It's important to have a top number, but it's okay to shift your money around.
Wedding Budget, Bride and Groom Figurines on Money
Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill

Any experienced wedding planner—whether a professional event designer or a just-married couple—knows that almost every decision you make about your big day comes back to one factor: Your budget. Before you make a single spending commitment, from the deposit on your venue to your must-have monogrammed wax seal for the invitations, it's critical to know how much money you actually have at your disposal. "It is really important to know your budget limitations when approaching wedding planning," says planner Tory Smith of Smith + James. "In fact, it should be one of the first things you do." Make setting your budget—and knowing when to let it evolve—easier with these professional tips.

Be realistic.

Deciding on your budget takes careful balancing of how much you have to spend and how much vendors in your area cost. "Oftentimes clients come to me that have already made a vendor-by-vendor budget themselves, and the numbers they are coming up with—which are often constructed from a Google search bar—are way, and I mean way, off," says Smith. Having a professional weigh in on your budget can give you a sense of whether your vision matches your bank account—or if you're going to need to make some adjustments to one or the other.

"We always set parameters of a general budget right out of the gates so that clients have an idea of what they should expect to pay for each of their vendors," says Smith. "We find this alleviates sticker shock as we start seeing quotes." Bryan Rafanelli of Rafanelli Events in Boston encourages his clients to have a general idea of what they want to spend before they start hiring vendors, too—and to leave room for the unexpected. "By setting a budget first, the planner will also be able to best present vendors that fit within the budget, which helps to manage expectations from the start," he says. "The couple also should plan to put aside 3% of the overall budget for contingency—unforeseen items they will encounter during the planning process. With wedding planning, there is always the possibility of an unanticipated expense."

Be flexible.

Having a total budget in mind before you start planning will help guide you toward the number of guests, venue, and overall experience you can afford—but once you start booking vendors, you may change your mind about what's most important to you. "I highly recommend starting out with a plan and a definite structure, but not too rigid that you can't have fun and play as the process evolves," says Smith. "Our budgets give enough wiggle room so that once we start diving into proposals, they can decide whether to splurge or save on a case-by-case basis."

Maybe you always planned on having a DJ but opt for a great live band instead, and agree to spend a little less on florals to make up for it; maybe your wedding dress is a trunk show steal, which leaves room in the budget for your fiancé’s custom tux. Letting your category totals evolve as you spend means plenty of freedom to create your dream day without breaking the bank, says Rafanelli. "I recommend setting a budget, but also allowing for a contingency so if that must-have item catches your eye, you've given yourself a cushion that allows you to make the spend," he says. "It's important to allow yourself the freedom to move numbers around, especially in the case of dream vendors."

Be smart.

Some couples are in a financial position to increase their spending throughout the process without hesitating. "Sometimes brides will come to me with a set budget, but then when they see how much things actually cost, they will decide they want a higher-quality experience for their guests and add to their original budget," says Smith.

And while hiring a planner may seem like an unnecessary expense for a couple with a tight budget, a professional's knowledge of local venues, peak dates, and under-the-radar talent can often help you find top-quality vendors and negotiate pricing so you can get what you want without going into debt. "We are major sticklers for staying on budget," says Smith. "We leave it in the hands of the bride to extend where she chooses." But even if your budget doesn't change, you should expect to reference it repeatedly throughout the process. "It's important to discuss your budget early and often," says Rafanelli. "The last thing I ever want is for a couple to be surprised by cost at the final stages of their wedding planning, when their stress levels are often at their highest."


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