Congratulations, you're engaged! Now you must plan what will likely be one of the most memorable, important, and expensive days of your life — your wedding. You will be inundated with advice on all the elements of a "perfect" wedding: gorgeous gown, fragrant flowers, mood-setting music and a church packed with loved ones.

How much will it cost? Even with the recent recession prompting couples (and their families) to cut back, weddings in the U.S. currently have an average sticker price of $19,581, according to

Of course, true "perfection" probably isn't attainable at any price. So it's better to make it your goal to have an affordable, yet wonderful wedding. How? Start with a budget.

Three Steps to Setting the Budget 

1. Know what you want. As a couple, talk through what's important to each of you and to your families, while resisting the urge to do something just because others did it at their wedding. "You have to get rid of the competitive mindset," says Sharon Naylor, author of 1001 Ways To Save Money. . .and Still Have a Dazzling Wedding . "Your wedding doesn't have to be better than somebody else's."

2. Know the market. Each area of the country is different, so you'll need to research local trends to establish a realistic budget baseline. Naylor recommends asking recently married friends for recommendations and interviewing five or six vendors for each service.

"This allows you to gather info about what is being done in the industry and what pricing is like, and to find a vendor you vibe with," she says.

And just as with a major purchase such as a home or car, "shoe-leather shopping" will help you budget — and bargain — more effectively.

3. Set priorities and price limits. Reassess your wish list, deciding which items are imperative, which you're willing to cut corners on, and which you can do without.

"A lot of people think there are mandatory items or aspects of a wedding," says blogger Jessica Bishop of "I say rules are meant to be broken.... If you and your groom don't like cake, have an ice cream bar instead! If something is just totally not you, then find an alternative that suits you best. In the end it will make for a more personal and meaningful day that better reflects who you are as a couple."

Basing your budget on your priorities and the ballpark figures you gather will enable you to plan a meaningful wedding, while avoiding unpleasant financial fallout. If there's a disparity between what you want and what you can afford, you'll have to get creative and find ways to stretch your dollars.

Five Ways to Stretch Your Money

1. Timing is everything. Use time to your advantage. By scheduling your wedding for a less popular time, day, or even hour — say a Friday evening in April rather than a Saturday evening in July — the basic economies of supply and demand will work for you rather than against you.

"Vendors have to pay their mortgages 12 months out of the year and will often knock down prices and throw in freebies just to work during an off-time," says Alan Fields, co-author of Bridal Bargains . Additionally, your favorite vendors are more likely to be available if you schedule your wedding for an off-peak day or date.