LUCKY THE COUPLE for whom the sky is the limit when it comes to planning their wedding. For most of us, money is very much an object. Although Chinese tradition dictates the groom should pay for the event, while in Western society it is typically the bride's family who foots the bill, many modern couples pay for a substantial portion of their wedding themselves. And while it isn't worth compromising quality for the sake of a few dollars, you don't want astronomical debts spoiling your newly acquired marital bliss. Dull though it may seem to think about finance when you've just got engaged, it is essential to set a wedding budget before you even spend a dollar. Even the smallest extras add up, and if you don't account for everything your nuptials may end up costing much more than you anticipated. According to Denise Cheung, president of financial planning company Money Concepts, the average cost of a wedding in Hong Kong ranges from $150,000 to $200,000, but spending less doesn't necessarily mean a second-rate event. With some resourceful thinking and careful advance planning you can still have the day of your dreams and avoid a potentially expensive disaster. Cheung suggests taking out a wedding investment plan if you don't have the bank balance to meet your nuptial needs, but if you haven't got the time for such financial planning, she recommends fixing a budget and sticking to it by keeping a record of all expenditure. (You can do this by creating your own spreadsheet or using the planners offered by most wedding Web sites such as www.theknot.com .) 'We don't want people overspending [on their wedding] and then regretting it,' she says. 'Couples should write down their priorities, then take their top three or four choices and assign more money to those items. If your reception and outfits are most important to you, cut back on something that isn't, such as transport.' Prioritise items that will last beyond the day - typically the rings and the photographs - and then buy the best you can afford. 'You don't have to go to a designer shop for your wedding bands,' says Cheung. 'Small jewellers often give good deals.' Photographs will remind you of your wedding long after the last champagne cork has popped, so it is worth hiring a professional. Most charge by the hour (check whether film and processing are included in the cost), so to reduce expenditure order only your formal portraits and ask friends to get snap-happy throughout the rest of the event. Another rule of thumb is to shop around by getting quotes and comparing prices, but remember that something cheap isn't necessarily good value. A hotel package that doesn't offer fringe benefits such as a cake and venue decoration might be less expensive than one that does, but if you have to order these items separately you may find your lower-cost option isn't such a bargain after all. Hidden taxes, overtime fees and service charges may also pump up a bill, so always read the small print and don't be afraid to ask questions. If you are booking your reception venue well in advance, make sure you're not penalised for adding or subtracting a table nearer the time after your guests have confirmed their attendance. It is always worth exercising your powers of negotiation, but whatever the outcome, remember to get all costs in writing. The banquet is usually the most expensive part of a wedding with couples spending about half their budget on their guests. It is also one of the likeliest sources of conflict between both sets of parents and the engaged couple, with everyone wanting to invite their own friends and relatives. Hard as it is to make guest-list sacrifices, it is always better to entertain a small number in style than invite everyone and scrimp on food quality. Consider cutting children, and opting for an intimate sit-down lunch with the best food immediately after the marriage registry. 'It is now perfectly acceptable to have a small lunch for close family and friends or an afternoon reception, which are cheaper than a 12-course dinner,' says Aimee Chan, banqueting sales manager at the Holiday Inn Golden Mile Hotel. 'A lot of people are opting for a more Western-style wedding with a tea reception and games.' According to former bride Sheila Wong, you can also save money by going to a Chinese restaurant rather than a hotel, or to a more remote area, such as the Gold Coast in Tuen Mun. 'Holding a banquet on a weekday - Monday to Thursday - is also cheaper than on a weekend or public holiday,' she says. Alcohol prices in hotels and restaurants are always inflated, so investigate whether you can serve your own wine and spirits. Suppliers such as Boutique Wines (tel: 2872 4234) offer discounts for bulk buying and have a sale and return service whereby you can return unopened surplus without paying for it. Again, ask your venue about its corkage charges and do your sums before you make any commitments or purchases. Every bride wants to look her best, but wedding dresses can eat into a budget. 'Some Hong Kong brides change outfits as often as possible during the day, like a fashion show,' says Wong. 'That's not necessary. A white wedding dress, a traditional Chinese gown and one evening dress are fine. It's common for brides to hire their dresses by the hour or day to save money - and wardrobe space.' Some bridal shops will offer wedding-dress packages with the traditional Chinese kwa as well as Western-style gowns included in the price; others will make dresses to order and charge you less if you return them to the shop for use as hire garments. Another option is to buy fabrics cheaply from Shamshuipo and have them made into the styles of your choice by a local seamstress. Sales can throw up some great bargains, but try to buy outfits and accessories, particularly shoes, that aren't obviously bridal so you can wear them again. 'I didn't have much money to spend on my outfits because I wanted my guests to have the best time,' says Mary Kwan, who got married a year ago. 'I borrowed my aunt's kwa and found a simple, long white dress in a sale for about $600. I have since dyed it a different colour to wear to other functions. I then changed into an evening dress I had only worn once.' Another recent bride, Cindy Li, 32, saved money on her hair and make-up. 'I never wear much make-up, so having a make-up artist wasn't important,' she says. 'I went for a cheap make-up lesson to get a few tips, then I did it myself. I didn't have an elaborate hairstyle either. My local salon just blow-dried my hair on the day.' A simple wedding bouquet can look just as good if it comes from a flower market as from a top florist. Ask for seasonal flowers and watch out for 'floral holidays' such as St Valentine's Day when prices sky-rocket. Don't worry about elaborate displays at your venue either. A single gerbera in a vase or a small pot of trailing ivy on each table can look equally effective. Be selective when it comes to extras and don't feel you've been stingy simply because your guests don't go home with a personalised teddy bear. Invitations will end up in the bin, so why spend a fortune on gold-embossed cards in tissue paper-lined envelopes? You will get to your venue as quickly in a friend's luxury car as in a limo, and how often will you watch that professionally shot video? Ask a friend with a camera to have a go. You can economise without compromising on your honeymoon too. Many travel agents offer package deals, but prices fluctuate according to the season at your destination. If you don't mind going off-peak you will save money and have a wider choice of accommodation than in more popular months. Try to avoid going away during school holidays when flights are often crowded and expensive, and remember to check out the cost of living in the country of your choice - it is better to live regally in Thailand than starve for a fortnight in Italy. Your wedding day can still be the most romantic event of your life even on a limited budget - just don't plan it with your heart. Use your head.