You can't begin to think about negotiating if you're even slightly unsure of how much you want to spend. "Instead of looking around at vendors and then deciding what your budget is, solidify your budget and then look for vendors with rates that fit in," says Chad Michael Peters, a floral designer and wedding planner in Massachusetts.
You'll need to do a bit of research to figure out how much you can afford to spend on each vendor. Call or write those you could really see yourself hiring to find out their package pricing, and use this information to divvy up your budget. "It's good to shop around for vendors," says Jim Skipper of Black Tie Video, in Maryland. "It's not offensive to ask for rates, but that can't be the only thing in your e-mail. Tell me you like my work, but you have budget issues. We would like to be considered for our work, not just our price."
"I once got a call from a bride who gave me some really flowery flattery then told me she had a budget of $1,500, which is way below what we normally work with. But because she was so cool, we were able to make it happen."
And don't be discouraged if a vendor you love is way out of your price range. "If a potential client contacts me, then realizes they can't afford my rate, I am happy to refer them to others in the business," says California photographer Bret Cole. While you're collecting various starting prices, be sure you're comparing apples to apples. For example, one package may include an album, while others may not.
Your approach and personality style have a lot to do with whether or not a vendor will be willing to lower a price."I once got a call from a bride who gave me some really flowery flattery then told me she had a budget of $1,500, which is way below what we normally work with," says Chad Michael Peters. "But because she was so cool, we were able to make it happen."
"Play on vendors' sympathies and emotions," says New Jersey wedding planner Jenny Orsini of Pampered Bride Weddings. "Say 'I really love your work, I would really appreciate this rate, anything you can do for us would make our day that much more special.'"
On the flip side, don't be aggressive or threatening (it happens more often than you'd think). "One girl kept telling me: 'This is all I have, if you can't do it, I'm using an iPod,'" says Jeff Donovan of DJ on Demand, in Colorado. "You have to meet vendors halfway."
It's important to maintain a good relationship with your vendors—you want them to be as excited to work with you as you are with them. So be sure that your negotiations are handled as calmly and politely as possible. If your vendor is already providing you a reasonable deal, don't ask for more. "You may be able to get a small discount, 10 percent for example, but don't expect a huge bargain," says San Francisco wedding planner Amy Nichols. "Be respectful of the vendor—it would be insulting if you asked them for 50 percent off, especially if they're already working with you to fit in your budget."
How to Lower Your Costs Dramatically: Yes, You May Have to Compromise
Wait to schedule an in-person meeting until you're sure that the vendor's services are within your general price range. Negotiating a lower price may be an option, but don't expect any vendor to drop his or her rates by thousands of dollars. There are, however, a few circumstances that would make significant discounts a possibility. But be warned, these big discounts might require some risk-taking on your part.
"If space is available, we want to fill it," says Will Krupp of the Westin Copley Place, in Boston. "There isn't a lot of wiggle room if you book for a date two years from now. But if the date is coming up in the next few months, the chances of us filling it are reduced and we will be able to work with you."
"If a couple has a tight budget they should figure out a theme or a color scheme and be open-minded. We can create beautiful, seasonal arrangements with flowers that aren't 'namebrands' like expensive speciality tulips or peonies."
Bartering is also worth a try. If you're a personal trainer, for example, you can find out if your baker or florist might want to reduce their fee in exchange for training sessions. "What is key here is to approach this delicately, perhaps mentioning your profession to see if it garners any interest from the vendor," says Amy. "If you do go down this path, put the agreement in writing and stipulate the value of what you're providing and what they're providing. Also include the timing/deadline for exchanging the services, e.g., in the next year or six months."
"This isn't like buying a car," says Frank J. Andonoplas, MBC, of Frank Event Design, in Chicago. "If you want the price to come down, you have to take something out of the equation." Of course, by far the most effective way to bring prices down is to put the ball in your vendor's court. State the ideal amount you want to spend, and let them use their creativity, knowledge, and expertise to make it happen. You'll have to be flexible, but the good news is that most vendors are willing to accommodate smaller wallets by adding, subtracting, or juggling items in packages.
