ABOUT A MONTH before she got married, Alexis Higgins, 29, who works at a New York communications agency, was talking about the cost of weddings. She spoke not from the perspective of a bride but that of a seasoned guest and bridesmaid.
Attending a wedding is not as simple as witnessing the happy couple say "I do," she mused. There are engagement toasts, bridal showers and bachelorette parties - each with their own gifts or bill to pay if you help put on the event.
From the presents, to the dresses and hotels - and more gifts - Higgins has dedicated thousands of dollars to her friends' nuptials.
"It comes at the worst possible time" for young guests, she said. "When you have the least amount of money to spend, you have this hidden wedding expense that likely doesn't fit into your budget."
The average guest spends $500 per wedding, not counting travel costs for out-of-town ceremonies. And if you're a bridesmaid or groomsman, your expenses can exceed $1,000, according to The Knot, an online wedding-planning resource, retailer and publisher.
For a 20-something who attends about five weddings a year, it's easy to understand Higgins' sentiment.
We all want to help our family and friends celebrate this momentous life step. But with limited means, we need to plan ahead - and be graciously honest about what we can afford.
"Oftentimes, what people think are the couple's expectations aren't what they need to be doing," says Rosie Amodio, executive editor for The Knot.
As a bridesmaid or groomsman, for instance, talk to the couple about your financial concerns. If you can't afford the cost of a tuxedo rental ($100), a dress ($150 or more) or pre-wedding parties, ask - thoughtfully - whether you could play another role in the wedding.
The couple may offer to cover a portion of those expenses.
More weddings now require you to travel, with about 10 percent of couples choosing destination weddings that are more like vacations, often in tropical locales. Paying for a flight, hotel and rental car leaves you with two options: "to go or not to go," says Rosanna McCollough, editor of WeddingChannel.com, which allows you to search for gift registries by the bride or groom's name.
"Consider what your relationship is with the bride and groom and how important it is for you to be there," she says.
If you want to attend, American Airlines offers a 5 percent discount on tickets if guests book together (www.aa.com, under "business and agency programs"). Ask hotels and rental car companies for similar group deals.
If you decline the invitation, send along a card and, if possible, a gift.
Wedding presents in general do not need to be extravagant, nor equal the value of your dinner plate, as an old wedding myth advises.
While most gifts average about $100, the best presents are those given with the couple in mind, such as a popcorn dish and DVD for a bride and groom who are movie buffs.
Also, buying a gift with friends or family is an affordable way to give an expensive item. Gifts for engagement parties, bridal showers and bachelor soirees generally are less than $50 and are not required unless you attend.
Regardless, "your presence and personal well wishes mean so much more than how expensive your gift is, where you stay or what you wear to the wedding," McCollough says.
E-mail Carolyn Bigda at email@example.com.