The decision to hire a wedding planner is a tough one for many brides-to-be. I myself was on a tight budget and chose to do all of my own planning—but I also had a super-organized mom and sister to help me.
As I look back on the year that I spent getting ready for the big day, I can't help but recall the many late nights when I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, a few tense conversations with my family—and even a handful of moments spent bickering with my fiancé. Thankfully, I didn’t permanently fracture any relationships, but I certainly felt the pressure and had some “bridezilla” moments that I’m not proud of.
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How much is your time, energy and mental well-being worth?
That’s a question that San Diego–based certified wedding planner Alison Howard encourages every bride-to-be to ask herself. LearnVest sat down with Howard to discuss what it takes to be a wedding planner, and how this professional can help you craft a dream wedding—and save your sanity.
LearnVest: How did you get into wedding planning?
Alison Howard: Wedding planning found me. I studied elementary education, so my original plan was to be a teacher. But I wasn’t inspired—it was more my parents’ dream than mine. When I got married in my early 20s, I didn’t have a planner. In fact, there was no such thing at the time. Everything went perfectly, but at the end, I remember thinking: That was a lot of work. There has to be someone out there who can help plan weddings.
I was the first of my friends to get married, so when others started tying the knot, they came to me for advice. After I had assisted several people with their weddings, a friend said, “You should start a business.” I'd always had an entrepreneurial mindset because my dad was an entrepreneur, so the idea wasn’t daunting. I interned with professional planners—and then took a chance.
So what exactly does a wedding planner do?
I oversee the logistical elements of hosting a wedding, and break up the planning into phases, so it’s manageable and less overwhelming for the bride and groom. I get to know each client, do a ton of research, suggest vendors, meet with those vendors (either with or without the client), read contracts carefully, handle negotiations and make sure that everything goes smoothly on the day of the wedding.
I have two types of packages: complete planning and partial planning. And this is typical of what wedding planners across the country offer. Complete planning is the whole she-bang, from start to finish. A client will usually approach me 12–18 months before the wedding, typically a couple of weeks after getting engaged. Then I do everything from booking the date and venue to overseeing all of the logistics on the wedding day.
Partial planning is for the couple whose wedding is generally six to eight months away or less. Maybe they’ve found their venue, photographer and one or two other vendors—but they need help finding a few more vendors, putting all of the pieces together, keeping everything organized and managing the event on the actual day.
It’s difficult to plan a dinner party for 10 people, let alone an event for over 100.
How much does it typically cost to hire a wedding planner?
Location and experience influence price. Since I am based in Southern California and I have been doing this for several years, I'm likely to charge more than a planner in, say, the Midwest or one who's just starting out.
I only do about 10–15 weddings a year, so complete planning with me generally starts at $8,000–$10,000 and partial planning usually starts at $5,000. Other planners at my company are trained by me and certified, but they haven’t been doing it as long, so they offer more competitive pricing: around $5,000 for complete planning and about $2,500–$3,000 for partial.
Clients who hire a wedding planner typically pay in installments: 50% up front to book the date, one payment midway through the process, and then the final balance is due 30 days prior to the event.
What are some advantages to working with a wedding planner?
A planner can save you time, energy, stress—and even money. The fee that a planner charges can be expensive, but the advice that you get can help you save.
For example, one couple I worked with was concerned about the overall cost of their event, and showed me the contract with their venue. I explained that if they cut a handful of people from the guest list, switched their event from a Saturday to a Friday and moved to a different room in the venue, they'd save $16,000. They had no idea this was a possibility—and those tips more than paid for my services.
When you hire a planner, you won’t spend hours on Google looking for potential vendors and stressing. It’s difficult to plan a dinner party for 10 people, let alone an event for over 100.
How do you target in on a client’s vision for a wedding?
I do a lot of Internet stalking! I’ll look at Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, which is especially helpful because most people create “inspiration boards.” Sometimes clients have trouble articulating their vision, so I’ll just say, “Pin away!” Someone might pin photos that are bright, airy and clean, so I’ll think: Oh, she likes overexposed photography, and I know the perfect person who does that.
I also spend a couple of hours talking with the couple to get to know them. I try to meet in the bride-to-be’s home or the couple’s home to get a sense of their taste. I ask myself: Are they minimalist, modern, traditional? Then I give them an intake form that asks specific questions about what they envision for their wedding day.
What should a client look for when hiring a wedding planner?
The first thing? Experience. I’d consider someone with one to three years of experience to be a “novice” planner. Ideally, if your budget allows for it, it’s best to hire a planner who's been working longer because that person is likely to have more relationships with vendors, as well as more knowledge about negotiating, organizing and troubleshooting.
You also want your planner to be certified, which means that the person has received more training. Asking for references or reading reviews online from past clients is a good idea. And personality is really important—it should be someone with whom you click because you’ll be spending a lot of time communicating with your planner.
Are there any red flags to be wary of during the vetting process?
You should ask a potential planner how many weddings that person plans each year. Taking on too many weddings could speak to the level of customer service that you’ll receive. Personally, I don’t do more than 20 events a year, and I never have two weddings in one weekend.
What's the #1 thing that clients need to figure out before they meet with a wedding planner?
A realistic budget, so I can figure out what’s possible and what’s not. The client needs to be practical and realistic. If she wants to have a wedding in Southern California for 150 people, and she has a $40,000 budget, it’s not going to stretch very far. A bride can’t come to me with that budget and then tell me that she wants an over-the-top event. Similarly, if a bride is planning a wedding in, say, three months, she has to be flexible about which vendors will be available on short notice.
Any tips for how someone can best trim a wedding budget?
Invest time into making things that others might recruit a professional to do, like favors, invitations and décor items. Also, keep the guest count as low as possible, since the number of people attending directly affects the budget.
What do you wish more people knew about wedding planners?
“Day of” planners don’t exist. For everything to go smoothly on your wedding day, a planner has to work with a client for at least four to six weeks leading up to the event to make sure that all the vendors are on the same page.
Also, we’re not designers. My background is in planning and organizing, so I’m not professionally trained in the aesthetics of the event—making everything beautiful, creating color palettes, and telling a client which linens go with which flowers and lights. Although I can hire a designer who can help a client make those decisions to create a dazzling event.