Your big day - but it needn't break the bank

Overseas weddings can cost a fortune, but there are ways to cut corners on costs.

Caption january 2009-photos of wedding  of Anna and Tim Miles in Tuscany, Italy for personal finance story by Inga Stevens Courtesy Anna and Tim Miles *** Local Caption ***  0508.jpg
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Planning the perfect wedding can take months, if not years, and can easily cost a small fortune. Although the bride's family traditionally bears the financial burden of the festivities, these days, with many people getting married later in life, it is far more common for the bride and groom to be the sole contributors to their wedding fund. Regardless of your financial standing or relationship status, it doesn't hurt to hear about other people's experiences to guide you through the myriad options available in order to make the best decisions when the time comes. Planning for every eventuality and seeking out the best deals is the best way to organise the celebrations.

In August 2008, Anna and Tim Miles, along with 30 of their closest friends and family members, celebrated their dream wedding in Tuscany, Italy. Having met as co-workers at a landscape consultancy firm in Dubai in 2004, they had been an item for about two years when Mr Miles proposed at a romantic restaurant in New York in February 2008. While most of us shudder at the mere thought of having only six months to plan a wedding, Mr and Mrs Miles had the perfect plan.

"We had previously discussed with our friends and family the idea of spending our summer holiday together in the Tuscan countryside," Mr Miles explains. "It made perfect sense to combine a holiday experience with our special day." Within a month of their engagement, with the aid of a website called, the couple's invitations had been sent and it was time to get planning. "At Dh40 a month the wedding website was virtually free to run, and not only did we save Dh6,000 by emailing our invitations rather than having them made up and posted, but the site was also an invaluable tool for communicating the wedding plans to our guests," Mr Miles says.

Rather than working within a fixed budget, establishing their priorities and "getting it right" was far more important to the couple. To personalise the experience, they purchased special gifts for the guests. The wedding favours were miniature olive oil bottles that doubled as the place settings, adding to the authenticity of the experience. Each guest received a handcrafted gift bag containing cosmetics and toiletries selected by Mrs Miles to be used during their stay.

"I also bought some relatively inexpensive bath towels for each guest and had them embroidered with personal monograms for a minimal cost," she says. By harnessing creative flare and your eye for a bargain you can save the fils as you go. From the onset it was obvious that the couple would need to enlist the services of a wedding planner based in Italy, and they were pleased to find a team experienced in intimate, small-scale Tuscan weddings.

"As it turned out, we couldn't have done it without them and at Dh7,560, the wedding planners were far cheaper than having to fly back and forth from Dubai to Rome to make the arrangements ourselves," Mrs Miles says. Their assistance was invaluable, especially when it came to translation services and legal documentation. "With our priorities firmly established we had to start looking at ways to achieve our goals while keeping a handle on the expenses," Mrs Miles explains. "We began by identifying the items that we knew were going to require the bulk of our finances."

Finding affordable accommodation for their guests became the main priority. Seventeen of the attendees shared a villa, while the remaining 15 stayed in bed-and-breakfasts nearby. Accommodation costs for the entire wedding party for one week came to Dh40,500. "This may seem extravagant, but our main priority was to keep everyone together and comfortable for the duration of the entire holiday, not just the wedding day," Mrs Miles says.

Finding the perfect wedding dress is at the top of the list for most brides, and Mrs Miles was no exception. Having initially estimated the clothing budget at Dh41,000, the couple were greatly relieved when their decision to have the wedding dress made to measure rather than off the rack brought the final price down to Dh29,000, which included clothing for the groom, his best man and the maid of honour. The fabric for the dress cost Dh4,000, and the dress was custom tailored by Anne Rashid at the Bridal Room in the Jumeirah Plaza on the Beach Road for an additional Dh6,000. Mr Miles' shoes cost Dh2,000 - he bought them on sale during the Dubai Summer Surprises shopping festival.

The wedding rings - both made of white gold - cost a total of Dh7,000. A lot of thought went into deciding on the wedding catering, as Mr and Mrs Miles, both self-confessed "foodies", knew that they wanted something both traditional and of a high standard. With advice from their wedding planners they chose to have the reception at a restaurant situated on an olive farm. They had allowed Dh24,000 for the catering budget but were pleased when the final bill was less.

"As he is a sommelier, the chef's husband kindly offered to wine-pair our food, which was a nice surprise," Mrs Miles says. "A complementary olive oil tasting for our guests was another fantastic touch." The couple paid a lump sum fee of Dh16,000 for the restaurant dinner. Often the best bargains materialise from the most unexpected sources, and in the Miles's case it was the wedding brunch prepared by the housekeeper and her husband, who was the gardener at the villa. "The food was prepared from fresh produce from the garden and the presentation was spectacular," Mrs Miles recalls. The brunch for the entire wedding party came to only Dh2,700.

