Wedding bliss

Saying "I do" has never been so stress-free. Here are 28 tips from savvy brides who'll help you plan your perfect day

For a happy event, it’s hard to beat a wedding. But one day of joy often comes at the expense of months of anxiety, tension and family fights. “We’ve been conditioned to believe that a wedding is the happiest day of our lives,” says Li Robbins, author of Going Bridal: How to Get Married Without Losing Your Mind (McGraw-Hill). “You start to believe that the day has to be perfect. But when you come down to it, it’s just one day in your life.”

True enough, but it’s a landmark one. So, if you’d rather feel calm instead of frantic as you consider venues and sift through services, you’re in luck. The girlfriend-tested wisdom on these pages will make the planning process less stressful regardless of whether your budget is richer than a 10-tier cake or as simple as an A-line dress.

Budget Sense

Cynthia Wice knew exactly where she wanted to get married: outside her fiancé’s family home in Stroud, Ont., with its lovely garden and forest. “I remember thinking I wouldn’t need flowers because the garden was so beautiful,” says Wice. But she hadn’t anticipated the hidden costs of staging a wedding at home: from travel bills for serving staff to renting portable toilets. Plus, every plate and glass had to be rented and delivered, which added dollars and stress. “The knives weren’t delivered till 5 p.m. on the Saturday,” she says. “Our wedding was at 5:30. You can imagine what that was like.”

Consider all costs A hotel that charges an all-inclusive rate of $150 per guest may be a better value than an inexpensive venue that dings you for every chair and tablecloth—especially when you factor in the time it takes to hunt down all the pieces you need.

Stick to your budget Couples often fork over extra dollars—hundreds or thousands—because they become convinced that their wedding will be the most important day of their lives (you’ll hear this a lot in the industry). Consider what you can afford and whether either set of parents will offer financial aid. Build in a Murphy’s Law cushion for unexpected expenses.

Be flexible about dates Weekends from May through September are at a premium because most people want them. But if you’re willing to get married during a less popular month, you’ll often get more for your money.

Calculate time versus money Hiring a wedding planner is expensive (services start at about $1,500 and go way up), but if you and your fiancé are too busy for a 10 a.m. linen inspection, a planner can save you a lot of stress. The key is to find someone who will work within your budget. Some venues have a wedding co-ordinator on staff, such as full-service Marriott Hotels. If you book with them, the planner won’t charge extra to help with anything from choosing a menu to finding a florist.

Know your priorities What do you want to remember about your wedding day? If you love music and want dancing, you’ll need to budget for a DJ or band, but having formal wedding portraits or a full bar might not matter to you. Those bridal magazine charts on budgeting work best if you tailor them to your preferences.

A Smooth Reception

Since we’re both foodies, my husband and I chose each morsel carefully at a food tasting at a venue in his home town. But on the night of our wedding, we were stunned to discover that the caterers had made some menu changes, most notably replacing a beef dish with pork. “It’s a substitution,” said the catering manager when we tracked him down. “Read the contract.” It turned out that his change was kosher—legally speaking, anyway. Too bad he forgot Dan’s family is Jewish.

Negotiate contracts carefully Some venues have restrictions you may not like such as banning candlelit centrepieces. Others force you to use their own suppliers or charge extra if your wedding doesn’t end precisely at midnight. A “reasonable substitution” clause is standard, so you’d need to add a ban on pork to avoid our situation.

Stay in season If you’re determined to carry tulips in November, you’ll pay a premium. Go with what’s in season for flowers and food and you’ll lower your bill.

Don’t obsess over details Few people will care that your centrepieces are rare orchids that match the bridesmaids’ dresses. They will, however, notice if you don’t offer anything but hors d’oeuvres and wedding cake during a dinner-hour reception. Most of the details that stress out brides aren’t really important to their guests.

Limit your choices You don’t need to interview 20 bakers to find a wedding cake. “There will always be something better,” says Tanya Coulthard, city editor of Wedding Bells magazine. “But searching forever will just make your decisions harder.”

Keeping up Appearances

Ilana Rubel chose a fairy tale wedding dress, but her shopping experience was a nightmare. Rubel, normally a size 10, was told she would need a size 14 dress, which carried a “plus size” premium of $600 on top of the regular charges. “They told me wedding dresses run small and I’d be flirting with disaster to go below a size 14.” Instead, she ordered a size 12 and pledged to exercise more. But the opposite happened: work got crazy and she ended up gaining 10 pounds. “I was terrified that I’d have to have emergency liposuction or something,” says Rubel. But when she got the dress, the size 12 was still way too big—and the salon charged her $300 for alterations to cut it down to fit.

