: I think wedding cake is just fine but it doesn't excite me. It's just very, very expensive cake. Sometimes it's good, or even quite good, but often it's not. Some friends had a cake in the shape of a castle, and that's cool, but... if it doesn't make me excited, and doesn't make Mr. Toots-to-be excited, then why have it? But I do love dessert. Mr. Toots-to-be doesn't have quite my sweet tooth, but he particularly loves molten chocolate cakes. So that's what we're having, in individual portions. Saves on the cake cutting fee. (Savings: I'm not sure how much we saved, because our dessert is bundled with all our other food.)
Shop Around: We found a cheaper source of nice rental linens and plates, so we went with them instead of our caterer's. We chose our caterer in part because they were willing to work with this other group's stuff. Also, I found flatware online for sale online cheaper than we could rent it. It's barely a step above disposable, but I can sell it later or donate it to a good cause. (Savings: $500.)
Music: We have an iPod. We can hook it up to our site's sound system. Enough said. (Savings: Lots, though we have to find a CD with klezmer music somewhere.)
The Site: We thought about having a late night cocktail reception for our wedding, but then it turned out that renting a social hall at a synagogue if we're members, which we had to be to get the rabbi we wanted was a fraction of the cost of renting a club or any other place. Though part of me still wishes that we'd rented out the social hall at the zoo. (Savings: Well, compared to our other choices in the area, about $3500.)
Morning Wedding: This saves money in so many ways. The food doesn't have to be a sit-down dinner buffet. Only the serious drinkers expect lots of alcohol. The site is cheaper. Now I just have to wake up on time.
Save-the-Date: Folks will tell you that you need a whole mailing for this. Why, I say, when most of your friends and family are on email? This is where we came off being cheap but we didn't care. We're sending paper invitations, why send paper invitations and paper save-the-date cards? One could argue that you can evite the whole thing, but we're not going that far. (Savings: About $200 and time.)
No Wedding Planner: Call me a control freak, but I just don't know of any non-traditional wedding planners, let alone a wedding planner who I could trust to save me money rather than cost me an extra 20%.
In the battle of Toots & Mr. Toots vs. the Wedding-Industrial complex, I'd like to say we've won, but in many ways, we haven't. We're spending more money than we expected or wanted to, but I think we've also managed to avoid the stuff that makes us ill, too. I think it's because we've had no family involvement in any of our decisions. Getting married in our mid-thirties helps. But in the end, we'll be pretty, people will be fed, and we'll be a married couple by the end, which is what it's really about, anyway. Not about painted chocolate-dipped glasses hand-tied by children, but about two people thinking that they might actually want to be stuck together for the rest of their lives.