Your big day doesn't have to mean a big bill

Weddings are pricier than ever, but Chiara Cavaglieri shows how to save money without sacrificing on style

Getting married has always been an expensive business, and the recession has only amplified the financial strain a wedding can place on a couple.

The average wedding cost now stands at an incredible £21,089, a figure that has rocketed by 97 per cent since November 1998, according to a survey by wedding insurance provider Weddingplan. Many couples will find that the lavish wedding of their dreams is simply beyond their reach, but a few sacrifices can make all the difference and stop newlyweds from starting their married life with thousands of pounds' worth of debt.

Firstly, couples should set a realistic budget and list exactly what they want from the big day. Focus on the most important features and spend less money on unnecessary extras. By far the biggest expense for most weddings is the reception. Paying for the venue, catering and decorations can rack up an enormous bill but there are lots of ways to reduce costs without compromising on style.

"If you want to have a budget wedding, do your own research and see what kind of venues you have at your disposal, such as pubs and schools," says a spokeswoman from wedding advice website Weddingsfrom scratch. com. Specific venues designed for wedding receptions are likely to charge over the odds, whereas less traditional venues including village halls and sports clubs may offer far more competitive prices. Friends and relatives may even be members of a club and able to get a discount on the hiring charge.

The ideal venue could lie closer to home. A friend or relative with a big garden could allow the couple to hold the reception at their home and a removal company can be hired to move furniture and clear some space. For those determined to venture further afield, hotels with wedding licences will often offer discounted room hire if both the ceremony and the reception are held with them.

Weddingsfromscratch.com says there is no reason for couples to take on all the wedding customs. Instead of buying a traditional wedding cake, which can cost hundreds of pounds, clever alternatives such as cupcakes, chocolate fountains, or even a cheese tower can be much cheaper and add a personal touch. Or check out the bargains on the high street. "You can pick up a lot more on the high street these days. Marks & Spencer has recently launched a lovely selection of wedding cakes," says Carol Richardson from wedding advice website Confetti.co.uk.

When it comes to food, many couples opt for a sit-down meal but this is expensive and by no means necessary. A buffet is usually much cheaper and just as enjoyable; cut costs further by choosing a vegetarian menu. Try a local catering college, which may be able to provide the food at heavily discounted prices. Similarly, a student photographer from a local college or university could be hired at a considerably reduced rate. Digital photography is much cheaper than film, and saves substantially on printing costs. If a professional photographer is a must, ensure that all quotes include print costs.

Couples can also take on some of the work themselves to cut costs, including decorating the venue, or using homemade invitations and menus. "Crafting has really taken off in this country and lots of people are making their own invitations," says Ms Richardson. There are even ways to save money on gifts: couples can register with website Youbuymywedding.com which allows guests to contribute towards the wedding rather than buying a gift.

When it comes to the ceremony, choosing the right time and season to get married will make a big difference. Midweek weddings can be inconvenient but will be much cheaper than getting married on a Saturday or Sunday. A wedding outside of the summer peak months can cut costs by up to 50 per cent. The slower months will mean there are more venues to choose from and more opportunity to barter on everything from the flowers to the photography. It may even be cheaper for couples to consider getting married abroad when exchange rates are more favourable.

Switching from a white wedding to a more environmentally friendly green wedding can also help financially. Using seasonal flowers from the UK, rather than air-freighted foreign blooms, will be better for the environmental as well as fresher and cheaper.

Jen Marsden, home and lifestyle editor for the online directory GreenGuide.co.uk, recommends using berries and seasonal fruits for table decorations and bouquets during the autumn and sweet peas and marigolds for the summer. An extra money-saving trick is to use the same flowers for both the reception and the ceremony.

Some brides prefer to splash out on expensive jewellery on their big day, but there are ethical implications surrounding certain precious stones and metals. An alternative to bling is to look at more natural adornments, which could include "vegetable ivory" or sea-glass jewellery.

There is no reason for the recession bride and groom to spend a fortune on clothing either. Vintage second-hand dresses are available online from auction sites such as eBay and even charity shops can offer some gems. There are 10 Oxfam shops with bridal departments, most of which sell dresses that are donated by designers or bridal stores and are in great condition. The bigger department stores such as Debenhams and BhS are cashing in on the need for credit crunch weddings with dresses and suits for under £100. M&S hit the headlines last year for cutting the price of selected bridal gowns to as little as £15.

When it comes to paying for a wedding, it's ideal to meet costs from savings. However, not all of us have thousands or tens of thousands on deposit. Inevitably, some couples will borrow. Remember that choosing a high rate loan or simply getting one from your bank can scupper all the money-saving efforts made in other areas of the big day. The best buy loans for £10,000 borrowed over five years is Tesco personal finance at 7.9 per cent or AA at 8 per cent. Couples with a mortgage may find it cheaper to take a further advance.

Super savers: A wedding at a quarter of the average cost

Andrew Strachen, 31, and his wife Helen, 29, from south-east London, were married at the end of 2007 and spent just £4,730 on their wedding, a far cry from the average cost of £21,089, according to Weddingplan.

Andrew, a quality control manager at a recruitment firm, and Helen, a business development manager for a UK charity, held the reception at the Punch Tavern, a Grade-II listed pub in Fleet Street, London, after getting married at the nearby St Bride's Church.

"The venue was the biggest saving by far, but getting a friend to do the photography was a huge saving as well," said the couple. "We also saved the cost of a DJ by setting up our own playlist on an iPod which the venue played for us."

The couple invited 80 people to the do and were charged just £800 by the Punch Tavern. The price included a welcome Bellini drink, canapés, a three-course meal, half a bottle of wine per person and some champagne to toast.

"We had an utterly wonderful day," the said. "The church ceremony was beautiful and the reception ran very smoothly and was great fun. We wouldn't have wanted to change a single thing about it."

What Andrew and Helen spent:

Church ceremony: £1,500

Catering, including cake: £950

Bride's and bridesmaids' dresses: £1,170

Photographer and limo: £360

Other costs: £750

Total: £4,730

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