If you’ve ever attended a wedding, known a friend planning one or taken part in a bridal party, you probably know weddings are really expensive. But even if you’ve heard this your whole life, and watched friends stress out over their budgetary spreadsheet, you still might not feel prepared to learn that invitations can cost as much as a used car.
The average wedding in the United States hovers around $33,000. That giant number represents payments to so many vendors and contractors — caterers, florists, musicians, jewelry designers, seamstresses, waiters — that you’re basically operating a business.
How many couples actually go into the wedding-planning process well-versed in negotiating flower contracts? (And who’s legally responsible if your florist can’t find the right shade of peony from her market that week?) “Vetting and contracting wedding vendors is a challenging process because there is a steep learning curve,” Jung Lee, the founder of event-production firm Fête in New York City, said in an email interview. “Couples always joke that they figured out how to hire the right wedding vendors about two weeks after the wedding.”
Hopefully, if you’re planning a wedding, you can learn a little bit sooner than that. Here, Lee and other experts shared their tips for what engaged folks typically mess up in the planning process so you can avoid their mistakes.
Mistake 1: Not fully reading the contract
If you’re about to sign away thousands of dollars, you need to make sure you know what you’re paying for. “Good contracts not only protect both parties involved, they build trust,” Lee said. “How many waiters do we get? Bartenders? What are the brands included at the bar? When can my vendors get access to the space to set up for the wedding? All of these things should be made clear in the contract, but most couples don’t know to be thinking of these things.”
Every single expectation should be outlined. “It is easy to fall in love with a vendor and trust them, and you should only hire vendors you trust, but you should completely know what you are and are not signing up for and it should clearly be spelled out in your contract,” Jove Meyer, the owner and creative director of Jove Meyer Events in New York City, said in an email interview. “Sales people switch jobs all the time, so have every verbal promise written into your contract so you get what you were promised even if the person you started working with is no longer there when you get married.”
Mistake 2: Asking for discounts the wrong way
While you absolutely should pore over those contract details and ask many questions, Meyer prefers not to frame these conversations as negotiations. “To be honest, I am not a fan of negotiating,” he said. “It sets the relationship up in a bad way to start and assumes the vendor is trying to scam you with high pricing: ‘Hi vendor, I love your work, have heard great things, would love to work with you, can you give me a discount?’ If you love their work, respect their fees.”
He recommended that couples research vendors whom they believe will be in their price range, instead of reaching out to the best and asking for a better rate — sort of like determining if you can afford items at a clothing store before you walk in. “When it comes to wedding vendors and pricing, there are many tiers and finding the best one for you can take some time, but in doing so you align yourself with the right team for your wedding,” Meyer said.
If you find a dream vendor that is a tiny bit out of your budget, Meyer suggests the following: “Rather than asking for a flat-out discount, it is best to simply ask if there is any flexibility in pricing and/or services. [D]o not expect anyone to say yes, but it does not hurt to ask if you are on a super-tight budget.”
Mistake 3: Assuming there’s a “standard” of any kind
You know what they say about assuming, right? “A common mistake for many couples is… they assume the vendor will provide certain things, as their friends’ vendor did, or as the internet told them,” Meyer said. “With photographers, for example, a sneak-peek gallery is not standard, but often expected. With the caterer, some couples assume all leftovers are theirs, but that is not often the case.”
Lee, too, reported she sees this time and again. “This can lead to disappointment or regrets. For example, a couple may say ‘We thought music during cocktail hour was included with the band,’ or ‘They never told us there was an additional charge to hold the ceremony outside,’” she said. The vendors aren’t intentionally trying to screw you, of course; they just can’t read your mind! “Regardless of the reason for the miscommunication, it is the couple’s responsibility to get everything in writing, ideally in the contract or at least, in an email,” Lee said.
