For richer and for even poorer

"So people are still getting married, then?" my taxi driver muses, as we edge down the driveway of one of those impossible-to-find country hotels, festooned not with flowers but with what looks like the bunting from a fête. Yes, the wedding season is back – but not so much with a bang as a loud crunch.

That crunching has been making my head hurt ever since my boyfriend proposed in February and I joined the ranks of anxiety-stricken brides-to-be. We always vowed that if we got married we would fund it ourselves. Now we’re faced with the reality that the average British wedding costs between £21,000 and £25,000, and, like so many recession-hit couples, we can barely pay our gas bill.

Call me unromantic, but the timing couldn’t be worse. At least wartime weddings were simple. It’s much harder to ration – and be rational – about spending in an era when Hello! magazine is less a glossy peek at how the other half lives than a how-to guide. Personally, stories of three make-up rehearsals and lists of "essential phone numbers every bride needs" where "dove handler" is at number three (and "priest" makes it in at a lowly eight) make me want to run for the hills.

"I don’t envy anyone planning a wedding right now," says Imogen Edwards-Jones, who immersed herself in the £7.5 billion-a-year industry to write Wedding Babylon: Behind the Scenes of the Best Day of Your Life. "The status wedding thing has gone so nuts in the past few years that you can easily spend vast amounts of money if you let your guard down even for a minute. One wedding planner admitted to me that they see each bride as a financial sitting duck. You are encouraged to spend so much on ridiculous things that you don’t need, and no matter how sane and sensible you start out, you’re driven to sobbing about the colour of your rose petals."

Let that be a warning to the thousands attempting to tie the knot on a shoestring this year. Despite property mayhem, melting pension pots, the absence of credit and rising unemployment, register offices and churches around Britain have reported a dramatic bounce (the biggest since 1940) in the number of marriages since the onset of the credit crunch, with bookings up as much as 70 per cent in some areas. There’s no doubt, though, that many couples are seeing lavish plans dissolve faster than confetti in a rainstorm. Only in February industry insiders were insisting that the squeeze wasn’t squashing our spending, but the number of prestigious reception venues now discreetly advertising "late availability" dates tells another story.

"I’m finding that people who’ve hit hard times aren’t cancelling their weddings, but there is a lot of rethinking going on," says Danielle Coplans, editor of the Wedding Girl’s SOS website. "Today’s brides are used to a culture where people spend themselves into debt for one big day and they feel vulnerable because they can’t match the weddings they’ve been to. Some are overwhelmed about the costs adding up, the expectations of their guests, and desperate for ideas on how to save. But on the whole, they are gradually coming round to the idea that spending less doesn’t mean they can’t have a perfect day."

Cathy Howes, deputy editor of You and Your Wedding magazine, agrees that a shift in attitude has arrived. "Where, in the past, couples worried about looking cheap for cutting corners, I think it’s now generally accepted that if you find a money-saving tip that works, it’s a good thing. There has even been a rise in couples asking for ‘honeymoney’ – donations towards the actual honeymoon, which is usually one of the biggest expenses."

Emma Traynor, a publisher, and her fiancé, Simon Beatson, living in London, found their plans derailed when Simon, a newly qualified chartered surveyor, was made redundant in November, three months into a new job and six months after they had got engaged.

"We had put all our savings into Simon’s masters degree, and when he got a job offer in January last year, it looked like everything would be fine," Emma says. "He proposed when he knew he’d have some security. I had scrapbooks full of plans for a wedding in December this year – hiring a medieval barn in Dorset and filling it with Christmas trees, and serving goose to a hundred guests. With Simon still out of work, we are getting by on my wage, but we don’t have any extra to save for that kind of wedding."

Instead, they are moving the church ceremony to Cheshire, so that Emma’s parents, who live there, can help, hiring a house and serving a buffet in the garden. Emma plans to hire hay bales and picnic blankets and make her own wedding cake, while her grandmother takes care of the flowers. She does hope, however, to be able to afford her original dress. "I had planned on wearing an enormous one, and it does feel at odds with the whole thing to spend a lot on it. But, strangely, I think it’s the one thing I’d be upset to give up."

She’s not alone. Research by Mintel shows that, in general, a "one-day-in-a-lifetime" mentality prevails among brides when it comes to their dresses, and the bridal wear market is not expected to suffer. A greater proportion of brides getting married this year are preparing to spend more than £1,500 on their dress than at any time in the previous five years, and are looking instead for cheaper options for their bridesmaids and the groom.

The wedding website www.hitched.co.uk found that honeymoons will be hit hardest, with 48.7 per cent of couples rethinking theirs, and 15.4 per cent downgrading their reception venues to save money. However, there are some areas where it’s seen as inadvisable to scrimp: only six per cent are getting a budget photographer.

Personally, I’m feeling inclined to take those photos in the sunshine, and get married abroad, as one in six British couples did last year. The average overseas wedding costs £6,000, so it’s little surprise that the numbers ditching the English wedding are escalating (43 per cent since 2003, and climbing). Planet Holidays, which offers package-style weddings in destinations such as Greece and Mauritius, has seen a 50 per cent increase since the end of last year, while at the other end of the scale Love & Lord, a London-based company that organises luxury weddings in Europe – with Tuscany by far the most in-demand destination – has seen business increase by 200 per cent.

"I find that most people from the UK who are getting married abroad are the first in their families to do so," says James Lord, "and by going somewhere different they don’t feel the same pressure to add lots of things to the wedding to make it unusual. We don’t get many requests for white peacocks."

Wedding planner Erica Bellini, who runs Tuscan Dreams, is also getting more requests for small-is-beautiful weddings, and she can now put together a low-key wedding for a smaller group for £2,000.

Couples staying closer to home are opting to cut the services they can get free to keep the guest list intact. "People who are not prepared to sacrifice trimmings like table favours are making them, and enlisting friends and relatives to provide entertainment, drive cars and do hair, rather than paying a supplier," says Danielle Coplans. "For so long, everyone’s had the vintage car and ivory damask table cloths, but the weddings people really remember are the ones with personal touches."

Relationship psychotherapist Paula Hall, from the UK Couples Counselling Network, thinks a return to simplicity could be the best thing for us.

"The investment should always be on the marriage and the long-term commitment rather than the pomp," she says. "When money is tight, it really makes people pull together, re-evaluate and concentrate on what their priorities are as a couple – and that can be an extremely positive thing."

"At first I was really emotional at the prospect of re-arranging our day," says Emma Traynor, "but it’s been fun, because we’ve had to think creatively rather than just let money do the work. Most importantly, it has made us focus on what matters – and itthe people we love being there, not the colour of the chair covers."

Recession or no recession, I think those of us who take her lead will be a lot better off.

The Daily Telegraph

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