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Your ultimate guide to wedding dress shopping

Sit back, relax and close your eyes. Chances are, you have an image of the perfect dress lurking somewhere in your memory bank. Maybe it's a vestige of your childhood fantasies of fairytale weddings, or perhaps your image of the perfect dress is a more recent mental creation.

Translating the picture in your head into a real-life gown is never an easy undertaking. You don't have to lose your sanity looking for your dress, and there's no rule that says dress-shopping means bankruptcy. By planning ahead and avoiding impulsive buys, you can find the perfect dress – without the drama.

Try multiple dress shops

No matter how excited you are about testing out a particular dress store, you need to shop around. The dress of your dreams could cost $500 less at the next one you try. Moreover, by keeping your options open you increase the chance that you'll find the right dress - possibly at a knockdown price.

Try alternative shopping options

In movies, dress shopping always involves a lavish bridal store and a coterie of friends and family there to observe the process. But for real-life princesses, a fairytale isn't cheap. If you're concerned about cost, consider buying a dress secondhand. After all, someone else's wedding dress has only been worn once, and may come at a fraction of the price. Buying online, having a dress custom-made by a little-known dressmaker, and shopping at vintage stores can also help you save a pretty penny.

Take someone with you

You're going to need some moral support to get through dress shopping, and a second opinion never hurt anyone. Just make sure you take someone who shares your taste and who would never insult you. If your mom is negative about your body or your best friend criticizes everything, leave them behind and opt for a more positive influence.

Wait it out

Found the dress of your dreams? Don't take the plunge just yet. Some brides get so excited about seeing themselves in a wedding dress that they love every gown. A wedding dress is a costly investment, so take 24 hours to think about your decision before you take the purchasing plunge.

Consider alterations

If you find a dress that's almost what you want, consider having it altered. You can lower or raise necklines, add embellishments, change the size and even alter the silhouette of the dress. In so doing, you can save a pretty penny. Of course, if you have already picked a gown you love, you'll need to consider the cost of altering it – which can be $1,000 or more, depending on your bridal shop. Incorporate alterations into your budget and you'll almost certainly end up with a to-die-for dress.

You'll only ever shop for a wedding gown once, so make it fun. There's no need to rush through the experience, and if you're miserable at one shop, just laugh it off. Wedding-day shopping and planning should be fun, and shopping for your dress provides a prime opportunity to spend time with the people you love most.

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