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I do's ... and dont's ... for the perfect wedding

Weddings recently have undergone an etiquette evolution. Twenty years ago, it's unlikely that Emily Post would have ever suggested a wedding menu of tapas ... one of today's hottest trends. There is no longer one "right" or "wrong" way to word - or design - your invitation. And second-time brides are wearing white ... while first-time brides are wearing any color at all.

That doesn't mean that etiquette and/or traditions are no longer important. In fact, they're more important than ever in our manners-challenged world. But instead of focusing on the more trivial aspects - like which fork to use or where the wine glass should go - your wedding plans should be driven by the bigger issues: making your guests feel welcome, your attendants feel honored, and most importantly, your day feel special to everyone around you.

That said, this guide is framed by wedding "do's" and wedding "don'ts." Some of them are meant to help you avoid today's most common wedding blunders. Others are intended to show you planning opportunities that can lead to creating a once-in-a-lifetime event. While they're written as "dos" and "don'ts," the intention is not meant to be stifling. Instead, they will show you the many possibilities open to today's lucky brides and bridegrooms.

Featured are two local couples who wed in summer 2006: Bill and Jessica Moore, who hosted a fabulous city wedding, and Meghan and Will Cavanaugh, who threw an unforgettable "country" wedding. Thanks goes to Lori Joyce and Jenica Knight, the wedding photographers whose shots you'll see on these pages.

> Engagement Enlightenment

Wedding season begins the moment you get engaged. Just moments after "congratulations" will come the inevitable next question, "When will it be?" Here are some tips to help you begin planning and plotting.

DO set a wedding date that feels comfortable. While the typical engagement used to be 6 to 8 months, there is no one "right" length for engagements. Beth Daruszka, manager of the Bridal Chateau in Williamsville, says even 2 1/2 -year engagements are not uncommon today. That gives couples their first choice of dates, venues and vendors, and the time to save money if they're footing the bill. Bill and Jessica Moore set their engagement for 18 months, so Jessica could complete her master's program before the wedding. It also gave them time to do many wedding-related projects themselves. Meghan and Will Cavanaugh had a seven-month engagement, which gave them just enough time to plan and budget.

Also important when setting the date: the schedules and commitments of close family members and friends. For example, if your father-in-law is an accountant, don't set the date for April 14. And if you are inviting many out-of-town guests, give them ample time to make travel plans.

DON'T get carried away. Although it's natural to share your plans and excitement with friends and family - and you definitely should - remember there is a world revolving beyond your wedding. Your best friend may enjoy details about all 17 dresses you tried on this weekend, but your cubicle-mate probably won't. Also - try to keep wedding-related tasks and phone calls to a minimum while at work ... or save them for your lunch break.

> Saving-Grace Ceremony Strategies

While the reception is a time to let loose and have fun, you might want to take your ceremony a bit more seriously. After all, this is the moment when you will commit yourself to someone for the rest of your life - exchanging vows that are meant to last forever. That said ...

DON'T cave into pressure. While planning your ceremony, it's important to remain true to the values that have meaning for you and your spouse-to-be. If you're marrying outside your faith and that's a concern, consider having two separate ceremonies to honor both religions ... or combining both faith traditions into one ceremony. If you'd prefer a secular ceremony and your parents expect a religious one, explain your feelings calmly to try to win their support. This advice also applies to your reception ... lots of people will have plenty of ideas for your party, so stick to your guns and throw the party you want.

DO write your own vows, if you wish. Every year this becomes more popular, and it's a chance to express your feelings in a very personal way. Don't know where to start? There are books and Web sites that can help. Writing's still not your thing? Enlist a friend to help. Additional tips: Don't make it too personal (no one wants to hear your most intimate details), don't make it too long, and if possible, don't let your significant other hear them until your wedding day - it will make it that much more special.

> Creative (and Practical) Party Planning

This is the fun part ... and the area that will end up taking most of your time (and budget). The good news is that you can have the wedding you want, no matter what your time frame or budgetary concerns. All it takes is a little ingenuity.

DO get creative. Your menu, your invitation, your cake, your decorations and so much more are open to interpretation. Have fun with them. Both our wedding couples shared fun and festive personal touches with their guests.

Bill and Jessica Moore - an attorney and architect-in-training, respectively - didn't number their table cards at the reception. Instead, they gave them unique names to reflect their professions - "Hearsay" and "Probable Cause" for Bill, and "Parthenon" and "Louvre" for Jessica, to name a few examples. It turned traditional ho-hum table numbers into something much more interesting.

Bill and Jessica also included some non-traditional details in their menu. The ultra-modern cake was stacked in hues of white, Tiffany blue and chocolate brown, to go along with colors the couple used in their invitations and wedding programs.

And they also offered a dessert table with s'mores - one of their favorite childhood treats.

