At a time when the median U.S. income is around $45,000, no one should be spending $27,000 on a event they imagine will be the social event of the year, Danziger says.
Many brides are trying to rein in the extras and refocus on what matters most to them — the food, the music and a circle of guests who mean the most to them, says Sheryl Evertson of the Saratoga Event Group in Atlanta.
She manages weddings at four venues in the Atlanta area, from a formal pavilion to historic homes. Their average wedding now runs $18,000 to $26,000, "whereas, I used to get $46,000 without batting an eye."
"But I'm happy to see them and help them stay in budget, no matter what. I say, 'Let's look at where we can cut. Wouldn't it be better to have something smaller?' I don't want to stress people out," Evertson says.
Couples are meeting the challenge by cutting the reception guest list to save on food and liquor costs and going with seasonal décor. Evertson redid many of the props in "rustic luxe look" for those who want burlap linens instead of brocade. ("Here we are in the big city, and they want to look like they're at a barn in Connecticut," she quips.)
Economy moves such as cocktails-and-buffet receptions have the added advantage of cutting the drama on seating charts in the era of divorce and blended families, Evertson says.
Still, all agree wedding budgets defy dollars and cents.
"If it were up to us, we would have a taco truck and a DJ," jokes Daphne Adato, 29, news director at a Minneapolis radio station, getting ready for her mid-August wedding in San Diego with thrift in mind.
Friends and family are doing the invitations, simple seasonal sunflower centerpieces, the favors and more. Yet, there's no avoiding the big reception bills that come with a guest list of 200, which includes her big, beloved family of 100.
There won't be post-honeymoon bills, however, because there will be no honeymoon for at least a year, and the bills are already here. They're going into married life burdened with $30,000 in credit debt from his-and-hers student loans, and "never making enough money to live on."
The couple never set "a magic wedding budget number" because, Adato says, her parents are picking up the tab.
The budget number Katy Roland, 31, of Atlanta, had in mind, $15,000 for a mid-August wedding on the rooftop of the Peachtree Club, was blown away almost immediately — by her parents.
Every time Roland looked, her mother was adding more guests, at $100 a head, for the reception.
"My parents have lived and taught here for 40 years, and they know everyone. We are at 170 guests now. The original plan was for 100 to 125," says Roland, a new media specialist for a marketing agency.
She also couldn't stop family from adding on "frou frou," such as favors that Roland calls "ridiculous" and her aunt, picking up the tab, calls essential.
Roland says, "It makes my head spin to do the numbers. My parents are both retired, and I hate that they are spending so much. We can't afford the wedding bands we originally picked out. And we'll still come home from the honeymoon to a stack of bills."
They'll be coming home from a Florida condo owned by her fiancé's parents, an ocean away from their original (now unaffordable) choice, Greece.
A wedding breakdown: