The strapless wedding gown, the three-tiered cake, the bouquet of luscious blooms.

Priceless? Not nearly.

The average cost of a wedding has grown 50 percent in the past decade, from $15,208 in 1990 to $22,360 in 2002, according to the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank. The study also found that 43 percent of couples said they spent more on the wedding than they had planned.

That will continue despite the war with Iraq and the less-than-sparkling economy. But tying the knot doesn’t mean breaking the bank. Financial advisers generally suggest that couples not go into debt to have their wedding, unless they have a good plan for paying the bills.

“Especially with the way the economy is today, I just don’t recommend people going into debt,” said Suzanne Krasna, a certified financial planner in Walnut Creek, Calif. “It’s like saying, “Let’s go into debt to have a big party or go on vacation.’ Why start your life together with a huge debt?”

Couples can still have the wedding of their dreams. One of the first steps is to set up a budget, keeping in mind not only the priorities of the wedding – is the food more important or the band? – but also how it could affect future purchases, such as a house or funds for retirement or a child’s college education.

“There’s a huge financial picture that takes shape,” said Elisabeth Andreason, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley in Concord, Calif. “The wedding is just the first step.”

Couples should also review their finances and discuss their short- and long-term financial goals before putting together the wedding budget. That includes becoming familiar with each other’s debts and loans. They could find that they can sell an extra car or other short-term asset to help pay for the wedding, Krasna said.

If they have a long engagement – the average climbed from 11 months in 1990 to 16 months in 2002, according to the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank – they could also set up a joint checking account and begin stashing funds, Andreason said. She also suggested using a credit card, since it provides a record of purchases in case of a dispute, but paying off the balance each month.

All this planning allows the couple to throw the wedding they’ve fantasized about. “There’s a way to make it happen, no matter what your budget is,” said Anita Henry, managing editor of Modern Bride, a Conde Nast magazine that includes a feature offering cheap alternatives to such items as party favors, invitations and cakes.

Philipp Novales-Li and Ingrid Plooy of Livermore, Calif., managed to throw a wedding with a “European, old world charm” by cutting costs wherever they could. They held their wedding on Labor Day, a Monday, and negotiated a deal with the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco that included a free cake. They hired students from the Academy of Arts College to photograph the wedding for $250 and shopped at outlets and consignment stores for the dresses. They estimated they spent under $10,000 for their wedding for 50 guests.

They did their research, calling several vendors and comparing prices. Often, they would ask for quotes for a party, instead of a wedding.

“Lo and behold, the prices were different,” Novales-Li said.

Jennifer Fitzgerald, a marketing manager who lives in Martinez, Calif., decided to spend more on some items and scrimp on others. She decided against renting chair covers and hiring a limousine, but splurged on the wedding cake, an elaborate “Alice in Wonderland” confection.

“We bought a house after we got engaged, so we knew we had to be careful about the wedding,” she said. “Each time we made a decision, we tried to choose something that could be as inexpensive as possible without impacting the actual end result.”

Don’t overlook the Internet. Julie Thompson of Walnut Creek wanted antique jewelry to match the Edwardian theme of her wedding. She went bargain hunting on eBay, where she estimates she paid half the price she would have had to shell out for the same items at a store or antique fair. She also purchased her shoes, bridesmaid’s jewelry, candles and antique-themed gifts online.

But not all decisions will necessarily make the wedding cheaper. Couples often think that having a buffet instead of a sit-down dinner will save them money, but because it requires more food and sometimes the same number of servers, it can cost more, said Julie Raimondi, executive editor of The Knot. The same applies to hosting the wedding at home, which could require extra silverware, tables, a tent and even portable toilets.

If anything, the current lackluster economy could provide opportunities to find good bargains.

“A lot of these businesses are looking for business,” said Alan Fields, co-author of “Bridal Bargains.” “They’re willing to wheel and deal, some more than others.”

How to save

Budget-saving tips from newlyweds:

Shrink the guest list. With the reception usually the biggest expense, it’s the most obvious place to cut costs. The math is obvious: fewer guests mean fewer invitations and party favors, as well as a smaller food and alcohol bill.

Consider holding the wedding on a day other than Saturday. Besides lowering the reception costs, it makes it easier to book photographers, videographers and other vendors who might otherwise be busy. Philipp Novales-Li and Ingrid Plooy held their wedding reception at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco on Labor Day, a Monday. “It was like we had the hotel for ourselves,” Novales-Li said.

Don’t forget to negotiate. “The first price they quote you is usually open to negotiation. If not, be willing to walk away from it and go elsewhere,” said Plooy.

Enlist the help of family and friends. Yvonne Pelle’s neighbor officiated the ceremony; her father, a former restaurant owner, made spaghetti that was part of the catered buffet, and relatives helped set, serve and clean up the food. “Sometimes when you ask people to participate, that just makes it all the more special,” said Pelle.

Plan early. It’s easier to find bargains when there’s more time. “You can find sites that are less expensive and book them on a good date,” said Kat Clifford, a wedding consultant in Oakland, Calif., who planned her own wedding.

Don’t feel pressured to spend. Some couples shaved costs by not renting chair covers or using a friend’s car instead of hiring the traditional limousine. As Julie Thompson’s wedding drew closer, she felt compelled to make last-minute purchases. But she held back from buying an extra $200 of poetry books for the guests. “You start thinking, “I need this, I need that.’ But in the end you don’t,” she said. “It was tempting in the last few weeks. It was something I almost fell into.”

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