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She had a fabulous wedding on a budget

  • Story Highlights
  • Pick the right day, time to save on a wedding
  • It's possible to rent many things including the wedding cake and gown
  • Expert: Keep costs down by limiting bar to beer and wine
  • Bride: Following budget helped me mature as a woman, accept limitations
  • Next Article in Living »
By Jen Haley
CNN
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(CNN) -- Michelle Cottle, 38, of Westchester, New York, always dreamed of an elegant wedding.

The most expensive part of a wedding is the reception with the average wedding cake costing $700.

Michelle Cottle and Jason Cohen held their wedding on a Saturday afternoon at a local mansion.

"I envisioned a large wedding, 200 guests... a big band sound, with the trumpets and a singer...the Frank Sinatra thing," she says.

But then Michelle pauses and laughs. "And then I started to find out how much that would cost."

Michelle and her fiancé, Jason Cohen, quickly realized that they had to make a choice: a down payment on a house or a dream wedding. For them, it was a no-brainer. The couple decided to keep their wedding budget to around $20,000. Video Watch how to cut costs »

That's no easy feat, especially considering the cost of a wedding in the New York City area is about $46,000 according to a survey by The Knot Wedding Network. More broadly, the cost of an average wedding -- not including the honeymoon -- is about $28,000.

But you can walk down the aisle without declaring bankruptcy. To rein in your bridal budget, consider your timing.

Instead of having a Saturday night wedding, Michelle and Jason opted for a Saturday afternoon barbeque at a local mansion.

There were red bandana napkins and burlap tablecloths. Guests ate pulled duck, barbeque chicken, hot dogs, crab cakes, baked beans and corn bread. The highlight of the evening: the ice cream sundae bar.

"I didn't want the wedding factory," says Michelle. "We wanted personal feelings and elegance without it costing too much."

Target where to save, where to splurge

You can save around 20 percent a person if you choose a Friday night, a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday wedding according to Divine Events Catering in Atlanta.

The most expensive part of a wedding is the reception. It's at least a third of your budget according to Michelle Preli, editor in chief of Brides.com, a bridal resource Web site. It's all about your priorities.

One of the biggest mistakes couples make in planning a wedding is not having a clear vision of their budget. That's the best way to prioritize what you'll spend money on, and where you can trim costs. There are options in every category, whether its invitations or flowers, says Preli. Spend less money and attention on things that aren't very important to you.

Michelle and Jason knew exactly where they would loosen the purse strings: photography. "That was one area we didn't want to scrimp on," says Michelle.

To make sure you're staying within your budget, check out the budget advisor at www.brides.com. You'll get an itemized breakdown of expenses for your wedding. And that will help you prioritize what's most important.

If you want the wedding to be more about dancing and energy, and not so much about sitting down and having a great meal, put more money toward the cocktail reception says Daniel Briones, president of the National Association of Catering Executives, a catering association. You don't need a four-course meal he says. You can get rid of the appetizer or just have a salad.

Alcohol is another wallet-drainer. But you can keep costs under control by offering a limited bar with beer and wine says Christa Vagnozzi, senior editor of theWeddingchannel.com. In addition to beer and wine, you can also serve a signature cocktail she says.

And skip the champagne toast says Briones.

"Most of your guests will already have a glass of wine in front of them," he says. If you have a wedding with 200 guests and you're serving a $50 bottle of champagne, you would save $2,000 right off the bat.

Rent the showy cake

A wedding cake can also cause sticker shock. On average, a cake costs about $700 according to The Knot survey. But you can cut this price in half without your guests even knowing.

Rent-a-Cake in Atlanta will rent you a tiered Styrofoam cake with icing on the outside, so it looks like the real thing. It'll cost you about $145 to rent the cake including set-up. There's a secret compartment in the back of the cake where you can hide a slice of angel food cake so guests think you're cutting into the real thing. Then you serve your guests a less expensive sheet cake that's hidden in the kitchen.

Check out other online cake rentals like cake.rental.com. But if staying local is what you want to do, ask your baker to create a fake layer or two in your cake.

And while it may seem insignificant, flowers alone can eat up 8 percent of your budget according to The Knot. To stay within your budget, stick with flowers that are in season and make sure you tell your florist what you can spend. It's not like you're going into a store and picking something off a shelf, says Preli. You're creating a relationship with a vendor.

That strategy worked for Michelle, who settled on Gerber Daisies for her wedding.

"When I went to the florist I said, 'look we're not mansion dwellers, we're apartment dwellers,'" says Michelle. "The florist really worked with me and steered me to less expensive flowers that were still elegant."

You may also consider getting your flowers from the wholesale market. Ask for recommendations from other brides on virtual message boards at www.brides.com or www.theweddingchannel.com. And do your homework. Check out the company with the Better Business Bureau and ask a lot of questions. You don't want to be unhappy when these flowers show up at your door says Vagnozzi.

On sale or for rent

Most brides dream about that perfect wedding gown. In fact, one in five brides say finding the perfect dress is the top priority, according to a survey by Conde Nast Bridal Media.

And you can find bargains if you know where to look. Save money at sample sales. Most sales take place in April/May for fall and winter dresses and October/November for spring and summer dresses, according to The Knot. Even department stores have discounted wedding dresses. Michelle got her dress at a 70 percent off sale at Filene's Basement.

"I had to commit to the dress early and it needed about $200 worth of work and $150 cleaning, but it was beautiful," she says.

And make sure you look at Web sites like eBay, www.PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com or www.WoreItOnce.com for gently used wedding dresses. If you want a designer handbag or jewelry for your big day, consider renting them at www.bagborroworsteal.com.

Even getting the word out about your wedding can be expensive. Cut costs on your invitations by leaving out all the extras like engraving or decorative linings. Decrease the number of enclosures you have. You can ask guests to e-mail you their replies. Check out online invitation outlets or create your own invites. Your local arts and crafts store will likely have a selection to choose from.

And although it took Michelle an entire year of planning, negotiating and tailoring her wedding dream, she says it was worth it. Despite the fact the couple came in at their budget, Michelle realized that all her work was worth something even more valuable.

"It helped me mature as a woman to come from the idea I had as a girl and as a young woman...to grow that idea up and accept certain limitations and embrace what WAS possible," she says.

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The guests at her wedding said it was the best wedding they had ever been to. "They said it had a lot of us in it," Michelle says.

"At the end of the day, the thing that matters the most is that 'I do moment,'" says Preli. "That's what your guests will remember. That's what you can't pay for."

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