Economy ushering in new frugality, focus for brides
When Lori Meinhold saw a $5,000 strapless, ivory silk taffeta Vera Wang dress at a samples sale on Newbury Street, she knew she had to have it for her wedding in January. But with a strict $15,000 allotment for the event, Meinhold couldn't afford to blow a third of the budget on her gown.
So she got creative. Meinhold pawed through the crowded racks of Vows Bridal Outlet in Newton and found the same dress for $1,700.
"This is the time to plan a wedding," said Meinhold, a 30-year-old marketing professional from Quincy, as she picked up the dress with her mother and grandmother on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon. "Everyone is desperate for business. We'd never be able to afford a wedding otherwise."
For Meinhold and the many thousands of other brides who get married in a year in Massachusetts - typically at least 28,000 in Greater Boston, and roughly 670 in Newton alone - the recession is an unexpected guest with a silver lining.
From gowns to flowers to cupcakes, brides are trimming costs. Spending in the Boston area's market is expected to slip from $1.9 billion last year to $1.8 billion this year, according to the Wedding Report, an Arizona-based research company that sees Newton's share of the industry falling from $109 million to $101 million over the same time frame.
But brides are reportedly taking the cutbacks in stride, using the weak economy as an opportunity to get creative and refocus their events on family and spirituality.
"People are absolutely cutting back," said Shane McMurray, founder and chief executive officer of the Wedding Report. "But brides are also rethinking what's important. There's more focus now on family. People will still get married. But we won't see them spend the way they used to."
Meinhold and fiance Christian O'Meara chose January, a traditionally slow, and inexpensive, month to book a venue, for their wedding. Her sister, a graphic designer, is making her invitations. A friend of her mother's, a florist, is giving the couple a deal on flowers. And Meinhold plans to fashion the centerpieces herself.
"I just can't justify going for an extravagant event," she said. "We just don't want a lot of credit card debt." Meinhold's parents plan to contribute $10,000 - two-thirds of the budget.
Meinhold isn't the only bride scaling back.
For her September wedding, Chero Waters of Acton swapped out her dream venue - Grand View Mountain Resort in Whitefield, N.H. - for Dartmouth Chapel in Hanover, N.H., a more affordable option.
"This is going to be just as good," said Waters, 27, as her mother and sister persuaded her to try on a ball gown at Vows. "We're still pretty excited."
Wynne DeCew, 29, of Arlington, a mental health counselor at Mount Auburn Hospital, is shelving her favorite flowers - pricey, exotic orchids - for local, in-season flowers for her September wedding on Cape Cod.
"Does the economy put a damper on things?" DeCew pondered as she rifled through a rack of dresses. "Sure, a little bit. But you have to realize this is one day. You're not going to be in debt over one day."
For the multibillion-dollar wedding industry, that new frugality translates into falling profits. Already the industry's projected revenues nationwide for this year have slipped to $56 billion, down by $4 billion from last year, according to the Wedding Report.
Newton business owners are among the many feeling the pinch.
"It's absolutely affecting business," said event planner Linda Matzkin, owner of Newton-based Hopple Popple Inc. "People are scaling down literally across the board - with planning, with venues, with vendors, with materials. We're seeing enormous cutbacks."
Paula Kirrane is also watching as brides trim their budgets - and her balance sheet.
"We do see people scaling back," said Kirrane, owner of the Icing on the Cake bakery in Newton's Nonantum section. "Simplicity has definitely taken over."
For example, more brides are serving cupcakes, which start at $2.50 each, compared with a single, large cake that can range from $4.20 to $4.60 per slice, she said.
Brides are also displaying smaller presentation cakes, with extra serving cakes in the kitchen, and choosing simpler flavors and fillings.
"People are not going to stop getting married, they're just not going to order top-of-the-line," said Kirrane. "Rather than looking for a Cadillac, they're looking for a little Toyota."
Not all of the local wedding-related businesses are slumping, though.
"Fortunately, we're not seeing a decrease. We've actually seen our audience broaden," said Leslie DeAngelo, owner of the Vows Bridal Outlet, on Watertown Street. "More brides who want designer gowns are coming into the store."
If DeAngelo is capturing the booming bargain market, Tony Yu is seeing steady profits in his upscale market.
"Overall I wouldn't say I've noticed a huge change in spending because we have higher-end clientele less affected by the recession," said the owner of Team Yu Photography. "Brides are willing to spend money on photography; it's a once-in-a-lifetime event. At the end of the day, that's literally all they have - the booze gets drunk, the flowers die, the guests go home."
Yu, whose customized packages range from $3,000 to $15,000, is among the vendors who profit from Newton's tradition of higher-than-average spending on weddings.
The average cost of an American wedding last year was $21,814, according to the Wedding Report, which collects its statistics through quarterly bride and vendor surveys. The average bumped up to $38,393 in metro Boston, and that figure doubled to $79,621 in Newton.
"I have long wondered whether we have crossed a threshold of sorts in terms of spending on such events," said Rabbi Eric Gurvis, at Temple Shalom of Newton, in an e-mail.
"This is an important time for us to catch our collective breath. We can, and I believe must, use this crisis as an opportunity to reconsider our lives and reorient our priorities," he wrote.
The Rev. Robert Perkins, senior pastor at Newton Presbyterian Church, said he sees a silver lining to the recessionary times.
"It's a wake-up call on a lot of levels," Perkins said. "It forces all of us to think about what's important, and that certainly goes for couples planning their life together. If couples spent as much time, energy, and resources preparing for their marriage as they do for their wedding, there would be many more successful marriages."
Even so, said Perkins, who spent seven years in Asia as a missionary, including assignments in India and Bangladesh, "When it comes to marrying your daughters - anywhere in the world - you're not going to skimp. Whether you're rich or poor, you mortgage the farm to pay for the wedding."
Back in the Vows Bridal Outlet, as a dozen women dove deep into racks of designer gowns, scrutinizing materials and exchanging advice, three generations of Meinhold women quietly picked up their prize Vera Wang confection.
"It's just one day," said Lori Meinhold. "No one's going to remember how much you spent. What matters is that friends and family are there with us."