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On TLC’s reality show “Say Yes to the Dress,” women come to a tony New York boutique to shop for the perfect wedding gown. I used to catch episodes with my daughter, who probably got sick of my comments about how much money they were spending on their dream dresses they’d wear just once. (Hey, I have to set some realistic expectations for her!)

The truth is, weddings can be expensive, and while it’s nice to think everyone can stay within a realistic budget, there’s probably a lot more borrowing going on than we’re willing to talk about.

There’s the couple who took out $40,000 in loans to pay for their wedding. And a couple who appeared on Oprah after having spent $22,000 on a beach wedding in Mexico, which included flying guests to the wedding and picking up the tab for spa treatments and filet mignon.

Of course starting a life together with wedding debt hanging over your heads can put a strain on the relationship. Not surprisingly, one study that looked at survey data gathered from 1,010 randomly sampled newlywed couples found that entering marriage with consumer debt had “a negative impact on newlywed levels of marital quality.”

So what can you do if you find you’re in that situation and don’t want your wedding debt to split you up?

Live on Love: Talk about whether you can really buckle down and live really frugally for the time it takes to pay off your debt. If you can, it may be the smartest thing you do for your relationship. It won’t be easy, but hopefully you’re still in the starry-eyed stage where you believe anything is possible.

Dustin and his wife Bethany paid off $54,500 in debt early in their marriage. He writes on the EngagedMarriage.com blog:

It takes passion, energy and commitment to pay off a large amount of debt. And it takes a lot of hard work. There’s really no substitute for effort if you want to make a major change in your financial future and live a debt-free marriage.

You’ll have to look at exactly where your money is going and find as many opportunities as you can to cut back so you can put that extra money toward your debt. Ideally, having this goal will help you grow closer as you look for ways to make it happen. But it won’t work if one of you isn’t fully on board, or starts criticizing the other spouse over every single purchase. So be sure to build a little splurge money into the budget and make a commitment to talk about issues that arise.

Tip: Use a money management program like SavvyMoney, PowerWallet, HelloWallet or Mint to track and review your spending together and set monthly dates to check in with each other.

Get on the Same Page: Rather than just haphazardly trying to add a few extra dollars to your minimum payments each month, set a realistic goal to pay off your debt in a specific period of time; three years or less is ideal. Then use an online calculator to figure out how much you’ll each need to pay each month to be debt-free in that time period. Set up automatic payments so that the money comes directly from your checking account and you’ll have one less thing to worry about. (Some of the online money management tools I mentioned earlier will automate this for you.)

A warning: Don’t be surprised if one or both of you wants to bail at this point. Getting into the nitty gritty of the numbers can be uncomfortable, to say the least. If you happen to be the one who loves to dig in, forge ahead. Be patient with your partner, but don’t let him or her off the hook all together. You both need to have a clear understanding of your strategy if you want it to succeed. If you can’t get past this point, skip down to the advice for getting help.

Divide and Conquer: If you have decided to keep your finances largely separate, then you will have to decide how to divide up your wedding debt. Ideally, you talked about this before you spent the money. But if you didn’t, then it’s time to sit down with the bills and a calculator and figure out who pays what. You can divide the bills based on your income (she earns 10% more than him so she pays 10% more of the debt, for example), or by category (he wanted the honeymoon in Aruba so he pays for that, she wanted the Sarah Burton gown so she pays for that). It wouldn’t hurt to put this in writing in case one of you, ahem, remembers the agreement differently.

Get Some Help: In addition to the debt from your wedding, you may also have other debts you’re trying to tackle. You may have student loan debts if you’re new college grads, for example; or mortgages on two homes if both of you owned homes before you married and you can’t sell them until home prices improve. Or maybe she wants to quit her job to stay home with the children you hope to have. Those competing priorities can make it hard for you to see the bigger picture and prioritize your debts. It can also dredge up unpleasant emotions, or even arguments that leave you both wondering what you were thinking when you said, “I do.”

If you feel it’s getting to that point, consider working with a financial planner or money coach who has experience working with couples around money and spending issues. They can help you create a comprehensive strategy for paying off debt and finding money to fund future goals, as well as help you find a way to cope with emotional issues that arise.

Where to find that kind of help? Try the Financial Recovery Institute or consider a fee-only financial planner who offers “holistic” financial planning services.

Are you struggling with wedding debt, or have you managed to pay some off? Share your experience in the comments section below.

Image: Myrrien, via Flickr

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