"Rather than do handmade rolled-chocolate roses, we can use buttercream and save money," says Rebecca Moesinger, co-owner of Konditor Meister, a bakery in Braintree, MA. "If a bride loves a design, we can make something very similar that's less expensive."
If a couple has a tight budget," says Clover Chadwick of Dandelion Ranch, a florist in Los Angeles, "they should figure out a theme or a color scheme and be open-minded. We can create beautiful, seasonal arrangements with flowers that aren't 'namebrands' like expensive speciality tulips or peonies."
Most vendors agree it's critical for you to identify what aspects of your wedding are important because, we're sorry to say, you can't have it all. "If a photographer has a package that is $8,000 for six hours of coverage and you need eight hours of coverage, ask if you can eliminate certain things (such as an engagement photo session, or prints or albums that might come with the package) in exchange for extra hours of coverage," says Amy. If you're still having trouble, you may need to consider more impactful cuts. "Look at the big picture," says Anna Lathrop of Gourmet Galley Catering, in Connecticut. "Changing an hors d'oeuvre from a scallop wrapped in bacon to a vegetable dumpling isn't going to make a big impact. You may need to invite fewer guests, or change your entrée from a filet to chicken."
Saving Small Money (Hey, It's Still Money): Fees, Discounts, and Keeping Your Dignity
Once you're comfortable with a vendor and generally happy with the price quote, you can bring up smaller money-related issues. Already hired vendors are a great source for helping you save with other vendors. "Allow these pros to use their relationships with other, smaller vendors to get the best deal," says Adelee Cabrera of A Joy Wallace Catering, in Florida. "For example, if a bride wants a specialty coffee cart at her reception, we can call the company on her behalf and get a discount because we've given that company repeat business." And if you can help your vendor, he or she might give you a deal. "If you have friends who are getting married and you're willing to refer them to me, that's really worth something," says Jeff Donovan.
Vendors can also be accommodating when it comes to payment plans. "There are certain contractual things that we can be flexible about—deposits, how much money is paid when, when the final payment should be," says Chad Michael Peters. "If quarterly payments suit your financial situation better, that's fine. Ask questions to make it work for you." Some vendors may even provide discounts to couples who pay with cash.
Remember that many vendors are small businesses, and for the most part they're suffering with the economic situation, too.
Sometimes the challenge of negotiating is making sure you know what the final number actually is. "Tell your caterer that you want to know what the bottom line is per guest, which means adding together all the fees," says Laura Bianco, a planner and co-owner of My Bellissima, in New Jersey. "This shows that you're smart and have done your homework." Though particularly important with caterers who charge additional cake-cutting and corkage fees, this is also true of any vendor—ask for the totaled, bottom-line price.
If you're uncomfortable with a certain fee, it's acceptable to ask politely about it, not demand it be removed. "If you are on the fence, and something small, like a cake-cutting fee, is affecting your decision, ask the venue to work with you," says Laura. "Everyone is hurting right now, so they may be willing to drop something insignificant rather than lose the overall sale."
There are certain costs, like delivery fees, that may seem extraneous but are actually fair. You certainly can ask your cake baker or florist to drop the delivery fee and have family or friends do the transporting, but vendors view those fees as an insurance policy. If your cake or floral arrangements get damaged in your best man's pickup truck, you're responsible. Vendors are experts in delivering and setting up their products—let them handle it.
Once you've negotiated a price with a vendor and the terms have been accepted, you should be ready to sign a contract. "You need to be prepared to send in your deposit and move forward," says Adelee. And if you have questions after receiving the contract, schedule a phone call to discuss your concerns; don't write in changes to a contract before clearing it with the vendor first.
Remember that many vendors are small businesses, and for the most part they're suffering with the economic situation, too. "It's a buyer's market right now," says Adelee. "Everyone knows that. But you don't lose your humanity and decency. We had a bride who came in for multiple meetings and tastings, and then finally opted to go with someone else. It's fine to do a meeting, even two, but don't waste people's time." In other words, treat your vendors as you'd want to be treated. Be honest, and don't be afraid to ask for help. The worst they can do is say no.