So when she tied the knot last year, she spared no detail. She walked down the aisle in a flowing ivory gown with a long veil and lacey bolero jacket. Ten flower-toting bridesmaids and seven groomsmen were in the wedding party. And after the ceremony, 100 guests dined on beef tenderloin, clams casino and a three-tier vanilla cake.
The cost, including a fireworks show during the reception, was $45,000.
Heller-Wells wasn't some blushing new bride, though. When the retired registered nurse, 64, wed her husband, Clyde, a small-business owner who is 65, it was her second time at the altar.
"I met my Prince Charming. He swept me off my feet," says the Clearwater, Fla., widow whose first husband died in 2003. "We're hoping this will be the last marriage. Why not celebrate?"
Only a few years ago, it was considered in poor taste for a bride over age 55, particularly if she had been previously married, to do things like wear a fancy wedding gown, rock out to a DJ at the reception or have the groom slip a lacy garter belt off of her leg. But those days are gone: Older couples no longer are tying the knot in subtle ways.
The trend in part is being driven by a desire to emulate the lavish weddings of celebrities of all ages. But it's also one of the results of a new "everything goes" approach that does away with long-held traditions and cookie-cutter ceremonies in favour of doing things like replacing the first husband-and-wife dance with a group reenactment of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. That's left older couples feeling less conscious about shelling out serious cash to party like their younger peers.
"The rules are out the window ... whether it's what you're wearing or the cake you're serving," says Darcy Miller, editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings, a wedding magazine. "Sixty is the new 40 and that is reflected in the wedding."
Couples age 55 and older made up just 8 per cent of last year's $53 billion wedding business. But that number has doubled since 2002, according to Shane McMurray, CEO of The Wedding Report, which tracks spending trends in the wedding industry.
It's in part because more couples are marrying in their golden years.
In 2011, women ages 55 and over accounted for 5.2 per cent and men in that age range made up 7.9 per cent of the more than 2.1 million marriages performed in that year in the U.S., according to Bowling Green State University's National Center for Family and Marriage Research, based on analysis of census figures. That's up from 2001 when 2.6 per cent of new marriages performed were among women in that age group; for men, it was 6.6 per cent.
And those older couples spend more. That's because they're usually empty nesters who don't have the same worries as their younger counterparts: They aren't saving for their first home, for instance, and they aren't burdened by huge student loan debts they must worry about paying off.
As a result, older couples dish out about 10 per cent to 15 per cent more than the cost of the average wedding, which was $25,656 last year, down from the pre-recession peak in 2007 of $28,732, according to The Wedding Report.
That's meant big business for companies that cater to brides and grooms-to-be. Zaven Ghanimian, CEO of Simon G. Jewelry, which sells engagement rings and other jewelry to about 900 small stores across the country, says men in their late 50s and older have been investing more on engagement rings. A few years ago, they were spending $1,500 to $2,000; now, they're shelling out $4,000 to $8,000.
And at David's Bridal, the nation's largest bridal chain with 300 locations across the U.S., business from older couples has doubled in the past two years, compared with modest growth for the younger age group, says Brian Beitler, the chain's chief marketing officer. And while older customers represent only two to three per cent of overall sales, the company expects that figure to keep growing.
And they're a lucrative bunch. David's Bridal, which is based in Consohocken, Pa., says older brides spend about $700 to $800 on gowns, including accessories like necklaces. That's higher than the $500 to $600 that customers in their twenties and early thirties typically spend.
But older brides aren't just spending more, they're spending differently. For instance, in the past, older brides tended to stick with special-occasion dresses, but now they want more traditional wedding gowns.
"She's our dream bride," says Catalina Maddox, fashion director at David's Bridal. "She wants everything that the 25-year-old bride wants, but more."
The trend is so prevalent that David's Bridal is looking at ways to better connect with the older wedding crowd. In fact, its store in Danbury, Conn. recently held a bridal fashion show at a nearby nursing and rehabilitation facility; the event was a hit with the residents, the store says.
"It really sparked something," said Jenna McNamara, the assistant store manager at David's Bridal in Danbury, Conn., which has noticed residents in nearby retirement homes as customers for either weddings or commitment ceremonies. "We realized this was something huge."
Terry Hall, fashion director at Kleinfeld's, the New York City bridal salon that has the nation's biggest selection of designer bridal wear under one roof with more than 1,000 designs, also has seen a change in attitude in the last year or so among the older set. He said business from that group has doubled.
Hall says Kleinfeld's older clients are spending $4,000 to $7,000 for a gown. That compares with the average purchase of $3,500 for the under-30 set.
"They used to be subtle," Hall says. "Now, they're saying, 'Who cares? It's my day.' They want the dress."
That's especially true for older first-time brides.
At 64, Yolanda Royal, who lives in Irvington, N.J., is preparing for her first wedding next July. After living with her partner for 20 years, he popped the question in May. The couple plans to spend about $11,000 on the reception for about 100 people, but for Royal, it's all about the dress. After that's secured, the other details will fall in place, she says.
Royal, a nursing attendant, was at David's Bridal in the Manhattan borough of New York City with her 41-year-old niece on a recent Friday, trying on white wedding gowns that had small trains. Royal, who says she wants something "sexy," tried everything from off-the-shoulder to strapless designs.
"For my wedding, for my day, I want the dress I want," says Royal, who did not want to give details about the gown she settled on because she wants to surprise her future husband. "I really don't think about age. I think age is something that people shouldn't think about. It's all about your life and the way you feel. I feel good about myself and my life."
That's not to say that some brides planning big weddings aren't getting any pushback from their friends or relatives. For instance, Joan Hunter, a 76-year-old widow for 33 years, is planning a big wedding with her fiance Guido Campanile, an 87-year-old widower, for October.
The couple is spending $10,000 on the reception, which will be held at a wedding hall. They are planning to have 10 people in the wedding party, including her two grown sons, ages 56 and 54, who will be giving her away, and her 5-year-old great grandson who will serve as the ring bearer. The couple also hired a DJ and a florist who is creating a floral arch.
But when Hunter first told her sons of her plans, they thought she was "crazy." They wondered why she wasn't just eloping to Las Vegas. "I told my kids that this may well be my last big party," says Hunter, who lives in Rosemead, Calif. "I'm really young at heart. I just wanted to do something that everyone would remember."
Still, the older bride has limits. She plans to throw a bouquet and is considering wearing a garter belt, but she will not be wearing white. Instead, she's planning to don a taupe gown she purchased at David's Bridal.
"I felt white wasn't appropriate for me," says Hunter, who will be wearing a chiffon gown with a fitted bodice and layers of ruffles cascading from the waist.
Apparently, the groom has limits, too. He proposed by giving Hunter a 5 1/2 carat diamond ring. But he stopped short of getting down on one knee.
"He did not get on his knees. That's for sure," Hunter laughed. "He may not have gotten back up again."