Always a bridesmaid -- and flat broke

It's pricey to be included in a friend's wedding, and the bridesmaid's dress is only part of the expense. But the recession may actually help ease the burden.

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By Elizabeth Strott, MSN Money

Spring is here, and that means wedding season.

Though it's considered an honor to participate in a friend's or a family member's wedding, the privilege can cost you a pretty penny.

This season, however, the economy is giving some bridesmaids a much-needed break. Video: This season's hottest bridesmaid dresses

Bankrupt bridesmaids

Kim Billings, a 34-year-old teacher from Cherry Hill, N.J., was in 11 weddings -- several of them right out of college -- before she got married.

"I was living alone, most of the time on a teacher's salary, with college loans still looming at the time," she recalls of those years in her 20s. "I went into a small debt over the bridesmaid duties. I didn't even buy wedding gifts at times because I couldn't afford them due to all the costs involved with the wedding."

Billings decided not to have bridesmaids when she got married a few years ago.

The recession has brought a change in attitude. Reports indicate that brides are being more considerate of their bridesmaids' wallets and that designers are using cheaper fabrics. Another bridesmaid bonus is the increasing number of mainstream retailers that have entered the wedding-fashion industry in recent years, driving down prices.

In a recent survey by wedding retailer David's Bridal of engaged or recently married women, 73% of respondents said their bridesmaid dresses wouldn't -- or hadn't -- cost more than $200. Some custom-made dresses can run several hundred dollars before tailoring, which can cost an additional $100. Slide show: Dresses from $135 to $360

David's Bridal, in particular, is benefiting from this shift to less-expensive dresses. The company is seeing a broader range of customers because of the recession, says Dan Rentillo, the company's vice president of design. Instead of shrinking, like many other retailers, the company is expanding. It has 290 stores across the country and opened its first Manhattan location in March.

"All of our dresses are well under $200," Rentillo says. "They're really about $150 or a little less. That's probably the sweet spot."

That price point is preferable to many bridesmaids, especially those who are out of work or worried about their jobs. Video: Hair, makeup and . . . liposuction?

"Brides have always been sensitive to the fact that their bridesmaids are putting in a lot of time and money to be a part of their bridal party. Now that there's a recession, there's more sensitivity," Modern Bride Editor-in-Chief Antonia van der Meer says.

A dress to wear only once?

Continued from page 1

Like Billings, I've been in a ton of weddings -- nine, to be exact. Nine bridesmaid dresses. That leads to the big bridesmaid dress debate: Will we ever wear the dress again?

Chances are, no. But the odds are increasing.

The economic downturn has pressured brides and designers to make their bridesmaid dresses worth more than one wear.

"You really don't want to feel like you're buying something that you're not going to use," dress designer Coren Moore says about bridesmaid dresses. Moore has taken several steps to help ease the costs.

"We introduced a cotton fabric, which is less expensive," she says. "I eliminated chiffon and organza -- two fabrics that didn't cost me a lot but cost a ton for alterations."

Increased competition in the industry is also good news for bridesmaids. More mainstream retailers such as Ann Taylor and J. Crew have introduced non-custom-made bridal lines in recent years.

"Bridesmaid dresses do get better and better. The more options and choices out there from Vera Wang, Ann Taylor and J. Crew to Amsale, the better shot of getting a dress that we do want to wear again," Modern Bride editor van der Meer says.

J. Crew launched its Weddings & Parties Collection in February 2004, to much success. The collection continues to grow each season, designer Tom Mora says, and now includes children's options for flower girls and ring bearers.

"Our customers know that they are always going to get not only the best design but also the best price possible from us. They trust us," Mora says. "Our dresses are an incredible value."

For example, a short silk dress from J. Crew's bridesmaid collection costs $150.

Though J. Crew may offer more-affordable dresses, many designer brands and custom-made dresses remain pricey. Some brides contribute to the purchase of these dresses to help defray the costs. Others buy all the dresses. But brides are feeling the pinch as well.