The couple also enlisted the help of Mr Miles' aunt, who agreed to bake the wedding cake. "She arrived with a suitcase full of pots and pans," Mr Miles remembers. "Not only did it save us thousands of dirhams, but it was a great hit with the guests." Getting your friends and family to participate with the wedding preparations is a great budget-stretching technique that could ultimately save you a fortune.

The wedding blessing took place at the picturesque Bigalo Monastery in the village of Bagno a Ripoli, located in the province of Tuscany. The couple rented the venue for Dh2,700, which included the services of the village mayor, who conducted the ceremony. "We walked down the aisle to Andy Williams's Speak Softly Love, the theme music from The Godfather," Mr Miles remembers. The song was played on the mandolin by a seasoned musician, and his services were not cheap. However, the couple say it was "well worth its Dh3,240 price tag". The couple were willing to pay premium prices to secure a top-quality wedding photographer. The photographer, who was paid Dh10,440 for his services, was available for the entire wedding day and took more than a thousand photos. "Having invested so much into the wedding we wanted to appropriately document the occasion," Mr Miles says.

When planning a wedding abroad, keep in mind the additional expense for the airfare. "To minimise transport costs we booked ourselves economy return flights from Dubai to Rome for Dh9,220, and we used our frequent flyer miles to upgrade our tickets to business class, which made the whole experience more memorable," Mr Miles says. The couple spent an additional Dh2,000 to help family members with the price of flights.

Flowers for the occasion were purchased for Dh540 from a local flower market in Florence. "The wedding venue was so steeped in character that elaborate flower arrangements did not seem necessary," Mrs Miles says, explaining the low floral costs. Also, a car for the wedding would have cost as much as Dh10,000, so the couple were excited to find out that the best man had hired a vintage Vespa scooter instead, on which the couple roared away after the ceremony. They honeymooned at Casa Angelina, a hotel on the Amalfi Coast.

Mr and Mrs Miles financed their wedding experience through their combined savings. "We knew that in order to organise a wedding within such a short time frame we would need a large injection of cash, and luckily we had accumulated sufficient savings to cover the majority of expenses," Mr Miles explains. "During the lead up to the wedding, I would diligently put all my extra cash in a shoe box under my bed for safekeeping, and I managed to accumulate Dh40,000 towards the wedding."

As per custom, the couple had some financial help from Mrs Miles' father, who covered the cost of the catering. "By June 2008 the majority of the payments had been completed," Mrs Miles says. "Every month we used part of our salary, along with our savings, to complete the required payments, and as these were staggered, this made it easier." Without the use of personal savings, the wedding would have been delayed by up to six months or a bank loan would have been required.

The Miles's spent Dh10,000 in cash tying up loose ends involving transportation, hairstyling, makeup and other miscellaneous details. When they returned to to Dubai their only credit card debt was Dh16,000, which was for the restaurant tab on the day of the wedding. The total price for their dream wedding under the Tuscan sun came to Dh143,700. "The main difficulty with having your wedding abroad is having the faith that it will all come together in the end, hoping that it has all been done to your liking," Mrs Miles says. "In our case it was money well spent, as not only was it a very special occasion for me and my husband, but it also made for a fantastic family holiday."

The couple recommend avoiding the use of credit cards unless you can make the payments in full or can benefit from frequent flyer miles or other rewards. Emma Pope, a wedding planning consultant at Couture Events in Dubai, gives the following advice on how to plan a wedding in the UAE. "It is impossible to give an average cost for a wedding in the UAE," she explains. "The number of guests, menu options and venue all make up a large portion of a budget, and with the UAE playing host to such a wide and varied mix of nationalities, there really is no such thing as an average wedding here."

Sticking to the budget will be the main challenge, so it is a good idea to hire a wedding planner who will advise you with budget management. "We always ask our clients to outline their top three priorities; once these have been identified we can establish how we can save in other areas," Ms Pope says. "Every couple has a different idea of how they see their wedding day; once they have a clear idea of what is most important to them as a couple, they can concentrate on making decisions on the overall wedding budget without losing sight of what is important."

Although there are plenty of high-end retailers here in the UAE, there are also a wealth of outlets that offer quality products at bargain prices. Ms Pope explains: "You would make savings here in the same way you would in your home country; you need to utilise the services available to you, and perhaps more importantly, you need to know where to look, or in the case of hiring a wedding planner whom to ask."

Couture Events charges a flat rate of Dh20,000 to coordinate all the details of a wedding. If, however, you decide not to hire a wedding planner, you should make an extra effort to be organised from the beginning. Creating a folder on your computer's desktop to keep a running tab of all the costs is the first step. By seeking out the best deals, doing it yourself, and accepting the assistance of friends and family, your big day will be a memorable experience for everyone. * Inga Stevens