By LISA GUTIERREZ and JENEE OSTERHELDT
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Haydee Leon is planning her wedding with a spreadsheet in hand.
It's the "something new" prospective brides need these days.
Leon and her fiance, Chris Mandernach, 25, have set a budget for their Sept. 18 wedding at The Clubhouse on Baltimore, and she's determined not to overspend.
When they got engaged in December, they decided they wanted a wedding that was elegant and in good taste, "but without going overboard," says Leon, 26, who lives in Overland Park, Mo. "Something that was just reasonable."
In the end, they decided that $16,000 was reasonable. It is, compared to the cost of a typical U.S. wedding, which is now more than $26,000.
That's almost 50 percent more than what they cost in 1990 according to the latest estimates from the industry.
Americans, it seems, are in love with love, and a savvy industry that throws seminars for photographers and wedding planners on how to "sell the bride" is a more-than-willing suitor.
From TV shows such as "Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?" and movies such as "Bride and Prejudice," to bridal expos, celebrity wedding coverage and Internet bridal sites, everywhere you turn, someone is saying "I do" -- or at least telling us how to do it.
Today, the bride-to-be has her pick of at least 77 bridal magazines on newsstands, more than four times as many as the 18 published in 1989, according to the National Directory of Magazines.
Most of them will tell the happy couple how to save money and many a father of the bride has joked about mortgaging the house to pay for his daughter's wedding.
These days, that's no laughing matter.
Before World War I, the average wedding cost one-third of the annual U.S. median family income, says Alan Fields in Boulder, Colo. He and his wife, Denise, have become well-known watchdogs of the wedding industry.
By the 1960s, it had risen to half. Today, wedding costs are closing in on 60 percent of annual family incomes, says Fields, co-author of the popular Bridal Bargains series of books.
It's all too much for some couples. The commercialization of weddings has caused inflation and people are forgetting what the ceremony is about, says Pete Tarantino, a 35-year-old Kansas City loan officer who just got married to Susan, 31.
"It's important to stay focused on spending a lifetime together and not just a day," Tarantino says of the planning process. "It's about your relationship with your spouse and your relationship with God. Stay away from the magazines and the TV shows, and be involved with each other."
"The focus has moved to the bride's dress, the size of the ring or how many people are at the reception, when it needs to be the exact opposite," he says.
How did we get to this point? The idea of the big, fancy wedding is seductive.
Cele Otnes, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, spent four years researching weddings for a book she co-wrote with colleague Elizabeth Pleck called "Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding."
One reason the lavish wedding has taken off to near recession-proof costs, they argue, is that "it allows people to experience magic in their lives," Otnes says.
It's guilt-free magic, she says, because people tell themselves this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, though that's not necessarily true anymore. Half of all new unions involve at least one partner who is marrying for a second time. And there's no more reluctance in spending big on a second wedding either. Encore weddings in the United States average about $12,000, Otnes says.
Weddings also let people "remember themselves as close as they'll ever get to being celebrities," Otnes says. "People are young, and probably the most attractive they'll ever be, given the amount of pampering that's gone into one day.
"When you think about the powerful task that it accomplishes, it's hard to beat. You get a lot of sociological and emotional bang for the buck, even at $26,000."
Romance is a huge driver of consumerism, Otnes says, quoting one of her sources who suggested that the lavish wedding allows us to express our romance with consumption and our consumption of romance.
So is it any wonder that the fairytale wedding has become the picture of a romantic marriage?
"A fantasy is much more appealing than reality," says Susan Shapiro Barash, professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College and author of "The New Wife: The Evolving Role of the American Wife."
The glamorized wedding epitomizes the hope for happily ever after, and with that idea comes the willingness to create it at any cost, says Barash.
And it's important to today's young bride that her marriage is enduring. These are the daughters of baby-boomer women, many of whom are divorced or have never been married but often have careers and educations, she says.
But when these brides look at their grandmothers, they see women who have been married for 50 years to the same man. They want that kind of marriage. They want to live "happily ever after."
"The 21st-century wife is determined to not have a stressful marriage, but to have a very romantic, exciting marriage," Barash says.
Sarah Burkindine of Prairie Village, Mo., has seen the fantasy of it all while planning her Nov. 5 wedding to Brian Roberts, 32.
"Weddings are becoming more of an event," says Burkindine, 28. "I definitely think people are spending more these days on weddings than they did years ago.
"My aunt got married in the early to mid-'80s and my grandmother paid for it by herself, and that wedding was much less than $10,000," says Burkindine. "My sister recently got married and had a wedding similar to that one, but 20 years later the cost more than doubled."
That is closer to the cost of the average $20,000 Kansas City wedding, according to local bridal publications.
"Weddings are more extravagant," Burkindine says. "It's not your basic dress, tux and 50 guests. People get wrapped up in the little details, like favors, chair covers, huge halls, big bands and outstanding florists. But there's a supply and demand, and people will pay for it."
It would be hard for any one person to pay for all of the cost themselves, Burkindine says. Her budget is made up of a large contribution from her parents, some from his parents and a few thousand from the couple.
That's not necessarily a new phenomenon, but this pitching in to cover the cost of a wedding is happening more often these days, wedding experts say.
"It's just becoming more unusual for the bride's family to foot the bill," says Kara Corridan, executive editor of Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines in New York. "It happens, but it's not the norm anymore. It's almost seen as old-fashioned.
"We know a lot of couples bringing in a nice income, and they feel funny turning around asking their parents to pay for it."