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Marriages on the fly: Elopements increase as wedding costs soar

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Holly and Michael Yoder during their elopement in Sedona. (Bob Coates Photography)

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Holly and Michael Yoder during their elopement in Sedona. (Bob Coates Photography)

When Derran Reebel, 35, a family portrait photographer in Toledo, Ohio, proposed to his girlfriend, Jessica, 21, he knew that they would have to pay for the wedding themselves because her parents had passed away. But the couple would have to save for months, if not years, before they could scrape together anywhere near the average cost of a wedding these days, which is around $25,000.

Thus it wasn’t long before the idea of eloping came up in conversation, and so it was that on Feb. 29 they appeared first in line at the Toledo courthouse to receive their wedding license. After a quick ceremony before a judge, they spent a quiet weekend in the honeymoon suite of a bed and breakfast outside Toledo, complete with hot tub, and returned to their prior lives, now hitched. “We couldn’t afford to have a big wedding,” said Reebel, “but we also didn’t want to wait.”

As the economic outlook sours and food and gas prices drive up the cost of receptions, the Reebels and a growing number of couples are choosing to forego Cinderella-style weddings and running off to get themselves married in quickie fashion.

Traditionally, of course, the parents of the bride pay for the affair. But that custom is fading with as many as 30 percent of couples shouldering the expenses themselves, according to a 2006 study by the Condé Nast Bridal Group. What’s more, savvy wedding planners and bed and breakfast owners are catching on to the trend and cashing in. “The demand and interest in elopements is growing,” said Tanya W. Porter, an Englewood, Colo., wedding planner and elopement specialist, who for as little as $250 can arrange a simple ceremony that she herself performs. “People think that there’s a better place to put their money,” she said. “I saw a niche.”

Couples say that eloping allows them to have a fun, spontaneous experience without worrying about a meticulously planned event where a dozen moving parts must work together perfectly. One Monday in April, for instance, Denmark Francisco, who helps people set up home businesses, and his fiancée, Karen Liang, a tax consultant, both 25, were sitting in their New York City apartment when an idea struck: Hey, it was time, they thought. Why not get married that weekend? “Instead of dragging it out,” said Francisco, “we just said, ‘Let’s have a wedding.’”

The pair promptly flew to San Diego. That Saturday, with the groom dressed in linen pants and a white T-shirt and the bride clad in a white summer dress, they rode bicycles to the Windan Sea Shack, a famous surfer spot in La Jolla, Calif. To the gentle hissing of the surf and as the sun sank into the Pacific, they became husband and wife on the beach. “Why go through the hassle of a traditional wedding--planning, inviting--when a relationship is about a commitment to each other?” Francisco said.

Bed and breakfast establishments have been quick to capitalize on the elopement trend. Five years ago, when the Inn at Weathersfield in Perkinsville, Vt., started offering elopement packages, it would get only an occasional inquiry. Today, the inn hosts two dozen elopements every year, said its owner, Jane Sandelman. Her $1,100 two-night package includes a justice of the peace to perform the ceremony, Champagne and hors d’oeuvre, a wedding cake, flowers and a five-course dinner. “We wanted to provide an intimate setting where they could have a memorable event without costing them an arm and a leg,” Sandelman said.

Eloping is also an appealing option for couples who have been married before and don’t want to weigh down their relationship with another costly production. Holly Yoder, a 52-year-old who works for a beer distributor in Flagstaff, Ariz., was 19 when she got married for the first time. Her parents pressured her into having a large, traditional affair. “It was a big church wedding and a big reception with a sit-down meal and a band,” Yoder said. “It didn’t fit my personality.”

She remembered feeling rushed to talk to all her guests and pose for countless pictures. “You miss a lot because you’re so busy doing things,” Yoder said.

So, when Yoder, who divorced husband No. 1 25 years ago, was planning to marry her now-husband Michael last year, she knew she wanted something different. This time, instead of inviting dozens of guests, the couple had a quiet ceremony at the Creekside Inn at Sedona that they planned just three weeks ahead of time.

In the afternoon, they were married on the bank of a creek in a 15-minute civil ceremony. They not only enjoyed the privacy and simplicity of the experience, but could then invest the thousands they would have spent on a wedding to remodel their house.

E-mail: yb2183@columbia.edu