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NUPTIALS NEED NOT COST AN ARM AND A LEG

The average U.S. wedding costs a stunning $15,400. But you can trim that cost and still have a wedding with all the trimmings.

First, set a budget - then stick to it. Splurge on the things most important to you, but control other costs. Here are suggestions for saving.- THE RECEPTION (average cost of site: $1,600).

Choose a Sunday afternoon in September instead of a Saturday night in June. Hold your reception in a local park or historic house.

- FOOD AND DRINK (average cost: $8,400).

Save 15 percent by serving lunch instead of dinner. Limit drinks to wine, beer, sodas and sparkling water. Substitute a good domestic sparkling wine for imported champagne.

And if you don't have a crowd to feed, fake a cake layer or two by coating Styrofoam with icing.

- PHOTOGRAPHY (average cost: $1,500).

Ask the photographer to shoot only the ceremony and formal poses, then encourage guests to take reception pictures by placing disposable cameras at each table.

- THE DRESS (average cost: $800).

Shop Filene's Basement when it discounts wedding gowns to $199. Or order from Discount Bridal Service (800-874-8794), which sells dresses for 20 percent to 40 percent less than retail.

- MUSIC (average cost: $400 for a disc jockey, $1,000 for a band).

The most expensive dates are in December and June; the slowest month for musicians is January.

- FLOWERS (average cost: $800).

If you're getting married in a church or synagogue, let flowers from the ceremony serve double duty at the reception.

- INVITATIONS (average cost: $350).

Instead of engraving, choose thermography, which gives the same raised-print feel for less. The American Stationery Co. (800-428-0379) sells 100 thermographically printed invitations, reply cards and envelopes for less than $100.

- RINGS (average cost for bride and groom: $1,000).

A 14-karat-gold ring not only is less expensive but also may wear better than a higher-karat gold ring.

- ATTENDANTS' GIFTS (average cost: $200).

Gifts need not be costly - or stuffy. One groom bought his five groomsmen and ring bearer jerseys from their favorite basketball teams and negotiated a discount.

- THE ALTERNATIVE: ELOPING (average cost: $300 or less).

At A Little White Chapel in Las Vegas, a ceremony at the drive-up window is $30. Inside, it's $55.

Still too extravagant? It may cost as little $20 to have the ceremony performed at a courthouse.