June 15, 2009— -- Money woes nearly cut Kourtney Wehrle's bridal party in half.
Two of the Illinois woman's bridesmaids -- her sister and her sister's daughter -- considered dropping out of her wedding after job losses in the family meant they couldn't afford bridesmaid dresses. A third bridesmaid living in Florida, Wehrle's childhood friend since the fourth grade, said she was overwhelmed by both the cost of the dress and wedding-related travel expenses.
Relatives ultimately stepped in to pay for dresses, which cost $180 each, for Wehrle's sister and niece. Both still plan to be walking down the aisle for Wehrle's wedding this October.
But Wehrle had no luck with her Florida friend.
"I was running around trying to find as many ways I could to cut costs for her," Wehrle said, but nothing worked. The friend, she said, "couldn't justify" spending the money.
Check out any bridal shop or online wedding message board, and you're sure to find bridesmaid drama as rich as a fondant cake. And while various bridesmaid expenses -- from bachelorette party costs to, of course, that hundred-dollar dress you'll never wear again -- have inspired gripes for years, during a recession, they're more likely to evolve into tear-jerking dealbreakers: broke bridesmaids simply decide to drop out.
"With the recession, this definitely happens," said Charli Penn, the managing editor of WeddingChannel.com. "It's an expensive honor and bridesmaids expenses can total $1,000 or more... It's obviously harder for some people."
The total out-of-pocket costs for the average bridesmaid used to be much lower, said Diane Forden, the editor-in-chief of Bridal Guide Magazine.
"Years ago, it used to be if you were in a wedding, you paid for your dress, you chipped in for the bridal shower and you paid for a wedding gift," Forden said.
Travel expenses, Forden said, were often negligible because brides and grooms got married in their hometowns and chose attendants who lived nearby. Today, engaged couples often live a plane-flight away from their wedding parties or opt for destination weddings -- say, in the Caribbean -- meaning more travel for everyone.
"It becomes more of a wedding weekend," Forden said. "You have to travel and pay for hotel rooms. "You see the costs adding up."
Out With the Updo
The advent of bachelorette parties have also added to bridesmaids' tabs. Those may bear similar expenses as bachelor parties, but groomsmen and ushers still get off relatively easy: tuxedo rental costs can pale in comparison to bridesmaid dresses, not to mention hair and make-up.
Even before the recession hit, Jean, a New York woman, was so frustrated with the beating her wallet was taking from her bridesmaid expenses -- including paying for two bachelorette parties and pricey shoes -- that that she took drastic measures.
Jean, who asked that only her middle name be used to protect her friendship with the bride, didn't drop out of a bridal party but she did drop something else -- several inches of hair.
Jean cut her mane so short that it would no longer fit into a bride-mandated "updo." She estimated that the move saved her about $80.
"It was sort of the last straw," Jean said. "(She) asked me to pay for so many unnecessary things. I'm not going to get this ugly updo."
That was in late 2006. This year, Jean said, she's in another wedding, but this time her experience is markedly different. The bride, she said, is being sensitive to everyone's financial constraints and is consulting the bridal party on various purchases.
The bride "is trying to make things easier on all of us," she said. "It makes a difference if you're included in the decision process instead being told you need to pay for this thing and this thing."
"She's trying her hardest not to be a bridezilla," she said.
What Brides Can Do to Help
Not being a "bridezilla" -- the slang term for wedding-crazed brides known for making monstrous demands -- is key to making sure bridesmaids can afford to be part of your special day, WeddingChannel.com's Penn said.
"Be flexible," she said. "Let (them) know you're willing to downsize and want to make things easy for everyone."
Penn has a few tips specifically for brides looking to lower their bridesmaids' bills:
But even the most budget-conscious bride can still find herself losing a bridesmaid or two thanks to financial concerns. Julia Voll, of Greeley, Colo., said she took various steps to keep her bridesmaids' costs down: her family stepped in to pay for the girls' hotel rooms as well as a portion of the costs of their $250 dresses. She set no requirements for shoes, jewelry and hair styles.
"I know most of my friends are in college and young and they can't really afford a lot," said Voll, 23. "I really wanted to save everyone money."
Nonetheless, late last month, two of Voll's bridesmaids called it quits. They tag-teamed to give her the bad news.
"They actually called me together on speaker phone. They said that they were just really broke and couldn't afford to be in my wedding," said Voll, who is getting married in August. "It was really weird that they kind of flaked out at the last minute -- I just felt very betrayed … It's not like they didn't know they were broke until two months before the wedding."
An Alternative to Bridesmaid Bitterness
Both Voll and Wehrle, the Illinois bride, say they wonder if their wayward bridesmaids were just using financial hardship as an excuse to duck their obligations. Wehrle, who later found out that her friend had bought a pricey computer shortly after dropping out of her bridal party, said that that friendship is now kaput.
"Sometimes, going through something like this does teach you who's going to be there for you and who's not," Wehrle said.
If you're a reluctant bridesmaid seeking to avoid such strife, experts say it's always better to express your doubts sooner rather than later. You can always offer to perform another wedding-related role, like being in charge of the guest book, instead.
"People should be honest up front with the bride and groom," Penn said. "Just say, 'Listen, I would love to be a part of your wedding but I just can't afford it.' It's better to say no now -- politely, of course -- than make things hard for everyone later."
With additional reports by ABC News' Dean Praetorius.