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Bowling alley wedding: How creativity is priceless in a bad economy

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
  • Wedding planners say brides are saving money by changing venues, dates
  • The average cost for a wedding was about $19,500 in 2009, a decline from $28,700 in 2007
  • One bride spent $5,000 to have her wedding ceremony and reception at a bowling alley
  • There were 2.2 million weddings in 2009, with an average of 128 guests, one company says

(CNN) -- It wasn't the dream wedding Rachel Sifuentes, 28, envisioned as a little girl.

No walking down a church aisle. No DJ at the reception. No white dress.

Instead, Sifuentes and her husband followed their attendants dancing down the center lane of a bowling alley where the neatly lined-up pins faded into the background. The ladies didn't carry flowers, but waved long ribbons. The bridal party relied on an iPod for entertainment. The bride wore a silky deep-blue gown -- the groom's favorite color -- purchased at a discount.

"Luckily, everything turned out to be great," said Sifuentes, who lives in Chicago, Illinois, and wanted to save money because her salary at the law firm where she works had been reduced.

Sifuentes' bowling alley wedding in January may not have been traditional, but the creative ceremony saved her thousands of dollars at a time when wallet tightening has become necessary for many American families. Her offbeat wedding is representative of a growing trend, wedding experts say, as brides are discovering cheap can be chic, and also inspire innovative party ideas.

"Necessity breeds ingenuity," said Ariel Meadow Stallings, a writer who runs the online bridal site Offbeat Bride.

She explains what has ushered in the recent trend of frugal yet creative brides: "It's the combination of the economy with the fact that through the '90s, there was a big explosion of the wedding industrial complex."

Necessity breeds ingenuity.
--Ariel Meadow Stallings, wedding writer

Weddings remain a multibillion-dollar industry and summer is the busiest season. There were about 2.2 million weddings in 2009, with each event averaging 128 guests, according to The Wedding Report Inc., a research company that tracks the wedding industry.

But the wedding business may slowly be eroding in the fragile economy. The average cost for a wedding dipped in 2009 to about $19,500 from a peak of $28,700 in 2007, said The Wedding Report Inc. So far this year, wedding spending has improved -- with the economy -- to an average of $23,800.

Sifuentes' bowling alley wedding was a bargain: She spent about $5,000, which included the ceremony and reception.

Websites and blogs -- such as A Practical Wedding and 2000 Dollar Wedding -- have surfaced over the last few years to help brides creatively pinch their pennies.

In Maine this summer, one bride substituted a baked potato bar for a traditional five-course meal at the reception. Other brides have replaced costly gourmet cakes from bakeries with homemade Rice Krispies treats and chocolate chip cookies.

Some couples recommended switching from a dinnertime reception to a brunch or hosting the wedding on a weekday night rather than on the more popular Saturday. Other brides have abandoned expensive venues such as private hotels or banquet halls for public buildings, parks and libraries. One New York bride spent less than $600 on her wedding in 2007 by keeping the guest list short and having the ceremony in a public library.

When it comes to invitations, place settings, decorations and dresses, the brides have learned the power of DIY, which stands for "do it yourself."

But it's not always easy to have an offbeat wedding. Some wedding experts caution the bride may not have enough time to handle the extra responsibilities. Other brides say they still feel families and friends expect them to throw a lavish, traditional wedding.

"There was so much pressure on everything," said former bride Meg Keene, founder of the blog A Practical Wedding. "Everything was presented as obviously this is the option you'll choose, if you want it to be a good wedding."

For Sifuentes, throwing a bowling alley wedding came with some hesitation. She worried about what some guests would think about her cutbacks.

"I was concerned that I was going to come off as a cheap bride or not having a very nice wedding," she said. "I didn't want it to be a tacky wedding."

But her bowling alley wedding turned out to be classy, she said. About 70 of the couple's closest friends and family members joined them to feast on an Italian buffet. There was plenty of dancing, but they also found time to bowl.

A survey in 2009 also found brides are watching expenses. Four out of five couples set a budget for their wedding. Half the brides will spend time researching financing for the ceremony and reception, the survey said.

"People are being smarter," said Ali Phillips, owner of a wedding planning boutique firm, Engaging Events by Ali, in Chicago. "They are asking themselves: Do we really need to have the fancy chairs? Do you really have to give wedding favors?"

Phillips, who has been a wedding consultant for nine years, said she noticed clients making cutbacks to guest lists and choosing fewer upgrades this year. For example, five years ago, the average guest list contained about 180 people. This year, the guest lists have about 120 people.

Jennifer Crawford, 30, of Huntington Beach, California, kept her wedding budget a priority. At her wedding in April, she shaved costs by having a seamstress copy the style of her dream gown that retailed at $2,800 at a boutique. Her handmade replica was a fraction of the cost -- $650.

Do we really need to have the fancy chairs? Do you really have to give wedding favors?
--Ali Phillips, wedding planner

"What was best about this idea was being personally involved in the design process," Crawford said. "I did not want a cookie-cutter dress. I wanted it to be special and fun."

In Oklahoma, bride-to-be Ashley Heckathorn, 24, estimated she will save up to $15,000 by making her own bouquets, which will save her from whittling down the guest list. She is relying on Craigslist and friends' talents to find deals for her wedding, set for June 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Some wedding experts say the wedding industry is recovering. Xochitl Gonzalez, a wedding consultant at Always a Bridesmaid in New York, said her guests aren't as afraid to spend money on the ceremony and reception as they were when the economy initially plummeted.

Rebecca Dolgin, executive editor at The, said weddings are recession proof. But Dolgin said she noticed brides are shopping more carefully and comparing deals for their weddings.

"People generally only get married once," Dolgin said. "There may be ebbs and flows in the economy, but they are always going to look back on their wedding day."