Cheap wedding dress bargains are available to brides who start early and do their research.

As a bride-to-be actively avoiding many decisions about my own pending nuptials (despite the many excellent cheap and frugal wedding tips shared by Consuming Interests readers months ago), let’s talk about how an organized non-procrastinator should search for a gown.

First, consider what you’re paying for. Check out what the authors of the Bridal Bargains book had to say about wedding dresses — given the price range, you’d expect things like high-quality fabric and materials such as lace, right?

At the very least, you’d want properly sewn seams. A good friend of mine recently ordered a dress from a popular retailer and found multiple problems: an exposed metal zipper instead of the covered, hidden one pictured in the catalog, poorly stitched seams that bunched in the back and even an unevenly cut hem.

Next, think about how long you’ll wear this dress. I like to justify expensive purchases by dividing the price by the number of times I’ll wear an item. That won’t work for wedding gowns.

Wedding dresses are also cumbersome heirlooms. Some people may preserve their gowns in acid-free boxes, which is a nice tradition if you live in a home with lots of storage, that you never plan to leave. Otherwise, it will be one more thing to carry around as you move through life. And forget about saving it for your kids. Your offspring may not fit into yours or may prefer a different style for their gown.

Finally, don’t get pressured into making a deal. With all the pressure to find the "perfect" dress, it’s not uncommon for women to find themselves buying more than one, because the style of the dress doesn’t match their venue or because they make a hasty decision at a sale that they regret later.

With that in mind, here’s some great options for purchasing an inexpensive wedding dress that you will love:

Start early.  (And be more decisive than I am). If you’re ordering from a store, they often require more than four months to get the dress, and then at least two months alterations. Order with less time to spare and you may get hit with rush charges even though your event is still months away.

And if you’re considering alternative sources I’m suggesting below, the hunt may take more time.

Pick your venue and wedding date BEFORE you buy a dress. You might have to alter any Cinderella fantasies depending on your wedding location. For a beach wedding on a Caribbean island, you might not want something with a cathedral-length train. Or, if you’re getting married in the winter, you might consider a down quilted dress or one lined in fleece (kidding, kidding). P.S. No matter where you’re getting married, don’t pack a wedding dress in your checked luggage, as one bride learned the hard way.

I’ve also heard some ceremony sites place restrictions on what is appropriate attire for a wedding (for the bride and groom, at least). I don’t know of any that do that, but it’s worth checking before you plunk down a deposit on anything risque.

Consider some alternative sources of wedding attire, including:

* Sales in retail shops. Most bridal salons only carry a few samples of the dresses from the lines they carry. If you have at least a vague concept of the style of dress you want, check for trunk shows, where designers come to a store with more examples that you can often purchase at a discount on that day.

Sometimes stores also sell the samples themselves, which is fine if the dress is within alteration-range of a perfect fit. Check for stains, rips or other wear-and-tear problems — if it’s something minor it might still be worth it.

* Check department stores and other unexpected sources. A good tip for destination wedding dresses that can travel well, or others looking for more modern or non-traditional styles: check out special occasion dresses at department stores such as Bloomingdale’s or Neiman Marcus. Also, some bridesmaid’s dresses can be ordered in wedding colors such as white or off-white, but designers might charge a special fee for that privilege. Rrr!

Unfortunately, Isaac Mizrahi no longer designs wedding dresses for Target. Ann Taylor sells bridesmaid dresses and accessories, but a spokeswoman told me they may offer "wedding dress alternatives" in the future.

* Consider "pre-owned" dresses. The Wall Street Journal had a recent story about bargain-hunting brides buying their gowns from Now, "pre-owned" is a big category, which includes not only dresses that have made it down the aisle at least once, but also some brand new dresses that are new-with-tags (NWT).

Take advantage of others’ indecision. Classifieds at sites such as, Encore Bridal or are full of stories from "two-dress brides" (and even three-dress brides) who changed their minds and found a different dress. You can also buy wedding dresses on Craigslist and bid on wedding dresses on eBay. (Remember how we showed you how to set up an RSS feed for a Craigslist search?)

I recently talked to a woman who purchased a dress at the Filene’s Basement Running of the Brides, where dresses cost between $250 and $699. She ended up buying a different dress that she felt was more appropriate for her reception location — and is now looking to unload her lovely ballgown before she moves.

Goodwill stores were a good wedding dress source for one Boston Globe reporter. I checked out a number of local Goodwills and was impressed by the extent of the formal wear selection, although there were fewer recent wedding dresses than I had hoped. I’m guessing it’s luck of the draw — the best dresses probably sell quickly.

The savvy shopper at Good Morning America also recommended going to thrift stores and consignment shops for wedding dresses. The Surprise Shop in Towson, which raises money for Trinity Episcopal Church, now has a number of wedding dress samples available on consignment for a third of their original price, as well as accessories such as gloves and veils. Newbury and Smith in Mount Washington had two wedding dresses when I visited, and Regal Rags in Annapolis had a few, too.

Other options: Anyone with experience ordering direct from manufacturers in China, renting a dress or having a dress made, please share advice below. You could also look at wedding gowns on Etsy. One bonus: if you have a dress made to your measurements, then hopefully you save on alterations down the road.

(photo: Patrick Smith/Baltimore Sun)