Negotating With Wedding Vendors (achem, Elves)

I’ve been asked several times if I could write a post about negotiating with your wedding vendors, and I haven’t, because in the end it was something I didn’t feel qualified to write. I don’t provide wedding services as part of my livelihood, so I didn’t want to recommend ways to negotiate the cost of that service. But, into that void has stepped Jocelyn Mathewes at Studio Mathewes Photography. She’s written two very informative articles, one about what to do if you can’t hire a professional wedding photographer, and one, excerpted here, about negotiating with wedding vendors.

I have a few words of advice to add. David and I have done some negotiating and bartering with some of our wedding elves, and there are a few things that I think are important:

  • Listen to what your vendors need, and respect that. Maybe there is a price they can’t go below. Maybe there is something they are not willing to add to a package in trade. That’s fine. Remember that they, like you, have to pay their bills this month, and this is how they do it. But at the same time, communicate with them clearly. Maybe it’s not that you want a much better deal, but you want access to all of your jpg files after the wedding (we did). If you tell people clearly what you need, they often will work to accommodate you.
  • Just like you should NEVER hire a vendor who you feel is ripping you off, you should never offer something in trade where you feel like you are ripping off your vendor, or getting a deal that is ‘too good to be true.’ Likewise, if someone is totally out of your price range (a photographer who’s packages start at $10K, and you want to pay $2K), skip it. Remember, if you are doing this right, you’ve got collaborative wedding elves, not icky WIC vendors, and you should never, ever, mistreat an elf. (Right? We all know how well that turns out.)
  • Try to stay emotionally uninvolved with the negotiating process. This bit can be hard for me, but, remember, this is a business transaction. If they can’t afford to give you the price you can afford to take, it’s not that they don’t like you, it’s that they have bills to pay and a business to run.

And with that, I offer up a portion of Jocelyn Mathewes’ article on negotiating with wedding photographers:

Lately, everyone’s been tightening their belts, even when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime events, like a wedding. In the past month or so a number of hopeful couples have contacted me, only to discover that I am outside their budget. When we discover this, two things can happen: negotiation, or we part ways.

It’s painful for me when we’re forced to part ways. One of the most charming things about each couple who contacts me is that they all have a wonderful story, and they all absolutely deserve to have their event photographed beautifully. I’m frustrated when economic realities prevent this from happening, since I absolutely love what I do.

If negotiation opens up, fun, fruitful, frustrating, and futile things can result. Both sides suggest possible solutions, with varying success. Admittedly, I have spent very little time on the couples’ end of the negotiating table. When I first realized this I paused to think: was there something that I knew, something about the way I worked, that might help couples find good compromises with the photographer they want to hire?

So here I am, offering what little nuggets of advice I have. Please keep in mind that I speak as a professional photographer, from my own experience and perspective; my opinion is decidedly shaped by being on “the other side of the table.” Also, I am only one photographer; most likely my opinion and approach differ from that of others.

Things To Try: Cutting Back & Bartering

This is tricky, even if you put it nicely. I personally love the idea of negotiation, but some photographers see it as a threat to their professionalism. Even with photographers who are open to a little negotiation, it’s important to communicate to them that you think their services are worth what they’re asking. I love to be told that I’m valuable; don’t you?

Offering to cut back or barter right off the bat, or simply saying “I don’t want to pay the full amount,” can sound an awful lot like “I don’t think your work is worthwhile.” In which case, I start to wonder if you enjoyed my work in the first place and why you would want to hire me; perhaps I’m not for you!

A good way to start is by saying, “You do wonderful work, and I’d love to be able to hire you, but I can’t afford $____. Is there any way you would consider ____?” As with all communication, the how you ask is as important as what you’re asking.

1. Cutting Back: Ask to reduce package options, or go a la carte

If the photographer you’re looking at has packages with lots of extra do-dads that you could personally do without, it can’t hurt to ask politely if they’d be willing to scale down a package for you.

