Luxe vs. Lean

Over the past few years, wedding budgets have ballooned to amounts unimaginable by most brides’ grandparents. Lured by the lavish nuptials they see in magazines and on television, many brides begin planning their weddings with visions of luxury dancing in their heads.
For a lucky few, those visions can become reality. Brides and grooms with luxe budgets can have fun choosing the best the market has to offer, or customizing their wedding with lots of made-to-order trimmings.
In most families, though, wedding budgets are finite, and this year’s economic turmoil has cramped them even more. For these brides, imagination is their trump card. A lean budget doesn’t spell an end to bridal dreams. It just means you have to work a little harder to make those dreams come true, and be willing to compromise a bit along the way.

Setting the tone
A wedding invitation sets the tone, says Margaret Jones, owner of Scriptura. Fortunately, beautiful invitations are available in every price range, she says. Brides who can spring for high-end invitations get heavier card stock, and have their invitations printed on letterpress. Invitations like these cost from $12 to $26 a set (including reply card).
Those opting for less expensive invitations do well to choose something plainer, maybe in ecru and black, that “flies under the radar,” Jones says. These invites, which cost from $4 to $6 a set, are done by flat print or thermograph on domestic cotton paper.
Eliminating the reply card doesn’t save money in the long run, Jones points out. When guests don’t bother to RSVP on their own, brides either have to call the guest list or pay for extra reception food that may be uneaten.

All dressed in white
Gail Hester, bridal consultant at Mimi, knows wedding gowns. Brides usually come in with a definite idea – often going back to childhood – of how they want to look as they walk down the aisle. Mimi carries the Vera Wang line of bridal wear. Gowns are available in a wide price range, Hester says. The dresses start at around $2,400. The less costly dresses are generally plainer, she says, but they are so well-designed that they still make a statement. A gown for $3,900, for example, is made of English tulle, a light and airy fabric that costs less than heavy duchesse satin. Even though its fabric is lighter, the dress is still pretty enough to have been featured in the movie Bride Wars.
More expensive gowns start at around $8,000 and can cost $13,000 or more, Hester says. These luxe gowns are entirely handmade by one person and use the highest-end fabrics. Their cost comes from the design features, Hester says, not from lots of beadwork or other embellishments.
At Mimi, all gowns are special order and are altered for free.
Jordan Schulman, owner of Pearl’s Place in Metairie, says brides with tight budgets can take comfort in the fact that wedding gowns are usually just worn for a few hours, so they don’t have to be made to last a lifetime. And dress designers, taking note of the economy, are putting more choices out there. “You can find what you’re looking for,” he says, even at prices as low as $250. Samples and stock pieces can save you money.
Brides who aren’t concerned with price tags gravitate toward designers like Monique Lhuillier, whose gowns can cost $12,000. A close look at one of these gowns shows the high-quality fabric and meticulous tailoring that goes into a dress of that caliber, Schulman says. “They’re not a copy, they’re the real thing,” he says.

Flower power 
Flowers take another chunk out of the budget. Local freelance designer Meade Wenzel, who does all types of parties, has compiled some money-saving tips for those seeking to cut costs. She suggests using plants versus flowers when possible – a $25 pot of azaleas, for example, makes a bigger show than $25 worth of cut flowers. You can also buy large plants and cut them into smaller pieces for vases.
Instead of spreading a small budget too thinly, Wenzel recommends buying one eye-popping piece and placing it where it can be seen. And look for flowers that “work hard,” she says, such as the Casablanca lily, which makes a show. Even the color of flower can make a difference in cost, with antique green hydrangeas costing twice as much as white ones. Finally, pick up the flowers from the rehearsal, tweak them a bit, and reuse them the day of the wedding.

Wenzel says she has done weddings with $20,000 flower budgets. For that amount, brides can add lots of “bells and whistles,” she says, such as flower wreaths on the church doors. But most flower budgets are around $7,000, she says.

Event coordinator Jo Baudoin, owner of Details by Josie, has done weddings luxe and lean and says the most important thing is to be realistic about what you can afford. An upscale wedding for 150 people can hit $50,000 easily, she says, and expenses can climb rapidly as custom details are added. Want your napkins blind embossed or printed? Want five dozen tightly wrapped flowers in your bouquet? Want the table linens at the reception go all the way to the floor? It’s done – but for a price.