Mistake 4: Forgetting about tax or gratuity
Surprise! Your very expensive venue costs an additional 30% more than is listed in your brochure. “Make sure you know each venues/vendors tax and gratuity breakdown,” Anna Noriega, the founder of Aloré Event Firm, who plans many events at the Newport Beachside Hotel and Resort near Miami, said in an email interview. “Most clients don’t realize that food and beverage minimums have a ‘plus’ for a reason, as the menu offered at, for example, $120 a person is plus service, tax and gratuity. You have to allot an additional almost 30% in some cases to get a better budget breakdown of your final [food and beverage]-related expenses.” Noriega recommended requesting a financial breakdown from some vendors for a clearer (though likely painful) visual of what true costs are.
Consider, too, another “small” fee that’s often tacked on: travel fees. Some vendors, like photographers or makeup artists, will require that couples cover their travel to/from the wedding site, or pay for their hotel room. That demand can add a couple hundred dollars to the budget, so check their contracts and assess their expectations before the big day.
Mistake 5: Ignoring cancellation policies and other fine print
It’s understandable to adopt a policy of utter denial that anything could go seriously wrong with a wedding — like the couple calls it off, or a vendor goes out of business, or an “act of God” floods the venue. But it certainly happens all the time. “Details matter and couples should read all fine print to make sure they fully know what they can expect from the vendor, especially the cancellation clause, on both sides,” Meyer said. “While no one wants to have to cancel a wedding, life happens and I always encourage couples to be prepared. Acts of God — or force majeure — [clauses] are in most contracts and interchangeable in terms; they basically allow for vendors to not provide agreed-upon services in the case of extreme circumstances like ... flash floods, earthquakes or other natural disasters.”
Another specific clause to note is deadlines for steps in the planning process. “Understanding the terms and conditions of your agreement will help ensure you know when final guest counts are required and menu selections are due. Some venues will leave these details vague allowing them to add additional costs for any changes to your agreement along the way,” Carlesse Sue Yek, event director at the Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel in New York City, said in an email interview. “Checking upfront the venue’s flexibility of terms and conditions ensures there are no surprises during the planning stages.”
Yet another line item is the dates when your vendor is expecting to get paid. “Payments should be taken seriously, as vendors can cancel their services and/or your wedding if payment is not received on time,” Meyer said. “Sometimes late fees apply, so take note.”
Mistake 6: Failing to consider logistics between vendors
Hey, here’s a puzzle: If your florist wants to wind ivy around your venue’s columns at 11 a.m., and your specialty cookies are arriving at 2 p.m., and the band wants to tune up before the reception and during the ceremony, who is letting them into the venue and are they even allowed to be there? “Ensuring you ask about the logistics side of the location when booking will ensure your final choice can accommodate the additions you would like to bring onsite,” Sue Yek said. “For example, AV capabilities and insurance needs for the amazing band [or] DJ you have selected, or storage facilities for your three-tier cake that needs to be delivered five hours prior to being served.”
A wedding planner could help ease those headaches by coordinating and creating an incredibly detailed schedule of the day, but if that’s not in your budget, then get organized way earlier in the process. “Taking the time to discuss these items when signing a wedding venue will ultimately make the final weeks leading up to your special day seamless with no surprises or extra costs coming up,” Sue Yek said.
Mistake 7: Not asking for help
A lot of these tips boil down to attempting to read the future — or trying to determine your regrets before your wedding. Obviously, this is a very expensive paradox, but there are tools available to make the process less painful.
A wedding planner is the big gun here, and a good one is “invaluable,” Lee said. ”Good planners will not only recommend a variety of vendors and highlight their pros and cons, but also arm couples with the knowledge and insight so they can make the best decision for themselves.” While a full-service wedding planner might seem like a luxury, many planners offer “month of” or “day of” coordination services to help organize your vendors and timeline right at the very end of the planning process, a much cheaper option than hiring someone to handle the whole thing.
A lower-cost or even free option is the many apps and digital tools out there designed to help couples stay organized: The Knot offers an All-in-One Wedding Planner app to stay on top of to-do lists, budgets and guest management, while WeddingWire’s app offers the above plus a fun seating-chart helper.
And there is nothing cheaper than asking your married friends about their experiences. You know you’ll get unbridled honesty from your best friend who’s still fuming over the DJ who never played “Shout” or the florist who went ahead and pulled pink peonies instead of blush ones. They’ll be happy to put these tough lessons to good use.