Be aware that some photographers won’t budge on this, as they consider the packages they offer as an integral part of their client experience. Even though it may seem superfluous to you, those packages are carefully thought out, and are a part of the attractive image they work hard to maintain.

But some photographers will be willing to trim things a bit for you, and that’s great! And while I offer several scaled-down options there are still a few things I provide that I just won’t cut back on, because to me it feels like I wouldn’t really be doing justice to my clients.

2. Bartering: Trade your skills or trade your stuff

If I need brake work, a new couch, or someone to design a website for me, I will (and have) bartered photography for those necessary things! The art of bartering is a lost one, and I’d love to see this come back into play. It can’t hut to ask politely and generally about bartering as an option for payment, and find out if it’s even a possibility.

You can read the rest of the article at Studio Mathewes Photography. Maryland couples, keep Studio Mathewes in mind!

Your tips on negotiating with Vendors (or being negotiated with, if you are a Vendor/Elf) are welcomed in the comments. And keep in mind, as my friend East Side Bride told me, “Sometimes it is easier to just pay full price,” which is 100% true.


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  • east side is so smart.

  • Thank you for this insightful post! For a while, I fell into the trap of assuming that everyone in a wedding related industry was trying to rip me off (possibly because the first wedding book I got was Bridal Bargains, which was a little pessimistic). It’s definitely important remember that some people are trying to take advantage of the “my perfect day” mentality, but I think you’re right to also emphasize that the people on the other side of the table are people too, with bills, families, etc. I don’t normally assume the worst about people I meet, so I don’t think I should start now that I’m planning our wedding. On top of being out of character, it just made me feel sad, defensive, and uncomfortable all the time–not feelings I want associated with my engagement!

  • Meg

    I think on this, you have to go with your gut. I did run into a lot of vendors/ bridal salons/ reading materials, etc. that I *did* feel were ripping me off… or trying to emotionally manipulate me. With these vendors, I think you just have to walk away, because you are never going to win. My experiance says, don’t even try to barter or bargin with these people, becuase it’s not worth the emotional energy.

    But! Once you find people you trust and like, play nice.


    PS Sadly, while I’m a *kind* person, I’m not an optimist ;)

  • this is awesome! I think she put it really beautifully.
    I myself am definitely open to negotiation, too, and I love that bartering is coming back into style. after all, I definitely can use good graphic design and carpentry in lieu of cash most of the time!
    it is also hard for us vendors (or, myself, at least) to stay emotionally unattached, too. we charge what we do in order to pay our bills, invest back in our business, save for retirement (HA!), and, yes, to make a profit. but I think we all struggle a bit with pricing, because money (especially lately) is such an emotionally charged thing, tied to value and worth in American society in particular.
    so I say, ask about negotiation and bartering, but give us good reasons to consider special discounts or trade for YOU. maybe your wedding is smaller than average? maybe it is going to have some really awesome unique touches that the photographer/vendor can use to submit to wedding magazines and blogs for publicity? maybe you can go with, say, a shorter day of photographer or no album in order to fit them into your budget?
    doing a little research is always great – my website clearly states that my prices start around $3000 and up, and I occasionally still get an email asking if I can shoot a wedding for $500. I always respond politely, but research saves everyone potential frustration and embarrassment.
    another good tip is not to complain about how the wedding industry is trying to rip you off in front of your “elves”. I know it is really frustrating, and I know that it is overwhelming, and there are rip offs out there. but it’s hard not to feel like you are lumping me, a boutique artisan running my own business in one of the toughest economies ever, with the Knot. still, I get that you need to vent… just, be careful about how much you do, and to who.
    I love this post :)

  • I am having the worst time negotiating with our new possible venue. When I lost my job in december we had to rethink/replan our whole wedding according to a new budget with my lack of income. So we found a place that I thought was perfect.

