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Q: I'm 25 and I just got engaged. I want to pay off my student loans by the time I'm 30. How can I pay for my wedding with student debt hanging over me?
A: Congratulations on your engagement! First, luxuriate in the news before you freak out that your guest list can fill a 500-line spreadsheet. Fiddle with your engagement ring in disbelief, daydream about married life, celebrate with friends and family.
No doubt, visions of pricey perfection will soon bombard you from magazines, Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards. You'll learn the average U.S. wedding cost $35,329 in 2016, according to The Knot's Real Weddings Study .
But let go of everyone else's expectations, starting now. Create a thoughtful, realistic budget and forget widely cited figures like The Knot's; a few lavish celebrations drive up the average. A solid 44 percent of U.S. weddings in 2016 cost less than $10,000, according to The Wedding Report , a wedding research company.
Here's how to plan nuptials that leave you smiling so much your face hurts, not grimacing at the specter of credit card debt.
START WITH HOW MUCH YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE
You and your fiance will be best prepared to start life together if you fortify your financial health before the wedding, says Anika Hedstrom, a certified financial planner at Vista Capital Partners in Portland, Oregon, who got married in July 2014. That means taking advantage of any 401(k) matches at work, creating an emergency fund, knowing each other's credit scores and sticking to your student loan repayment plans. Once you're on solid footing, the last thing you want to do is add wedding debt to your love story.
"You will end up being so thankful a couple years down the road that you didn't go into debt over it," Hedstrom says.
Decide how much you and your fiance can save per month for the wedding, including any honeymoon expenses, while keeping the rest of your financial picture intact. Maybe you're getting married a year from now and can save $100 per month. Put yourself down for $1,200.
NEXT, TALK TO YOUR FOLKS
You'll likely have a few sources of funds: The Knot says couples themselves covered 42 percent of wedding costs in 2016, the bride's parents paid for 44 percent and the groom's parents paid for 13 percent.
Not everyone will be able to, or want to, receive financial help from parents. But include your families in the budget conversation early. You'll get a sense of what, if anything, they want to contribute and how much involvement they want in the planning process.
"It's especially important, if getting money from family, to be clear about whether contributions are gifts or loans, and whether there are expectations associated with the money," says Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of "Offbeat Bride: Creative Alternatives For Independent Brides" and publisher of offbeatbride.com.
For instance, if your parents help pay, they may want to invite their work colleagues. Make sure you're OK with that, or come to an agreement on the number of people they invite.
PICK YOUR PRIORITIES AND FORGET THE REST
On a smaller budget, spend money on your three must-haves and consider completely eliminating things that don't matter to you, like flowers, Stallings says. Look for creative ways to save: Enlist friends to make wedding gifts of their services, such as food prep or event planning, and collect RSVPs online instead of paying for postage for return envelopes. The keys are customizing savings strategies to your values and keeping perspective.
Take it from Ashlyn Whyte, 26, of Rancho Cucamonga, California. Her 150-person wedding cost $23,000 in 2013. But if she were to do it again, she says she'd make sure the event cost half that by inviting fewer people and using an iPhone playlist instead of a DJ.
"I do think it was a great day and it was beautiful and we love our pictures and have so many sweet memories," she says. "But it was just a day."
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet .
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org . Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
NerdWallet: Student Loan Repayment Plans: Find The Best One For You: http://nerd.me/2b834pS