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WEDDING DAY: Plan like a pro - Strategies and secrets for planning your big day

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When Britta Skoog walks down the aisle of Sacred Heart Music Center on Jan. 30 to marry Peter DeSutter, it will have been nine months since they became engaged - and nine months of wedding planning.

Some might call that a relatively short time to plan a wedding and reception with 230 guests. Many couples plan a year or more ahead. But it has not been a scramble, Skoog says.

"It's just kind of flowed," she says. "We haven't had any kinks."

The wintertime nuptials, which Skoog and DeSutter chose because they both love the time of year, have allowed them to have their choice of because it's off-season for weddings.

But any wedding requires planning and although it didn't happen to Skoog and DeSutter, sometimes preparing for the big day can turn into a test of a couple's relationship.

Working together through money issues, compromising when priorities differ and keeping extended families happy all come into play when planning the wedding day.

Local wedding planners say don't panic. Rather, follow a few rules and stay focused on what the day is supposed to be about: a celebration.

• Set a budget and stick to it.

It sounds unromantic, and is definitely less fun than, say, trying on dresses or making honeymoon reservations. But the first rule is figure out how much you have to spend, and to avoid overspending. If parents are helping with expenses, verify how much they're willing to contribute. "The day after you get married, you don't

want those bills rolling in," cautions Kim Sorensen, owner of Lake Superior Concierge, who gave assistance to Skoog and DeSutter.

• Prioritize.

Identifying what matters - and what doesn't - is a big help in the budget process. Not a big cake person? Go with a sheet cake from a store bakery. The money you save can be spent instead on flowers, photography, catering or whatever else is higher on your priority list.

• Make it personal.

This is your day. The more personal you make it, the more memorable it will be for everyone. Of course, if parents are helping pay, be respectful of their wishes. But it's still your wedding. "If you have an idea, just go with it," says Sorensen. "Try it."

Sorensen has seen dogs as ring bearers, sentimental gifts given to family members during the ceremony and a groom ask a flower girl for permission to marry her mom. Another personal touch is featuring the guests as well as the bride and groom in slide shows or photo displays. "People like to see themselves up there," she says.

• Size matters.

Your budget will help determine the size of your guest list, but your desire to keep things personal should also be a deciding factor.

"This is a celebration, not a show," reminds Margilyn Valle, a.k.a. The Wedding Planner. "Average size is 100 to 150. That's always a comfortable size because you're more open to where you can have it."

Smaller weddings don't mean less work, but they can cost less, or allow you to spend more on priorities.

"I've seen absolutely lovely receptions with 50 to 75 people," says Valle. "It was intimate. It was a good celebration. The food was wonderful. And

they had the money to be able to afford it and give a little extra, like the favors on the table. Because they didn't spend too much money inviting all these guests, the invitations were a little nicer."

As for wedding party size, Valle warns that the more people, the less personal. "The people in the bridal party should be people they're going to be friends with in a year. Four bridesmaids and four groomsmen is good. I've done weddings where there's just one bridesmaid and one groomsman."

Assign the right people to the right jobs.

When choosing your wedding party, don't assign roles based simply on who you're closest to. Pick people who will be able to do what you need them to do. Personal attendants should be organized and willing to work. Ushers can't be timid as they greet and seat your guests.

Consider personalities when choosing the minister or officiate, photographer, DJ and others who can affect the tone and mood of

the day.

Throughout the planning process, delegate. "It is nice to find jobs for parents," suggests Sorensen. "Parents want to be included, usually."

And be sure to communicate, Skoog says. By forgetting to tell the family that she and Desutter settled on a place for the post-wedding brunch, Skoog says they inadvertently caused more work for her future mother-in-law, who kept looking after the venue was settled.

Recognize your limitations and consider hiring help. "There are people who say, I don't have the organization skills, I don't have the time, I'm in school," says Sorensen. "In those situations, a wedding planner can

be a huge stress reliever."

Other tips

Six to nine months is plenty of time to plan, according to Valle and Sorensen. To reserve popular venues in the fall, which is now the busiest time for Northland weddings, you might need a year.

But most importantly, "Have a good time with this," says Sorensen, who urges couples to consult each other as they plan. And remember to keep things in perspective. "There are just some things that aren't big

decisions," she says.