    In the beginning they said that they let the guests bring their own alcohol to be served… but since then have gotten their liquor license and now are saying we have to go through them. We still haven’t signed a contract because we were trying to figure out if we could even afford this new place- and now they are trying to charge us $40/bottle of wine when a month ago they were going to let us bring in our own for them to serve. (Um, hello- Trader Joe’s $2.50/btl delicious wine was my practical plan) I can NOT pay $40 per bottle. And now they are not willing to negotiate on this!
    I’d be happy to still get the alcohol through them if they chose a cheaper option- they are just being huge stubborn-asses about it!

    I don’t know what to do. Our wedding is 10 weeks away and I need to book a place and send out invites- but they are being so unreasonable. :( Any advice to offer? I’ve got knots inside my tummy thinking this wedding is going to have to be postponed now. :'(

  • Meg

    Oh honey-
    I don’t know if I’m the best person to give advice, but if it’s so close and they are not budging, it seems like you need to look around for other options. In these cases I always think it’s best to look for the door that opens easily. That’s normally the right door.

    If you don’t want to postpone, DON’T! It’s a wedding, not the event of a lifetime. You want to get married right? That’s going to make you happy, right? So look around. Maybe you can have a wee adorable wedding in a friends home, or a family house. Maybe a park. Maybe a courthouse with a sassy pencil skirt, heels, and a fabulous facinator… with a big dinner afterwards at a restaurant (no-host even). Go browse the real weddings on this site and see which one sparkles to you, then be spontaneous.

    Let it be what it will be. The thing about negotiation is knowing when to stop and walk away.

    Let us know how it goes. It will be FAB, just surprising and different. Remember, you’ll be telling this story to your grandkids, and laughing (but you can cry now).


  • Meg

    Orrrrrrrr…. just have no drinks! Totally not a must have!

  • I feel like everything is in flux right now. It helps to hear Jessamyn’s side — so many photog’s and caterers and florists are just trying to stay afloat too.

  • Excellent post. Actually we’ve found that the people we’ve dealt with are on the whole pleasant and professional. We’ve been upfront about our budget and needs, and so far we’ve had very positive experiences. Of course, we’re in the beginning stages and everyone is trying to woo us. But I will assume that once we sign a contract, the professionalism will continue.

  • I agree with Jessamyn about not assuming the worst from your elves. It’s true, there are some rip offs but many of us are nice, reasonable people who are trying to make a living in this crummy economy.

    If you are up front with your potential vendors about what you are able to spend and have reasonable expectations, you may be surprised by what we solutions we can offer that will meet your budget requirements.

  • Meg

    Ah, I was not saying to assume the worst about people. In fact, the emphasis of this post is about playing nice with people. But for those of us on the alternative end of the wedding spectrum, the bottom line is that many many vendors are offering products or services that are going to make us uncomfortable, or just not mesh with our needs, or in some cases feel like a rip of. That’s just the cold hard truth. So my point is: be kind to everyone, but sort out the wheat from the chaff. Who makes you feel good about your wedding/ yourself/ your budget? Invest your time and energy in those people. If someone is trying to sell you a “perfect princess day” and that is who they are and what they offer, it’s good to be realistic and know when to walk away.

    Bartering and negotiating is great, but make sure you are doing that with vendors that are right for you. Otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s energy. But of course, PLAY NICE. Jesssmyn’s point is well taken: if you start out a relationship complaining about how everyone is trying to rip you off, you have not started out on the right foot.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know if this is a “duh” idea, but I admit that it didn’t occur to me until after many, many hours searching for a photographer: post a want ad on Craigslist. I got literally hundreds of responses, all local, all knowing up front what my budget was, and not one unwilling to negotiate with me. In fact, the photographer I eventually signed a contract with responded to my ad with a secret package that she does not post on her website! In the end, I got a talented photographer (and her assistant!) for a price I didn’t think was possible, without having to haggle at all!

    p.s. First post ever, I love this blog! Thank you!

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