Sarah Kearney and Stephen Greenwood are typical of today's marrying couples, in Clark County and elsewhere.
They are older — both are 31 — than past generations of couples entering first marriages. Like many of today's engaged couples, these young professionals are paying their wedding costs without a lot of family help. And, as anyone who's been involved in a wedding can understand, they have exceeded their planned budget.
"There are outside factors that force you to invest more than you think you're willing to spend," Kearney said.
Still, the Vancouver couple's expected $15,000 in expenditures — that's $3,000 more than they'd budgeted — is well below a national average for wedding costs. The Wedding Report, a Tucson, Ariz.-based market research firm that annually surveys about 10,000 newlyweds, says today's weddings on average cost about $26,000. Surveys by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com's 2012 Real Weddings Study, reported an even higher average wedding budget at around $28,500, the highest total since 2008.
But as local wedding-related businesses move into their busiest season, they face a changing market. Several forces are at play:
• Fewer people are getting married at all: Clark County issued one-fourth fewer marriage licenses in 2012 than it did two decades ago, despite a population that has doubled over the last 20 years to 433,418 people in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
One counter-trend: over 2,000 same-sex weddings were held in Washington this year, the state's first year of legal same-sex marriage. That may be why the number of marriage licenses issued this year through May — 2,766 — already exceeds last year's total, although Clark County doesn't track the number of licenses issued to same-sex couples.
• Fewer weddings are being held in churches, according to local experts. Wedding planner Misty Damico rarely sees religion playing a part in the weddings of today. Instead, couples choose a friend or family member to become legally ordained and guide them through the vows they've written themselves.
"It's so easy to get ordained online," said Damico, who lives in Clark County and owns Portland-based Luxe Event Productions. "People are getting married by their brother, grandfather or neighbor. Anybody could marry you."
• While the cost of an "average" wedding has gone up, many people struggling financially are cutting weddings to the bare bones and opting to exchange vows in the halls of justice where a district court judge performs the ceremony for $50.
"Even couples who go to the courthouse typically have a small reception," said Shane McMurray, founder of The Wedding Report.
Damico said couples in the Portland-Vancouver area budget an average of between $26,000 and $35,000 for a wedding and reception for around 150 people. She said most budget-conscious couples have to pare down the guest list, a reality some brides have trouble facing at first.
"The only way to keep costs low is to have an intimate wedding," said Damico, who launched her events company five years ago.
She charges between $1,200 and $6,000 per wedding for consulting services, In the long run, she views her service as a way to help couples stick to a budget and retain their sanity.
"We really choreograph the entire thing, which allows the couple and the family to enjoy the day," Damico said.
Adding up costs
About 80 percent of couples are paying most or all of the wedding costs these days, giving them more say in their spending choices and leaving more parents out of the planning process. And for many, weddings are often short ceremonies followed by lavish parties, Damico said.
Most couples top their list of must haves with a venue they consider "unique," along with plenty of food and alcoholic beverages.
"They (weddings) are very geared toward family and friends," McMurray said.
Those who plan to book venues for ceremonies and catered receptions should be prepared to pay between $42 and $60 per guest, said Damico. "There are service and labor charges, plus rent for tables, chairs and linens," she said. "All those costs add up."
Julie Kummer, events facilities manager for the Fort Vancouver National Trust, sees many couples taking advantage of catering companies and planners that make life less stressful on the day of their wedding.
"They are spending money to have them catered," said Kummer, who oversees event rentals at four historically preserved venues — the Red Cross Community Room, the Artillery Barracks, the Marshall House and the O.O. Howard House — all part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
Average guest counts for weddings across the nation are at about 136 people, up from recent years, but still down from an average of 166 in 2005, according to The Wedding Report."It's all about the reception," Damico said, which may include s'mores bars for guests, cotton candy and unique entertainment.
Some brides of today are disappointed to discover they can't afford the weddings they've dreamed up on photo boards on Pinterest, a popular social media site.
"It's just a really rude awakening for some," Damico said.
Wedding planners find that every couple seems to skimp on some costs, while splurging on others. Both McMurray and Damico said brides are likely to go all out on the perfect dress.
"We're seeing the return of ball gowns, romance and light pastel colors, such as blush and peach," Damico said.
Brides shell out an average of $1,200 to $1,500 on a dress they'll likely only wear once in their lives. McMurray said that makes for a wedding dress industry that commands about $2.1 billion in annual spending.
Wedding Report founder McMurray expects growth in the wedding industry to remain flat over the next few years, with fewer guests, fewer people getting married and the cost of manufactured goods on the decline. He is already seeing the limited growth intensify competition among wedding suppliers and those who provide entertainment and services.
And while it's hard to discern how the industry is impacted by fewer weddings and smaller guest counts, such trends do affect the economy, McMurray said.
Unlike couples who live together, married couples create wealth around a common commitment, infusing somewhere between $250 billion and $350 billion into the economy by purchasing homes, furniture and automobiles, according to McMurray.
"When they don't get married, people are less committed to buying those types of things," he said.
Meanwhile, the trend of fewer weddings has played out differently in every sector of the wedding industry, which will generate about $50 billion worth of business in the U.S. this year. Industry trends could bring on a boom or bust season for some enterprises that contribute to the overall industry, such as caterers, wedding consultants and suppliers.
"For example, photo businesses have done a pretty good job of adapting," McMurray said, adding that photographers now offer everything from traditional photo albums to videos and websites with slide-show photos snapped by the guests.
But while tech-savvy photographers are using social media to launch their innovative marketing campaigns, those supplying wedding music, such as disc jockeys, have not been as successful.
"They haven't taken the changes as well and they just don't get it,"McMurray said.
Paying for location
Kearney would not disclose the amount she spent on her wedding dress, which she expects to wear twice — at the couple's July 19 wedding in Dayton, Ore., and again on Aug. 2 at a formal blessing ceremony that will take place in Greenwood's hometown of Lechlade, England. His parents are paying for the smaller, but more formal blessing event.
"I splurged on the dress because I'll be wearing it twice," said Kearney, a first-grade teacher at Minnehaha Elementary School. She met Greenwood, a forensic scientist for the Washington State Patrol, when the two were assigned to the same co-ed team on a recreational kickball league.
The couple chose Dayton's Vista Hills Vineyard as the idyllic setting for their outdoor wedding and buffet reception.
"It has an amazing view, with trees and the vineyard all around. It was just stunning," Kearney said.
Spending between $3,000 and $4,000 on the venue meant skimping on decorations and flowers. The couple also decided not to order a wedding cake and will rely on home-baked desserts made by the bride's family.
"There are plenty of ways to spend a lot of money," Kearney said. "It's just a matter of fleshing out what to eliminate."
But planning for one of the most special (and expensive) days in her life has taken its toll on Kearney, despite the help she's received from trusted family and friends. Kearney said she and Greenwood often laugh about how much closer they've become while planning their wedding.
"If nothing else, the wedding planning makes you sure you're going to stay together because you don't ever want to do this again," she said.