By Elizabeth Alterman, CNBC.com
19 percent of 18,000 newly married couples surveyed employed a wedding planner. When it comes to planning a wedding, no bride wants to run up additional expenses, but what if the single add-on of a wedding planner could point you in the right direction for everything from florists to photographers?
Planners can also run interference between the couple and opinionated relatives while simultaneously averting potential disasters on the big day.
According to TheKnot.com & WeddingChannel.com 2011 Real Weddings Study, 19 percent of 18,000 newly married couples surveyed employed a wedding planner.
That number has held steady since 2008, says Anja Winikka, editor of The Knot.com, who points out that hiring a planner doesn't need to be an "all-or-nothing" experience.
While some planners can supply a bride with everything but the groom, many also offer partial-planning services as well as day-of coordination. Fees, depending on location and level of involvement, can range from $250 to more than $15,000, industry experts say.
Wedding planners can give a busy bride a break and some much-needed breathing room, but are they a necessity or a luxury?
Expertise Can Save Time and Money
April Chantel of April Chantel Weddings and Event Company says while it might seem counterintuitive for brides on a budget to consider hiring a wedding planner, party coordinators as industry insiders are often privy to discounts.
"Especially with the current economic climate, everyone is pinching pennies and looking for a deal, but I've always likened it to this analogy: You hire a CPA to prepare your tax return, versus doing it yourself. The professional is aware of critical elements that can save you dollars, and that's the same thing that a planner does. A good planner can save you five to 10 percent on your wedding, so sometimes it can come out where it's an even wash," Chantel says.
Winikka says planners often provide brides with budget spreadsheets that track wedding-related expenses and can reign in potential overspending. They also supply checklists to help couples stay ahead of fast-approaching deadlines.
In addition to keeping cash in the hope chest, a planner can also save a bride plenty of heartache by vetting everything from the venue to the videographer.
"We have relationships and resources that a normal everyday person doesn't have," says wedding planner Stacey Levy, founder of Planned to Perfection."We know that our vendors are going to show up on time; we know the good people to go to."
Stacey Levy Time & Stress Savings
During the average one-year engagement, brides organizing their own weddings devote anywhere from 100 to 150 hours mapping out the big day, says Chantel.
Levy notes that by meeting with a couple, learning their wants, needs and budget and a bit about their personalities, planners streamline the process.
"I can say, 'These are the top five locations I think you should have your wedding at,' whereas some brides will go months and months looking for venues and I can nail it in a day or two ," Levy says.
Planners agree taking some of the pressure off the happy couple helps keep things harmonious before the big day.
"Any kind of savvy bride really wants to enjoy the process and has heard horror stories from friends about how overwhelming and stressful it is and what went wrong," says Cheryl J. Fielding-LoPalo, president of Cheryl J. Weddings and Events. "I think just being able to get rid of all that and know that everything's going to be perfect, everything's going to be seamless and if it's not, you won't even know about it because your wedding planner will handle it. You can really enjoy and keep the romanticism of the engagement process because it's a more pleasurable experience."
The Buffer Factor
Referring to herself as a "rent-a-friend," Levy estimates that 85 percent of her job as a coordinator is spent acting as a buffer between brides and relatives.
Levy says even the most accomplished women can become "unhinged" by the stress a wedding induces, and it is not uncommon for her to receive calls at 1 a.m. from frantic brides who've been fighting with future mothers-in-law.
"It is definitely a very emotional thing when people are planning a wedding," says Levy. "A lot of personalities come out. I do a lot of special dancing to keep everybody happy."
In addition to smoothing the way before the wedding, planners also defuse potential day-of disasters.
It's not always the groom who gets cold feet, says Levy. She recalls having to persuade a nervous best man, who barricaded himself in the men's room, to come out and give his toast, and sewing a bride who'd packed on a few pounds back into her gown with fishing line when the seams burst at the reception.
Chantel, too, arrives armed to avoid a crisis. After witnessing wedding cakes smudged or knocked to the dance floor, she travels with a three-layer foam cake and requests that the baker bring an extra tub of frosting just in case.
"Then they still have something to take pictures with," she says. "You can't cut it but you still have a pretty three-layer cake. It's all these little types of things that a planner handles."
Destination Wedding Logistics
Twenty-four percent of modern brides are choosing destination weddings, according to The Knot and Wedding Channel.com study. Depending on location, there can be a laundry list of requirements that need to be met before and after the nuptials to ensure that the union is legal, Chantel notes.
"Couples choose a location that is really romantic or exotic, some beach in Fiji or a cobblestone street in France and think 'I have to be married there,'" Chantel says. "It's the planner's job to do the research on marriage laws in that country. An example: France requires all couples to be residents of their country for 42 days before the ceremony; the average person wouldn't know that. It's up to us to obtain all the legally required documentation, passports, divorce certifications, birth certificates. Notarized declarations of never having been married before are a very popular document as well.
"Unless a bride really does the research, she's not going to know. They have this beautiful ceremony that they paid all this money for and everyone came out for it and it's not legal, then they have a come back to the States and go to a justice of the peace."
When Kate Bohan Finnerty chose to have her wedding in the west of Ireland, she hired New York-based Anne Lanier, who specializes in creating picture-perfect weddings in the Emerald Isle.
"I think using a wedding planner was the only way to go," says Finnerty, who lives in Boston. "It was essential because of the distance. It was so important for our peace of mind just to know that the flowers will arrive, the priest will show up. Anne had an assistant in Ireland and she was at everything. When I rejected my bouquet because it was too small, she drove 50 miles to have it made bigger."
The Rise of the D.I.Y. Bride
Wedding planners, however, are not for everyone.
When preparing for her May 2011 nuptials, Dina Brue decided to forgo a planner and surf the web instead.
"With the Internet, it is very easy to search for anything these days," she says. "Vendors typically have websites and want to communicate via email. So a bride can spend a day just doing a general search and book appointments to meet these people. No longer do you have to call and speak to someone live, which could take up a lot of time that most brides don't have. Those detailed conversations can wait for the face-to-face meeting."
Chantel says today's bride is a lot more tech-savvy and, with the help of social media and multiple design shows on television, many want to take up the challenge on her own.
Brue admits planning a wedding yourself isn't easy but says it can definitely be one without a planner, especially if you're a decisive person.
"If you have family and/or friends who are willing to help, great. Delegate to them," she says. "I tend to go with my first instinct. When I found the dress I liked, I got it. I didn't think, 'Oh what if there's something else better out there.' I think those 'what ifs' can really cause a lot of brides stress and anxiety."
Thing to Consider
Before you walk down the aisle, run down the following list of questions The Knot's Winikka recommends when debating hiring a planner:
-Do I have a really stressful job that takes up a lot of my time?
-Am I planning a wedding out of town?
-Do I want to have a great party but feel overwhelmed by the details?
-Do we have a lot of family drama?
Fielding-LoPalo cautions brides to make sure they're being listened to and that the planner is creating the couple's dream wedding and not a version of her own.
Whether a couple is getting married abroad or in their own backyard, a planner can ensure that their happily-ever-after begins just a bit sooner. But for brides with the time, the vision and Internet access, creating a once-in-a-lifetime wedding day may be easier than ever.
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By Elizabeth Alterman, CNBC.com