Personal Finance

Financing the night of our dreams

Katherin and Elias Lopez planned their dream wedding in Coral Gables for $37,480.
Katherin and Elias Lopez planned their dream wedding in Coral Gables for $37,480. COURTESY OF ELIAS AND KATHERIN LOPEZ

Young. Just out of college. No full-time jobs.

Most couples wouldn't hear the tolling of wedding bells under such circumstances. But we had our eyes on a big, lavish wedding, and we were ready to pay for it.

More willing than ready, actually.

In March, Katherin, my girlfriend of six years, and I got married in a beautiful ceremony in Coral Gables. The reception was held in the 6,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style rotunda of the Westin Colonnade Hotel near Miracle Mile. It featured ice sculptures and a chocolate fondue fountain. All our closest friends and family members were there: 150 people in total.

Let me modify an old cliché to say it was the happiest -- and most expensive -- day of our lives. The price tag: $37,480.

We wanted to celebrate in one night many landmark achievements: our church union (we had a civil ceremony some months before), our college graduations and our families coming together after years of separation. The wedding was also a gift to ourselves -- that one luxury, a statement of how far we've come and how far we plan to go.

So how did we do it?

The short answer is plastic. Although it's still common for the family of the bride to pick up the tab, especially among Hispanics, we didn't want our relatives to jeopardize their savings and retirement plans.

Yet we'd both always been debt-free. So we took a solemn vow, calculators in hand, to get back that way as soon as possible. We decided to put away 40 percent of our salaries and pay off our debt within 10 months of the pouring of the last champagne glass.


Weddings are an expensive business -- the average wedding costs $28,000. The wedding industry is worth about $85 billion in the United States, according to the Association of Wedding Professionals, and that doesn't count honeymoons.

And we didn't have a lot of money. Katherin, 25, had emigrated with her family from Colombia seven years ago. Thanks to discipline and hard work, her parents today have a house in Kendall and helped Kathy through the University of Miami for her degree in biomedical engineering.

I am 24 now, and had moved to Miami from Caracas to live with my grandmother and aunt while attending journalism school at Florida International University. I was on a student visa, unable to work until I got a special permit.

Kathy and I met as freshmen in college. For many years our fanciest dates consisted of renting a movie, or when we couldn't afford that, watching reruns of Friends and The Simpsons. Some weekends I couldn't drive to her house because I did not have enough money for gas, even back when it cost little more than $1 a gallon.

Katherin was the financial mastermind of our wedding and payback plan -- she is frugal by nature, organized with money and likes to keep a tight budget. She made sure to use cards with very low interest rates -- 0 to 1.99 percent -- so our payments would have an effect on the balance.

The big-ticket items were location, photo and video, and, of course, the dress.

The rotunda of the Westin Colonnade is one of the most beautiful wedding sites in South Florida. People from all over the country and even Latin America book it months in advance. They have an in-house wedding planner who takes care of food and logistics.

The photo album and wedding video retell the experience, so we decided to put some money into that memory bank. The company we hired binds albums in leather and uses magazine-style, glossy pages for the pictures and even adds some origami for 3D effects.

Then came the dress: a designer model from a Miracle Mile boutique. And a professional make-up artist worked alongside the photographer.

Other things also ramped up the bill: flowers and decoration, the church and the limousine (you gotta make an entrance!)

To balance these luxuries, we printed out our own invitations and menus, using engraved designs from craft stores like Michael's. We calculate the savings at $400.

We also made our own wedding favors with little tin cans filled with fine dark chocolate. The savings: about $350.

Another big cut: no honeymoon tan. Less than a week after the wedding, we were both reporting to work.

It was all worth it. The night was perfect and we got to spend time with our relatives -- many of whom flew in from Venezuela and Colombia and from other parts of the United States.


Today we are making some sacrifices. Of the $5,000 we got in cash gifts from family and friends, $2,000 has gone toward debt payment. We threw in $6,000 of our own savings and a $3,500 tax return from 2006. And we've made three $4,000 payments toward the wedding so far.

Total debt still left: About $14,000.

We don't shop for clothes, electronics, or unnecessary items, and we've put a freeze on books, iTunes and restaurant outings. We cook daily meals -- brown-bag lunches and homemade dinners. And we are lucky enough to have full-time jobs with decent pay.

With our financial plan, we were able to have a memorable religious ceremony, a lavish bash and a family reunion. Now we're on the right track to paying it all off -- and kissing our debt good-bye.

Total spending $37,480 Reception $23,000 Photography/Videography $5,000 Flowers and decoration $4,500 Dress, hair and makeup $2,300 Church/String quartet $1,600 DJ, sax player $600 Limousine $350 Tuxedo rental $130


* Chose simple engagement ring in white gold.

* Made our own favors with materials bought at crafts stores.

* Printed invitation cards, envelopes and menus at home.

* Skipped the honeymoon.


These websites offer tips on how to plan your wedding: Compiled by the Business Reference Service unit of the Library of Congress, it offers tips on how to hire caterers, photographers, caterers, etc. It also has statistics with average prices. -- One of the most popular wedding websites. It has online tools available for budgeting and even planning your honeymoon, plus tons of tips in the Q&A forum. They also publish a magazine. Subscription to the website is required to access certain articles.


Who's Paying? Discuss with the families who will pay for what. Some brides' families still pick up the entire tab, but more and more groom's families are participating. Ask your folks to commit to a specific dollar amount, then add up all contributions to create your budget. If you both are paying, start saving.

How Much Do You Need? Figure out how much you need to spend to get what you want, and set your expectations accordingly. The average cost for a 150-person wedding is about $25,000 (higher in urban areas). Sit down with your partner and categorize the top five items or services that are musts for your wedding day.

Here is a basic breakdown of what you can expect to pay:

Reception 48%-50% Ceremony 2%-3% Attire 8%-10% Flowers 8%-10% Entertainment/Music 8%-10% Photography/Videography 10%-12% Stationery 2%-3% Wedding Rings 2%-3% Parking/Transportation 2%-3% Gifts 2%-3% Miscellaneous 8%

To avoid stress, allot about 5 percent of your budget for a "just-in-case" fund.

* How Much Can You Save? As soon as you're engaged, start putting aside as much of your income as you can for the wedding. Saving 20 percent of your monthly income is a good -- though painful -- goal. The longer your engagement, the more you'll be able to sock away.