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6 Ways to Keep Your Wedding Off Your Card

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

April 18, 2013

The average cost of a wedding? $27,000, according to Brides magazine. The U.S. median household income? Just over $52,000.

“Weddings are a very emotional thing, and for many people, the numbers don't add up,” says Mike Sullivan, director of education at the credit counseling organization Take Charge America. “Most women think about this as the special day in their lives, a day where they will be the focus of attention. They want a storybook wedding — and that can be very hard to resist.”

If the money isn't quite there to realize that dream, couples may make decisions that cast a shadow over their future.

According to a 2011 survey by myFICO.com, nearly 25 percent of newlywed couples said that they had used credit cards or loans (or a combination of the two) to pay for their wedding, and many had charged a quarter of all wedding expenses. Almost 30 percent expected that it would take them up to three years to pay off the charges from the wedding, honeymoon and engagement ring, and 7 percent estimated that it would take them longer than three years.

While charging some wedding expenses can actually work in your favor due to the fact that your credit card can offer certain buyer protections, it's imperative that any plastic be used carefully and with a strict and quick payoff plan.

Carrying long-term high balances on credit cards tends to translate into low credit scores. For couples just starting out, this could mean that loans will be harder to come by — or will come with far higher interest rates.

“I've seen couples who couldn't buy a house for a period of time because they had to pay off the wedding,” Sullivan says. “People have to be rational and realize that if they spend $20,000 or $30,000, unless they're very wealthy, it's just not a responsible thing to do. It is just one day.”

However, in a world of overwhelming wedding must-haves, keeping costs low isn't easy. Sullivan recommends these five steps to avoid run-away costs:

1. Set a spending goal. Sit down before the wedding and decide how much you can afford. For parents paying for the wedding, Sullivan recommends simply writing a check and telling the couple that that's how much they have to spend. Then, stay strong and resist the urge to use your credit card for last-minute add-ons when that money runs out. Inevitably, that will lead to painful decisions for a soon-to-be-married couple, but learning to set financial priorities and forego things they can't afford is a critical skill for couples to learn together. The earlier that skill is learned, the better.

2. Forget about perfection. The most beautiful wedding dresses, the greatest event settings, the best hors d'oeuvres and the most magnificent table settings inevitably are also the most expensive. However, Sullivan says, it's not likely your guests will notice if you went with more budget-friendly options.

“No one has an expectation except you,” says Sullivan. “Nobody knows how many centerpieces were supposed to be on the table, how many hors d'oeuvres, and so on. Other people are not even likely to notice the difference between the most pricey and the more sensible options.”

3. Don't feel obligated to spend. One of the most expensive items in a wedding, according to Sullivan, is the open bar. If you don't have the money to treat your friends to unlimited drinks when going out with them in everyday life, you don't have the money to do it at your wedding. Also avoid giving expensive gifts to the wedding party. Your loved ones won't want you to suffer financially after the wedding on their behalf.

4. Don't spend money you don't have. No matter how carefully you plan out the budget for your wedding, you will come up against extra expenses that would put you over your spending goal. At that point, says Sullivan, take a step back and reassess.

“Aside from spending less and budgeting carefully, you have to think about what you can actually afford,” Sullivan says. “If you are using a using a credit card for wedding charges, you can't afford it. You are spending money you don't have.” Unless, of course, you have developed a budget that includes reimbursing your card after the wedding, as putting myriad wedding services and supplies on plastic can actually save you if run into problems.

5. Consider several borrowing options. If you have to borrow, Sullivan recommends looking for the least expensive way to borrow the money. In some cases that might be a personal loan. In others, it may be a credit card. The interest rate you'll be offered on both these types of credit will hinge on your credit scores, so if your credit is in good shape, you'll have your pick of options. If you're planning to go house-shopping soon after the wedding, however, keep in mind that opening several new lines of credit (whether loans or cards) in quick succession may count against you when you apply for a mortgage. Whatever route you go, make sure you don't borrow more than you can comfortably pay off within six to 12 months to avoid raking up excessive interest charges.

6. Keep the big picture in mind. Make a list of priorities together with your future partner, and discuss all the must-haves you want in your post-wedding life. Ultimately, it will be a lot easier to opt for that $1,000 wedding dress instead of the $6,000 gown, if it means that you can afford to move into your dream house that much sooner after your dream wedding.