"With the economy, not all brides are able to do that, even if they would like to," van der Meer says.

So some brides are increasingly flexible.

"Brides today have a lot more options than they used to," van der Meer says. "Some brides don't require the same exact dress. When that happens, the bridesmaid can go out and find her own dress, as long as it is within what the bride's asked."

Hair, makeup and Botox?

The bridesmaid dress isn't the only big-ticket item that bridesmaids have to worry about.

Continued from page 2

For the wedding day, there are shoes, makeup, manicures, hair and even Botox. And of course, the bridal shower and bachelorette party.

These days, many brides want destination bachelorette parties -- Las Vegas, Miami, anywhere with sun and fun. That means flights and hotel rooms, dinners and nights out on top of travel to the actual wedding.

"It's important that a bridesmaid, in accepting the honor, realizes that there are costs involved that go beyond the dress," van der Meer says.

Katharine Eaton of Glen Mills, Pa., spent more than $3,000 on a friend's wedding: $2,200 for a room at a high-priced hotel, which had a three-night minimum; $200 for a wedding gift; $300 to host a bridal shower and for a shower gift; and $50 for a bridal luncheon gift. On top that, of course, there was the bridesmaid dress, which set Eaton back $350.

Marlene McDermott, who now lives in Philadelphia, was in two East Coast weddings when she lived in California. She ended up paying for bridal showers she couldn't attend and paying cross-country airfare for the major events. Because of her location, she also took time off from work, sacrificing vacation days.

"I appreciated being included but think maybe the bride could find another way to honor her close friends," McDermott says.

Then there are some brides who want their bridesmaids to look just perfect, going so far as to ask their wedding party to get Botox treatments, Lasik eye surgery or even liposuction.

The bridal-party Botox trend began a few years ago, and the recession isn't getting in the way, says spokeswoman Tiffany Hodges of Chelsea Eye & Cosmetic Surgery Associates in New York.

"When you're getting married, money is not the first thing on your mind," Hodges says. "The first thing on your mind is to have an awesome wedding and to look your best. I think that's the place where, recession or no recession, they still want a fabulous wedding. They want to look great."

Tips to save

Accessories can make or break an outfit, but they're also an easy place to cut costs. These tips from Modern Bride's van der Meer can help save bridesmaids money:

1. Spare the feet. "Shoes can be a place to cut costs. At Payless ShoeSource, there is the trickle-down effect of high-end designers working at accessible prices," she advises.

2. Carpool. "If you have to travel as a bridesmaid, share a room and rent a car in groups."

3. Shower at home. "People are also being creative with the bridal shower. We'll see more people hosting showers in their home or in a more cost-effective restaurant."

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And remember: As difficult as it may be, you can always decline the invitation. After being in four weddings, Kara Rushworth of Maple Shade, N.J., for example, decided that she would be a bridesmaid only if she felt very close to the bride and wouldn't accept the invitation from an acquaintance or co-worker.

What to do with that dress?

I've only worn one of my bridesmaid dresses again, a gorgeous chocolate brown Amsale gown that the bride bought for me. Unfortunately, the rest of my bridesmaid dresses are hanging in my parents' attic.

Designer Moore is taking steps to try to fix this storage problem and get more return on a bridesmaid's investment.

"We're looking into a dyeing program so we can dye the dresses black after they're worn -- so they actually can be worn again," she says.

Bridesmaids can also donate their dresses to charity.

Project Bridesmaids, a nationwide event that took place in March, where Modern Bride teams up with Planet Hope, is "a way to give the dress a second life," van der Meer explains. The event allows high school girls to sort through donated dresses to choose something to wear to their proms.

There's also Fairy Godmothers, a Pennsylvania charity that provides gowns and accessories for girls who want to attend their proms.

And if you can't wear a dress again, you can always have your mom make bathroom curtains out of it. That's a true story.

Produced by Peggy Collins / Graphics by Sean Enzwiler

Published April 16, 2009