Always a Bridesmaid? It Gets Expensive

Being in the wedding party can be a budget buster.

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Complaining about the high cost of weddings used to be the father of the bride's job. Now, as nuptials have been transformed from simple family affairs to weekend-long marathons, the invited guests are increasingly feeling pressure to strain their own bank accounts.

Destination weddings, where couples commit to each other far from home, have grown fourfold over the past decade and now make up 16 percent of weddings, according to Condé Nast's Brides.com. The cost of gifts has also ballooned as weddings have become more elaborate and guests feel compelled to spend as extravagantly as their hosts.

But the heftiest burden of all falls on bridesmaids. They play a role that, for all the honor of its implied intimacy to the bride, comes with a price to match. Bridesmaids are often expected to buy a dress, matching shoes, and jewelry, not to mention professionally applied makeup and nail polish on the day itself. And well in advance of the "I do's," they usually serve as host for a bridal shower, bachelorette party, or both. TheKnot.com estimates that, excluding travel, the average cost for each bridesmaid adds up to around $700.

Part of the reason for the growing pressure on wedding guests is that when couples and their families spend thousands to make a day perfect, they want to make sure everyone else is in tip-top shape, as well. "Your bridesmaids are like your backup dancers," says Rebecca Mead, author of One Perfect Day. Adds Katherine Jellison, author of It's Our Day and a professor of history at Ohio University: "It's all part of a larger phenomenon that we have convinced ourselves of—that if we don't spend a lot of money on something, it's meaningless."

To save their own budgets, wedding guests—and participants—may need to scale down their efforts. That may mean declining invitations from anyone other than best friends or relatives. Guests often put pres-sure on themselves to buy the Waterford crystal set or china pattern on the couple's registry, when the bride and groom are expecting their friends to choose the $40 set of martini glasses. They may also need to assign themselves new roles. "If you feel you can't afford to be in the bridal party, be upfront about it right away," suggests WeddingChannel.com senior editor Christa Vagnozzi.

As for the bride and groom, they can often organize group discounts for hotel rooms and local activities and even hire a stylist for a few hours so each member of the bridal party doesn't need to pay for her own hair and nails, says Michelle Preli, editor-in-chief of Brides.com.

Perhaps one of the biggest favors a bride can do for her attendants is to be realistic. Telling guests that a destination wedding is affordable because it doubles as their annual vacation has become the new bridal fib, replacing the one about bridesmaids being able to rewear their dresses, as Katherine Heigl's character is repeatedly told in the movie 27 Dresses.

So why don't bridesmaids unite and cast off their (matching) chains? "They submit," Mead says, "because they're happy for their friend. And statistically, bridesmaids are going to be brides themselves in a few years," and they'll want the favor returned.