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The Guardian, 18th May 2000

The Guardian, 18th May 2000, How to survive your big day

How to survive your big day

The dress, the cake, the flowers, the rows... getting married can be a nightmare. In a bumper year for weddings, Anna Tims shows how to cut the cost - and the anguish.

A wedding is probably the most expensive celebration any of us will undertake, and this year, largely due to millennium fever, up to 20% more happy couples are walking down the aisle than in recent years. You and Your Wedding magazine estimates the industry to be worth a staggering £4.5bn, with an average spend of £14,500 on the big day. Weddings are big business - and the expanding industry is ensuring that we spend more than ever on getting it just right.

Mailshots by everyone from bakers to slimming agencies start arriving as soon as the engagement is announced in the newspapers or the couple registers with one of the multiplying nuptial websites. Then there are the wedding guides, all claiming to steer us safely through these perilous waters. Most are good at the obvious - counselling us to choose a dress that we like and to check that there are lavatories at the reception venue - but those who embark on the enterprise are likely to be bruised by unmentioned pitfalls.

The best tip is to do the deed between October and March, when fewer people marry and companies are more inclined to bargain to secure custom. And plan well ahead. Many venues, florists and car hire companies are booked more than a year ahead and even wedding list companies require at least three or four months notice.

For those still tempted, here are some of the stings in the marketplace that no one ever tells you about.

The dress

Fancy a day off in town and a leisurely browse through the bridal shops? Forget it. Most stores insist on an appointment before you can ask questions or try on, and smaller boutiques won’t even let you in to flick through their rails unless you’ve pre-booked up to a fortnight beforehand.

And once shut in the hallowed precincts with an assistant it takes a steely will to resist the sales pressure as gown after gown is brought forth. A stiff gin is required to cope with the prices. The national average is £700 and for anything more stylish than a glorified sundress expect to pay £1,000 plus. You don’t buy off the peg even in department stores. The dress is either made up for you to a standard size, or created bespoke, and if you are a trifle larger or smaller than average expect to be talked into the bespoke option with its 10-20% premium. Surprisingly, it can be much cheaper to get a gown made by an independent dressmaker who will have fewer overheads and perhaps a better idea of personal service.

The reception venue

The biggest headache of all. The real fun begins if your chosen establishment does not have in-house caterers. Most, especially historic ones, will insist you choose from a list of approved caterers - which launches you into a mathematical nightmare. Many ’forget’ to add VAT on to their quotes, requiring you to set to work with a calculator. Some prices include china, cutlery, glassware and waiting staff, others don’t. One might look pricier than the other until you find they throw in a half-bottle of wine per head.

The wine, indeed, is the best lark of the lot. Some venues charge you a hefty corkage if you don’t buy your wine from them, while your approved caterer may fine you if you do. The same goes for hotels, which can charge up to £18 corkage per bottle if you bring your own champagne. And beware: some hotels keep the cost of their food low to attract you, then clobber you for the drink. Watch too for those alluring packages which offer room hire, food and drink inclusive. It might mean that the wine flow is heavily restricted and while top table rejoices in liberal helpings of the best, the lower ranks are going thirsty. The solution is not to give the staff carte blanche to serve up as much as is needed, because you have no way of keeping tabs on what goes on the final bill. Instead, tell them to consult you when the pre-purchased supplies run low and authorise a set number of new bottles. But don’t, whatever you do, get carried away with joie de vivre. Most venues will set a deadline for your departure; exceed that by 20 minutes and you pay twice.


Hopeful stationery companies will fling themselves at you once your engagement is made public. Many of the larger ones end up farming out your order to a printer so you end up paying the printing costs and the middleman. They may also be less flexible about the order size, meaning you could end up paying for far more than you need. It can cost you up to half the price if you go to a small printing firm, many of which sell directly to the public, and which should be more amenable to small orders.


There is a certain snobbery in the flower industry and designers at the top end of the market might insist on working with exclusive blooms for a corresponding price, whereas your local florist will be content to knock together a posy of roses. Don’t be tempted to ask said florist to emulate a design by one of the professional designers in the hope of cutting costs, because you get what you pay for and floral artistry is an expensively acquired skill.

Things get more complicated if you live at one end of the country and plan to marry at the other. The chances are you won’t have time to seek out a good supplier near the venue and you may already be smitten with one on your home patch. Will they travel and will the blooms look as fresh as they did when they get there?

Self-employed flower decorators who buy the best they can find in the market within your budget are a good solution. They often charge competitively because they have no shop and low overheads and are used to travelling. Florists accustomed to doing arrangements in their shop might find extra decorations are needed when they get to the venue and won’t have the necessaries with them.

The Cake

Check the tiers and top decorations are included in the quote and ask about travelling charges. You won’t be able to transport it on the day and it’s too much responsibility for a friend. The best fruit cakes should be kept for several weeks to mature, but if the storage is inadequate the cake will be dry. Ask, therefore, to taste a few samples of previously baked creations. The average cake costs £200 and much of that goes into the fiddly sugar flowers. You can cut costs by settling for fresh or silk blooms or silk invitations.


Most car hire companies charge a flat rate of around £100, be it for 10 miles or 10 yards. Sad, but inevitable. Limos take a lot of maintenance, as do their chauffeurs, and who’s to know a juicier booking won’t have to be turned away after they’ve committed to you.

Useful guides

Milestone Weddings is one of the first of a handful of wedding co-ordinators that do all the work for a fee. Details from 020-8488 7223 or go to lists useful suppliers and has dresses categorised by price from £300. has handy hints for the overwhelmed.

The Which? Guide to Getting Married contains useful checklists. Published by Which?Books, price 9.99. Details from 0800 252 100.

Write to us at 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER, phone us on 020-7713 4731, send a fax on 020-7239 9933 or email us at


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Helen Hitchcock
Milestone Weddings
Pogles Lodge, Royal Oak Country Park
Henfield West Sussex BN5 9AY England
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