One morning in early January, I spontaneously proposed to my boyfriend on the living room couch. He was mid-gulp with his coffee. To my relief, he said yes as soon as he swallowed. Like besotted romantics everywhere, we couldn't wait a whole year to get married. So we opted for an August ceremony, giving ourselves just eight months to plan the wedding. Two weeks later, we had another, much less pleasant, surprise. I was laid off.
Even before then, we hadn't been planning a lavish event. The typical American wedding budget -- around $29,000 including the honeymoon -- was never an option for us. The prospect of spending my entire year's salary on a single day was surreal, even in boom time. But now our budget would be smaller -- we settled on $8,000, thankfully subsidized by our parents. Yet even with their financial support, we knew we'd have to be creative with money. We didn't even bother with an engagement ring. When people asked to see it, I told them the truth: "I haven't got one. But there is an engagement coffee cup."
I had no idea how to start planning my wedding. Like so many starry-eyed brides before me, I turned to books on wedding planning and bridal magazines as thick as a phone book, but my enthusiasm curdled into panic as I read expansive lists of "essential" wedding gear: Favors. Programs. Three-tiered centerpieces. A band that can play the Wedding March and "We Are Family." And that was before I saw a single price tag.
It's easy to criticize the astronomical amounts people spend on weddings -- until you actually have to plan one. I'd eye the Italian silk radzimir of a goddess gown from J. Crew only to start gulping for air when I saw the price: a mere $1,950, or one-quarter of our budget. Tell vendors the event is a wedding, and watch the price tag balloon. Even our city parks department was guilty of cashing in. To reserve a spot for a family gathering: $35. To reserve the same spot for a wedding: $110.
Of course we weren't alone in our sticker shock. The sprawling multibillion-dollar wedding industry has bred a whole subculture of DIY wedding bloggers and Web sites devoted to creative, budget-conscious couples trying to navigate around the money pit of that "one perfect day." In Portland, Ore., the East Side Bride assured me it would be OK to wear Converse sneakers if that was my thing, while from Seattle, the Offbeat Bride encouraged me to join her online social network of "kick-ass, independently minded couples." After hours of scrolling through these kinds of sites, I felt confident that our ideal wedding (whatever that was) could still happen. I stopped hyperventilating, and I dusted off those purple Converse.
We wanted to throw the best party we could for our friends and family, to thank them for getting us to this point in our lives. With this purpose in mind, some things were easy to cut, while others required a downgrade and a personal tweak. Favors? We didn't need to print up tacky magnets with our picture that would end up in most people's junk drawer. Stretch Hummers? At a couple hundred dollars an hour, no thanks. Since we're avid cyclists, we chose a $200 bicycle parade instead, complete with bicycle rickshaws for anyone like me who didn't want to ride in their fancy duds. How about champagne? At $80 a bottle, we opted out. Being lovers of good beer, some friends agreed to spend several evenings teaching us the craft of home brewing. A five-gallon keg costs about $45, so we'll all be raising a rich dark stout for the toasts.
It was only after we'd slathered glue onto homemade lanterns and watched them harden into a glumpy mess that we realized we needed more help. So we started asking people if they wanted to participate. Anyone with a good idea, and a willingness to get their hands dirty, was welcome to contribute. That's when, like a good old-fashioned barn-raising, our wedding day really began to take shape. Instead of an $800 cake, my fiancé's grandmother wanted to bake our favorite berry pies. My mother cut the fabric for the hand-sewn invitations. My mother-in-law the gardener promised to grow and arrange the flowers. One sister-in-law designed my dress while my brother's wife practiced her harp for when I walk down the aisle. The best part has been telling each person to be creative with their choices, from the song selections to the dress seams to the flowers. We only ask them to do what they think is beautiful or celebratory, or that reminds them of us. All of which makes the day a more old-fashioned communal celebration, as opposed to an exhibition of how much money we burned through. Which, frankly, feels like a nice alternative to the game of status-seeking brinksmanship that has defined weddings over the past decade and given the world such dubious self-satires as "Bridezillas" and "Bride Wars."
Sure, there may be some wrinkled suits after the bike parade. Martha Stewart may not approve of the mix-and-match wedding party. Our wedding day will not fit into a nice, neat rose-and-lavender theme. Then again, neither have our lives. Our friends and family have shaped us and carried us up to this point. So will it be with our wedding.