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The big (debt) day

How couples risk tying themselves in knots

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Here's a statistic that may churn the stomach of someone who recently got engaged, or parents of the recently engaged.

According to Weddingbells magazine, the average cost of a wedding these days is $32,358.

To some, this might be chump change. No amount of money is too much for the big day, right?

Still, this is Winnipeg, where most folks make much less than six figures a year and young couples are happy to have found full-time work that pays the bills and the student loans.

Yet even here in the land of the bargain-hunter, people are willing to put up substantial sums when they hear wedding bells, says Emma Singh, a wedding planner and president of Events by Emma.

"I've planned weddings here with a $1-million-plus price tag," she says. "But generally, couples are spending about $30,000 on a wedding and that's a large wedding with about 200-plus guests."

Not everyone is hiring a wedding planner, which comes with a $1,000 to $6,000 price tag, but the matrimonial costs in general are increasing.

Singh says prices have doubled since she got married 13 years ago.

"The wants, the desires of couples have increased as well," she says. "There's definitely the need to have fancier weddings."

And here's another statistic that may be a result of the inflated costs for wedding goods and services, as well as the desires of brides and grooms.

According to a TD Canada Trust poll, 38 per cent of Canadians are comfortable taking on debt for their wedding day and honeymoon.

"I'm going to be the most unromantic guy around right now," says John Tracy, senior vice-president with TD. "When you're in the middle of this, when you're getting down to the end and you're thinking about making snap decisions without factoring the total cost in the picture, you can potentially spend more than you want and that can lead to taking on debt, which might be pretty undesirable."

Although it might seem worth it, wedding debt is bad debt. Sure, some say you can't put a price on love. But a big bill the day after could come at the expense of the newly minted couple's future.

After all, many couples need to save for equally -- if not more important -- costs: a down payment on a home, a car, having children and rainy days when things go expensively wrong.

"I'm not suggesting that people not follow their dreams and not have a great wedding day," he says.

"What I'm saying is this is an event worth thinking about and having a plan ahead of time to help manage the costs."

Singh says she always recommends couples avoid going into debt to pay for their wedding.

"You have to put it in perspective and work within your means."

Married couple Jocelyne Lalonde and Nathan Wikstrom recently did their nuptials in style and on budget, and are now enjoying their honeymoon financially unscathed.

"It (cost) was a medium factor for us," says Lalonde, a 27-year-old youth counsellor. "We're pretty frugal people, but this was something we were looking forward to celebrating more than anything else, so we allowed ourselves to spend a bit more than we would normally."

They splurged on some costs, such as the photographer.

"For us, it was really important to capture the day and ensure that was done well."

On others, they went the do-it-yourself route, making the centrepieces and invitations, and decorating the church themselves.

Kim Mah, editor of Real Weddings Magazine, says DIY weddings are a growing trend.

"I've seen some beautiful weddings put together on a shoestring budget, where the couple and their families and friends pulled together to make all the stationery, decor and food by hand," says the editor of the Vancouver-based magazine.

Help from family and friends can certainly cut costs. A little cash injection from the -- ahem -- parents of the bride and groom helps a lot, too.

A touchy subject for many, Tracy says a couple should address parental support early in the planning process.

"Before the couples decide what they want to take on, having a good conversation with parents and other family that might be participating in funding is really important," he says.

While the money's good, paternal financial support can inflame wedding-related stress.

"If a bride or groom's parents pay for the wedding, then the couple may risk losing control over important details," Mah says. "It's hard to say 'no' to parents' wishes, even if you disagree with them, when they're the ones footing the bill for the entire day."

Many parents do kick in some money and other aid with no strings attached. Some may cover alcohol costs. Others may provide sweat equity, such as helping decorate.

But these days, a lot of couples are footing the bill themselves.

"They're older than they used to be and they're also professionals," Singh says. They may already have the house, the car, even the child and substantial savings, so splurging on the big day makes sense to them, she adds.

Another reason many couples are able to bear much of the cost on their own is engagements are longer than they once were.

"When I first started, couples were engaged anywhere from six to 12 months," she says. "Now couples are engaged for anywhere from eight to 36 months."

More time to plan means more time to save, but for Lalonde and Wikstrom, time was of the essence. They got engaged last fall, which they soon realized left them with fewer options for venues -- the most significant cost -- because many good locations had been booked for more than a year in advance.

Still, they found the perfect spot in the end, even if it cost them a little more than they would have liked to have paid.

It was worth it, Lalonde says.

"The memories will last a lifetime."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 B12

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