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How Much Wedding Will $20,000 Buy?

When Heather Colburn and Greg Neil began planning their wedding, they had two goals: spend no more than $20,000, and invite 270 of their closest friends and relatives.

They accomplished both on May 26 with careful and creative planning. "We chose what was important to us and cut back on areas that were not," says Colburn, who saved on her dress, flowers and other expenses.

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Despite a still weak economy, American couples are spending more on weddings. The average nuptials cost $27,021 in 2011, up from $26,984 in 2010, according to a survey by wedding planning website TheKnot.com. But weddings occur at every price point, and almost every couple (recently wed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg might be the exception) tries to make the most of limited dollars.

While there is great variety on what kind of wedding you can put on, Laura Ursin, a wedding consultant who runs Brides on a Budget, in Madison, Wisconsin, has a rule of thumb for figuring costs: "When you plan your wedding, add two zeros to your guest list." It typically costs more than that in bigger cities.

Fortunately there's a budget for every couple. Here's a sampling of what kind of wedding those budgets will buy.

A BACKYARD FETE FOR $5,000


Plenty of people spend $5,000 or less, but these celebrations typically are simpler and smaller - something around 20 people, says Ursin.

The venue is often a private location like a relative's backyard or garden, which makes renting a private venue, with a price tag of often $5,000 to $20,000, unnecessary. Food is simple - think barbecue - or light, like appetizers, wine and perhaps a champagne toast.

Many wedding dresses in small weddings match the casual atmosphere, with the price capped at $500-$1000, says Ursin, who spent $800 on her own wedding dress. Macy's or other department stores that have trunk shows with dresses from previous seasons are good hunting grounds for these brides, as are websites like Weddingbee.com, which hosts message boards, classified ads and DIY ideas.

AT $20,000, SERVE SIGNATURE COCKTAILS

While $20,000 sounds like a lot, it's not if the crowd is large. Just ask Colburn, 36, and Neil, 30, both residents of Madison, Wisconsin.

They rented the Madison Children's Museum, which allowed them to bring in their own food vendors. They brought in food trucks with local foods like Wisconsin cheddar macaroni and cheese. For dessert, a local farm provided home-baked pies to take the place of a wedding cake.

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"We wanted the wedding to represent us," said Colburn. "That we are a unique couple, a fun couple."

The couple reduced the open bar expense by offering the bride's own favorite cocktail (a mixture of vodka, lime and club soda called a Smitten Kitten) along with wine for three hours during the reception. Beer was served the rest of the night, and all other drinks were offered in a cash bar.

THE $50,000 BIG CITY WEDDING

If you're getting married in a big city like New York or San Francisco, be prepared to pay a big-city premium. On average, couples in Manhattan, the most expensive location in the country, spent $65,824 on their weddings last year, according to TheKnot.com.

But couples also pay more for special foods, flowers and display. For example, a decadent "dessert bar" to satisfy foodie couples can add $12-$15 per person for many venues, while a traditional wedding cake can be $3 per slice.

Some couples prefer a certain "wow" factor to impress their guests, says JoAnn Schwartz Woodward, a wedding coordinator who plans plush weddings in Houston and who recently organized a light-up dance floor for one couple to spin and sway as guests tossed flower petals ($8,000). These details are difficult to fit into wedding budgets under $50,000. For the picture-perfect scene of a bride and groom gazing up at a fireworks show, be prepared to tack on $5,000-$10,000.

One thing that couples are doing less often: serving champagne. Instead, guests toast with whatever they are drinking, typically beer, wine and generic brands of liquor. The difference between top-shelf liquors and the generic brands can be $30 per person.

"Not everything can be a 10," says Woodward. "I would rather put the money toward something more important."

$100,000

Want every guest to enjoy crab claws and oysters during the cocktail reception? You may be paying $100-$150 per person, depending on the location. Fanciful details like a horse-drawn carriage ($650), or sparklers that surprise guests from the centerpieces during the first dance ($3,500), are costly but meaningful splurges for some couples.

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Sarah and Mando Leal were married at St. Martins Episcopal Church in Houston in November 2011, just before they threw a reception to remember at the Petroleum Club. The budget, which included accommodations for some of the 310 guests, as well as some big ticket items that offered that "wow" factor, was close to $125,000.

The flowers, Picasso calla lilies to match Leal's purple and white color scheme, came in at about $8,000; 30 centerpieces, including hanging candle lights, cost around $200 each.

Dance lessons for a couple who wants to impress their guests with their first spin around the dance floor can range from $200 to $600 for a few sessions. The Leals did a choreographed number, adding sparklers timed to burn just as the couple took to the dance floor for the first time.

Sarah's silk and satin ivory dress cost around $6,000; she spent a couple thousand more on her diamond necklace and earrings.

For dinner, guests ate filet mignon and red snapper with crab meat ($70 per person), while a 12-member Dallas band called Limelight played on the bandstand ($12,000). As favors, guests picked up Mexican cookies made and decorated by one of the groom's relatives and wrapped in gold cellophane. The Leals' cake was decorated with flowers and linens in a lush presentation for $3,700.

SAVING FOR EVERY BUDGET

Every wedding planner has a short list of savings. Here are a few suggestions:

- Cut the guest list. Weddings are getting smaller, and it's one of the easiest ways to cut expenses. The average number of guests fell to 141 in 2011 from 149 in 2010, and from 153 in 2007, according to TheKnot.com.

- Make your own centerpieces. Use a flower designer for the bouquets the wedding party carries, but consider arranging the reception tables yourself, with modest smaller displays that won't get in guests' sightlines.

- Forget the favors. Unless they are crafted to represent the couple in a unique way (the Mexican wedding cookies, or handmade chocolate wrappers with the guests' names on them, for example), they are often a cost that can easily be eliminated.

"You think, 'God, why do you spend so much on a wedding?' But then you realize that once you have to feed all these people, you have to find solutions," said Colburn.

(Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and John Wallace)

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