Similarly, Will Cavanaugh, an artist, designed a "wedding logo" for his and Meghan's main event. Combining their first initials, the logo appeared on their ceremony program and wedding favor, an elegant tin of mints at each setting.

DON'T max out the credit cards. That doesn't mean you have to host a low-key affair or compromise on quality. The key is prioritizing what's important. If you want to invite 300 guests, serve a more modest menu, for instance. Or, if you want the most expensive restaurant in town, save on music or decorations.

Meghan and Will's wedding was elegant and festive by any measure. Held at the Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville, they managed to save thousands of dollars by getting creative.

"We didn't compromise our guest list, our food or our bar," says Meghan. "I managed to save in other areas."

For instance, instead of hiring a band or a D.J., the couple programmed their iPod to play exactly the songs they wanted. Other smart money measures included saving on decorations by choosing a naturally beautiful venue that didn't require much adornment, as well as foregoing limousine rentals to ride to the ceremony and reception with family members.

DO do-it-yourself. You can also save a bundle by doing things yourself. And if you've got a creative flair, it can add a perfect personal touch.

Jessica and Bill Moore designed and printed their own save-the-date cards, wedding invitations, wedding program, table cards, favor cards, name cards and thank you cards ... but no one ever would have guessed it. Not only did they look professional, they were also unique. And they saved, spending a lot less on all printed materials together than the quote they received for the invitation alone.

Bill also enlisted the help of his groomsmen to help decorate the outdoor courtyard where their reception took place. They bought several dozen roses at Sam's Club, and on the morning of the wedding he and the guys cut the roses and arranged them in vases bought at Ikea.

Meghan and Will, too, cut corners by doing things themselves. Their florist originally quoted centerpieces at $25 per table. Instead, Meghan pur-chased 6,000 rose petals online for $139, and bought her own tea lights and candle holders at a great price. This brought the cost down to $7 per table.

One caveat: If you're short on time, it may not be worth it. Saving yourself stress on the days leading up to your wedding can be worth every penny you pay someone else.

DO be smart with your money. This requires some planning and budgeting, but the results and savings are worth it. Before they even began planning, Meghan Cavanaugh estimated each expense. She then figured out how much they'd need to save in order to cover those costs, and adjusted where necessary. When she'd get quotes from vendors, she asked them to break down and itemize each specific cost. The result? She saved over $1,300 with her florist alone. By creating her own centerpieces and eliminating one type of flower from her bridesmaids' bouquets, she reduced her flower bill from $2,000 to $650.

"Always go in with a budget and plan on not going over," suggests Meghan. "If vendors know you have a budget, they will try to work with you to get your business."

> The People Make the Party

Almost nothing matters more on your wedding day than the people around you. Whether you invite 40 guests or 400, or have one attendant or 12, here are some strategies to honor them all.

DO involve the kids ... if you want. This is a decision that is entirely up to you - again, there is no right or wrong answer (no matter what others tell you). If children will be an integral part of your celebration, however, it may influence your plans. For instance, a morning or daytime reception might be better, especially if most children are very young. Other couples prefer adult-only evening receptions, which is also perfectly acceptable.

If children are a part of your wedding, however, it can be fun to involve them in a special way, like the Cavanaughs did. At the kids' table in the center reception room, each child found a huge sand pail filled with toys and activities. Not only did it keep them busy with things to do during the reception, it also made them feel special. And it made the kids' table look extra festive amid the elegant adult tables.

DO invite who you want. Quick etiquette facts: 1) All guests invited to your shower or rehearsal dinner should be invited to the wedding. 2) It's acceptable to invite someone solo if they don't have a current squeeze. 3) You are not obligated to invite your entire office ... or any co-workers, if that is your wish. 4) You are not required to invite someone just because you were a guest at his or her wedding. The bottom line: Do think carefully about who you'd like to invite. If possible, err on the side of inviting more guests, as those excluded can feel slighted ... which can make for awkward encounters long into the future.

DON'T abuse your wedding party. Contrary to the belief of many bridezillas past, bridesmaids and groomsmen are not indentured servants. Sure, they can help out with wedding-related tasks, but try not to overdo it. For example, brides shouldn't expect their bridesmaids to accompany them on every wedding-related errand, and they definitely shoudn't make demands about their personal appearance (horror stories include bridesmaids who've been asked to lose weight or to delay pregnancies, so they'll look "good" for pictures). Also, be thoughtful when choosing attire. Sure, those designer silk bridesmaid dresses are gorgeous - but few gals want to shell out hundreds of dollars on a dress they'll only wear once. Involve attendants, instead, in ways that are fun and meaningful - a girls' night putting together favors or addressing invitations is both practical and a chance to bond.

All in all, remember this is your day ... to share with the people you most love. If you honor them while also honoring yourselves, you'll be sure to have an event that is both meaningful and unforgettable. .

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