The mermaid-shaped gown with the $4,200 price tag was the first purchase that Cynthia Davis of Coral Springs, Fla., charged to her Visa card.
The tiered cake, the groom's tuxedo and gifts for the bridesmaids followed, putting Davis and her fiance, David Davis, in serious debt for the first time in their lives.
Two more credit cards paid for doves to be released after their vows and for a horse-drawn carriage to take them to their reception, where 340 guests would be waiting.
When the big day was over, the balance due was $12,000 - a debt the couple struggled with for three years, through bouts of unemployment, until they separated in 2001.
Wedding bills are weighing down couples and their parents long after the vows, and many have been forced to seek financial counseling as a result, according to credit counseling agencies.
Young couples with modest incomes are having the most trouble repaying. Whether they celebrate lavishly or modestly, they are more likely than ever to pay for their weddings without help from their parents. And even when parents pay, what more people expect of nice weddings is increasingly more elaborate for both the richer and the poorer. And so, with debt do they start.
Cynthia Davis, a 23-year-old administrator at an employment agency, has entered credit counseling to help her manage her wedding debt.
"I hope everyone had a good time because I'm still paying," Davis said, laughing, then quietly added, "Really paying in a big way - not only financially, but with my marriage."
Howard S. Dvorkin, the president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said, "Paying off these weddings is going to take a heck of a lot longer than the few hours the party lasted, maybe longer than the marriage lasts."
"Because there's the emotional aspect," he said, "people lose sight of the finances when they're getting married."
For Mitchell and Sandra Crim of Bellevue, Wash., spending for their daughter Sarah's wedding day "was a matter of pride," said Mitchell Crim, a customer service representative for Nintendo. "We did not want to appear cheap, or that we were incapable of giving her the wedding she wanted. And that's just part of the illusion."
The 250-guest affair that the Crims held for their daughter in August 2001 saddled them with $4,000 of credit card debt. The payments were a burden from the start, they said, and after Sandra Crim's employer reduced her hours, the debt made even paying for groceries difficult.
"And it was hurting our relationship," Mitchell Crim said. "It's so difficult when the main focus of your existence is trying to find a way to pay these people," he said, referring to the creditors.
The Crims went for credit counseling in February. They now make monthly payments under a plan that, Mitchell Crim wryly notes, will take four to five years to pay the remaining bills from their daughter's big day.
"If you have to buy something on credit, buy a house. Buy a car," he said. "Certainly do not buy a wedding."
But wedding planners across the country say that couples are, in fact, buying weddings on the installment plan. And although there are no numbers on how often brides and their families are borrowing, a recent survey of 1,400 bridal magazine readers found that last year 43 percent spent more on their weddings than they had budgeted.
The survey, from the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank, a research service for Conde Nast-owned wedding magazines, also found that the average wedding now costs $22,000, representing more than five months' worth of wages for a middle-income family, according to data from the Census Bureau.
Yet after adjusting for inflation, that $22,000 represents only a 7 percent increase over the average cost of a wedding in 1990. Moreover, the average wedding consumes no more of a middle-income family's earnings than it did in 1990, suggesting that weddings are not necessarily less affordable than they were a decade ago.
So why is wedding debt an issue now?
For one thing, more couples are paying for their own weddings - 27 percent last year vs. 23 percent in 1997, according to the Bridal Infobank. And an additional 30 percent are paying at least part of the bill, up from 18 percent in 1997. Newlyweds typically earn less than their parents and often carry the burden of student loans. Many are also trying to save enough to make a down payment on a house.
Wedding expectations, meanwhile, have far outgrown people's incomes, especially those in the low to moderate end, said Chrys Ingraham, an associate professor of sociology at Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., and author of White Weddings, a book about America's fascination with weddings.
Couples who years ago would have simply married at City Hall are now "emulating what they believe to be an upper-class model," Ingraham said. "There is this notion that the big wedding is a good thing for everybody."