 Sky’s-the-limit brides can count on other extras, such as a truffle or martini bar, elevated table arrangements, cut glass votives, colored linens, chiavari chairs (which rent for $8 or $9 a piece) and cakes that top $5 a slice.
But Baudoin also knows plenty of ways to economize. Consider a Friday evening wedding, she says; most venues will give you a discount. July and August are also less expensive months to hold receptions, because of the heat.
Not all potential money-saving ideas pan out, Baudoin says. Having a reception at someone’s home rarely works; even if the home is large, few residences have kitchens and bars large enough to serve a crowd. Parking is limited, and tenting the yard to give you more space can be a major expense in itself. And don’t skimp on transportation if your wedding is a distance from the hotels most guests will be staying at. You run the risk of guests not getting to the wedding on time, or trying to hail taxis at 2 a.m.

Feeding a crowd   
New Orleanians love to eat, so most local brides and grooms want to make sure their guests are well-fed. For brides going top-shelf, reception food is a long way from spiral ham and potato salad. Edie Barber, director of catering and conferences at Hotel Monteleone, offers food packages ranging from about $52 to $60 a person. On the luxe end, she recently did a wedding where entire walls of the ballroom were bathed in amber lighting. Tables were covered in flowing floor-length cloths and decorated with tall, uplit arrangements. Food offerings included a steak Diane station (with such accompaniments as roasted tomato chutney and Maytag blue cheese); a pasta station with crawfish tails; Portobello mushrooms and pine nuts; vegetable carvings; pieces of fruit on minted skewers; and soups served in demitasse cups. Other delicacies included beggar’s purses containing caramelized Asian pear and foie gras, and profiteroles with pulled pork and chiffonade of cabbage.
But Barber encourages less-flush brides not to despair. The same hammered copper or black granite trays she uses for luxury foods also look great serving lower-priced refreshments. For example, instead of foie gras, serve ratatouille. “The reception is all about the party,” she says, and guests have just as good a time eating shrimp as they do lobster.
Tapas-style receptions are hot right now, says Nanci Easterling, owner of Food Art. Instead of stations, food is plated and passed, allowing for a beautiful presentation. You can go high or low with this technique, depending on what is passed, she says. For example, small plates of pistachio- and blue cheese-encrusted tenderloin, sitting on a grit cake and drizzled with a sauce, can be a less expensive way to serve tenderloin than a carving station.
One no-no is bringing in food prepared at home. Few venues will permit it because they face lawsuits if someone eats the food and becomes ill. Caterers don’t like it either, because if the dish is unattractive, it reflects on them. If you really must have your grandmother’s potato salad at your reception, Easterling says, “give us the recipe and we will make it.”

Takes the cake
The crowning glory of most wedding receptions is the cake, and here again, prices go all over the map. At Zoë’s Bakery in Covington, cakes start at $4.25 a slice and could hit $25 a slice, depending on the labor required to decorate the cake. Many brides today are opting for clean, contemporary cakes with little icing ornamentation, says designer Denise Breaux.
One elaborate wedding she worked on recently had a pastry table with six beautiful cakes, each different, and mini-pastries. Groom’s cakes can get expensive too, when the couple wants a replica of Tiger Stadium or a Georgia bulldog.
Plainer cakes are popular at Swiss Confectionery, too, says owner Laurent Moecklin. Cakes begin at $2.50 a slice, with a discount for larger cakes. More money doesn’t buy a better-tasting cake, Moecklin explains. The cake itself has the same ingredients; the cost comes when brides want decorating that requires a lot of laborious handwork.
Sometimes people will try to save money by having a small cake for the bride and groom to cut, with sheet cake sliced and plated in the kitchen to serve to the guests. “A lot of hotels do it that way,” Moecklin says. It can save time, especially when there are hundreds of people to serve.
Occasionally a bride’s relative will volunteer to make the wedding cake. Not a good idea, Moecklin says. Few home bakers have ovens large enough for these cakes, nor do they have experience with so many layers.

Top Tips
You can have a beautiful wedding without breaking the bank if you’re willing to make some compromises. Here are a few money-saving tips from bridal experts:

    • Have your wedding in the morning. Brunches cost less than dinners, and people generally drink less alcohol early in the day.
    • Friday evening weddings are less expensive than Saturday evening events.
    • Look for free or inexpensive venues, such as city parks or gardens, for your reception.
    • Many department stores and boutiques have eveningwear that can easily double as wedding gowns.
    • Let bridesmaids wear pretty cocktail dresses rather than ordering bridesmaids’ dresses.
    • Choose local, easily obtainable flowers and food rather than expensive imports. Candles can stretch your flower budget, too.
    • Plan your wedding at a time when most churches are already decorated, such as Christmas.

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