Bridal shops are unlike other stores Many stores only see potential customers by appointment and carry an array of dresses but only in one size, which might be a size 6 or 10. “The dress you try on isn’t the one you take home,” says Coulthard. “They take your measurements and consult a chart. What they tell you to order might be two or even three sizes too big.” While it’s easier to trim a gown than enlarge it, major downsizing often equals major fees. Don’t rely on word-of-mouth promises: get alteration fees specified in your contract. And if you feel uncomfortable with the sales pitch at a salon, go elsewhere.

Bridesmaid dresses are hated for a reason There is no such thing as a universally flattering dress, and what looks smashing on your statuesque friend will not flatter your petite plus-size sister. For options they’ll wear again, skip bridal shops and check out evening wear stores. Or, let them choose for themselves: hand them fabric in your chosen colour and a few guidelines (cocktail-length, no low-cut cleavage). Or, you might opt out of bridesmaids altogether—your friends can wear what they want and will still be there to help when you need them.

Rent a dress No one thinks twice about renting a tux. Renting a dress might allow you to indulge your Vera Wang fantasy for a realistic price. Check costume rental shops and stores that sell and rent formal wear.

Plan for hair and makeup Who wants to fuss with her own updo on the big day? Pay for a trial run at a trusted salon so you can fine-tune your look and know how long it will take. Offering hair and makeup appointments to your bridesmaids is super thoughtful—and it will help them forget about any Bridezilla moments you’ve put them through.

All brides are beautiful Whether clad in a designer dress or barefoot at a beach ceremony, women glow when they get married. It’s true regardless of how much—or little—money is spent.

How to Hire Help

Shandley McMurray and her husband-to-be didn’t want to spend $2,000 on a wedding video like another couple they knew. So, they hired a videographer instead for $800 after finding him in a wedding guide. But it turned out to be anything but a good deal. During the ceremony, he plunked his equipment down in the aisle so that many guests couldn’t see; later, he asked the couple to redo the cake cutting ceremony three times. The worst came when McMurray actually watched the video. “During the ceremony, he kept zooming in to see if I was crying, and all you see onscreen is this giant eyeball,” she says. “Then during the ring exchange he zeroed in on my breast and stayed there for 20 seconds. We never got a shot of our hands or the rings, but we know what my breast looks like!”

Nothing beats word of mouth A deal isn’t a deal when you’re so unhappy with the result that instead of saving, you realize you wasted money. In general, it’s worth paying extra for someone who comes recommended. The umpteen bridal magazines that list service providers aren’t endorsing them; it’s a form of advertising. Instead, get referrals from friends or the wedding co-ordinator at the venue. Then check their portfolios to see if their work suits your taste and budget.

Plan way ahead Many photographers and service providers such as DJs and bands are booked months ahead so it helps to be flexible about timing.

Look beyond the wedding industry It isn’t a bad thing if a photographer, florist or musician doesn’t specialize in the wedding market. Often they come with fresh ideas outside of traditional wedding fare that can make your celebration all the more special and unique. One clever bride heard a busker on the subway and ended up hiring his jazz trio for her wedding. Another hired a local newspaper photographer to take relaxed candid shots of the day.

Negotiate your perfect package Wedding photographers usually have special packages. But why pose for countless portraits when you really want candid black-and-whites of your guests? Instead of buying several wedding albums with identical prints, consider uploading photos digitally for everyone to see.

Avoiding Family Feuds

You love your family, which is why you want them around when you marry. But you could do without their advice and demands. “People have a lot of expectations because weddings represent different things to different people,” says wedding guide author Li Robbins. Here’s how to cope with potential problems:

· Know yourself “If you get stressed because of family arguments, consider a destination wedding,” says Tanya Coulthard, city editor of Wedding Bells magazine. Or hire a wedding planner to deal with the inevitable heat about the guest list: a third party makes a great buffer.
· Look a gift horse in the mouth Accepting cash from your parents means giving up some control. Discuss any strings that are attached. If their wishes don’t mesh with yours, decline the cash and tell them why.
· Family and friends can’t help with everything More brides could benefit from delegating tasks such as addressing invitations. However, saving money by using family members instead of professionals could also strain your relationships.
· Establish rules about the guest list Paring down the guest list is never fun. It’s easier to stick to a rule—say, no work colleagues—than to invite a few and leave the rest feeling as if they didn’t make the grade. And unless they’re paying, you’re entitled to ask your parents to invite, say, no more than 10 people of their choice.
· Grin and bear it together When the world is driving you nuts, talk to your partner—and hopefully laugh or shrug it off. And remember: you can’t control how others will behave, so know that your uncle who gets drunk at every family wedding will get drunk at yours, too. So what? After all, it’s just one day in your lives and the beginning of a new partnership.