The reality is that even the most beautiful memories can be overshadowed by a debt hangover. In fact, overspending on a big event is a surefire way to spoil it in the long run. Instead of the fanciest venue or the most elaborate sit-down dinner, concentrate instead on this stellar piece of advice from David Tutera, a celebrity wedding and party planner and a former guest on my Oprah Radio XM radio show: "If a guest can go to a wedding and walk away knowing more about the bride and groom, that's what makes a wedding much more unique." The same goes for any other type of special event. It's about the person, not the party.
I'm not saying it isn't tempting to splurge. Restraint is especially difficult when everyone around you seems to be spending uncontrollably. The average price of a wedding these days is $22,000—that could buy you a new car. And it's not unheard of to drop $20,000 on a Sweet 16, complete with chocolate fountains, designer dresses I'd kill for and the child of honor's name lit up in neon.
So how do you throw a wonderful party that everyone will cherish without spending the equivalent of the GDP of a small country? Here are some things to keep in mind before the planning begins.
- Set aside cash. It's never too early to start saving for the big day. If you can avoid using plastic on a $1,000+ bill, you'll bypass those hefty interest charges. Twelve to 18 months in advance of the shindig, figure out as accurately as you can what it's going to cost you. Divide the total by the number of paychecks you get in a year and start automatically shuttling that much money into savings. You can even open a separate savings account if it'll help you keep your fingers off!
- Go in with your eyes wide open. Whether you're planning a wedding, a bar mitzvah or a 25th anniversary party, "you need to make a conscious choice about whether it's more important to you to spend thousands on the event or save the money for some future financial need," says financial planner Ross Levin. "There isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer, but the decision ought to be intentional."
- Don't be afraid to put on the brakes section. If a voice in the back of your head is starting to say this is getting out of control—listen carefully. (And try not to listen to all those service providers who are encouraging you to go overboard on their specialty alone. Do it with each one and your budget is completely out of whack.) Besides, you don't want to end up resenting the money you spend. Nor do you want to overindulge so much that you, the guest of honor, and all the participants lose site of the real meaning of the milestone you're celebrating.