While the idea of getting a super-pricy wedding element for free sounds fabulous, some wedding freebies are to be avoided at all costs: unwise 'cheap-outs' usually turn into wedding disasters. Like Uncle Charlie, who promised to shoot your wedding video for nothing, then didn't get any footage of your First Dance because he was outside talking on his cell. Or Aunt Sally's homemade wedding cake that melted and crashed to the ballroom floor because she didn't know to put supports inside it. Or Grandma slaving over a hot stove during your cocktail party, a sweaty mess with burns on her hands...and still not churning out pigs in blankets fast enough for your crowd.
With the average wedding cost soaring over $20,000 these days, every bride out there is looking for ways to save on her wedding budget, while still having the perfect dream day. And, scarily, there are some brides out there who go way too far with the price-cutting, inviting catastrophes with the ultra-regrettable theory "If it's free, it's for me."
But free is a dangerous game when it comes to your wedding. There are just some things you should never try to get for a big, fat $0 in your wedding budget spreadsheet. Because the adage is true: you really do get what you pay for. And it gets worse: some freebies with $0 attached lead to huge expenses when you have to undo the disaster, if not utter heartbreak when your day is ruined.
Here are eight wedding freebies to avoid:
1. Free Photos and Video: Pro photographers and videographers have top-quality equipment and editing prowess, and they know how to be everywhere during your wedding, capturing every magical moment. Uncle Charlie isn't trained in the art of wedding photography and video and is likely to be at the bar. You don't want to end up with 75 photos because Uncle Steve thought that was plenty, or all of your ceremony photos gone because he messed up his upload. You won't miss any important footage or photos with a pro on your side.
2. Free Catering: Pro caterers know how to create a menu that pleases all of your guests, and they have the best suppliers for top-quality ingredients. They know how to perfectly time their food prep so that the filet mignon is pink in the middle, and your phyllo cup apps come out hot and tasty -- not charred or cold. Grandma shouldn't have to play "Top Chef" for your wedding, and you definitely don't want to have the food run out a half hour into your cocktail party. An amateur could food-poison everyone, and create that 'where's the food?' nightmare during your celebration. The artistry, timing and skills of a caterer are all-important now.
3. Free Wedding Coordination: If you have a friend who's planned her own wedding, that doesn't make her a trained professional. Accepting her offer to plan your wedding for her 'portfolio' (since she now wants to be a wedding planner) is like having someone who once cut their own hair cut yours the day before your wedding. Event planning takes a lot of expertise, and the greatest wedding coordinators know all the best vendors, sites and suppliers in town. They can lead you to the best and away from the worst. So don't be someone's practice wedding. Stick with a pro.
4. Free Wedding Gown Alterations: I don't mean the free alterations offered at your gown boutique. I mean your aunt's offer to alter your gown, since she makes her kids' clothing. Freebie alterations just don't work, since the fabric of most gowns is slippery and challenging, best left to expert hands. Freebie jobs leave you with fallen hems, split seams, and bulges in your dress that guests will think are bulges in your body.
5. Free Beauty Treatments: The Kardashian sisters might wax each other, but waxing, bleaching, self-tanning, facials and other beauty treatments conducted by a friend -- to save money -- will almost surely send you right to a salon for an expensive fix, as well as ripped skin in the worst places, breakouts, streaky tans and other disasters, especially bad if it's just days before your big day.
6. Free Entertainment: Let your brother's garage band stay in the garage. Only trained and experienced deejays and bands know how to read a crowd to adjust their playlist and keep the dance floor packed. They also have top technology with backup equipment to prevent any potential problems with the music.
7. Free Wedding Cake: Don't wind up with a messy, gloppy-sided nightmare that looks like a teen made it in Home Ec. Hot days pose softening challenges for cakes, and tall cakes need the proper dowel-inserted support...not to mention a safe and experienced ride to your wedding site. Pro bakers can work magic even on a budget cake, and get it to you in perfect condition.
8. Free Anything From a Bridal Show Drawing: Without checking the company out fully first, that is. Some truly excellent professionals display at bridal shows and expos, offering free photography packages, free tuxes, free entertainment, and more for big-ticket wins if your ticket is drawn. But some beginners or shady types may be there, too. Never accept a free anything, no matter how big a value placed on it, without investigating the company, meeting with the owners in their shop, viewing their products, and -- important! -- asking your other vendors if they know that company and trust them. Those free tuxes could be 10 years old, frayed, over-rented, ill-fitting and made from crappy fabric. So treat that win as an invitation to check the company out thoroughly before you sign anything. You can always throw out that freebie voucher and avoid a wedding nightmare.
So where do good wedding freebies come from? Quality pros include terrific ones in their wedding packages, and top wedding coordinators and floral designers often have cases of pretty votives and lanterns in their store rooms. They're all too happy to give them to you, when they like you. So hiring vendors is the best way to score some great freebies, and putting your wedding into experienced, accredited hands is beyond priceless. Other freebies can be décor items borrowed from recently-married friends, or found for the asking at your wedding site (like outdoor couches and tables, or bistro tables, candelabras, and more.)
Make it your philosophy to score smart, disaster-free freebies, and you'll find lots of little $0s in your wedding budget adding up to a surprisingly and delightfully large amount, helping you achieve your dream wedding for far less than expected.
Sharon Naylor's new book is "The Bride's Guide to Freebies: Enhancing Your Wedding Without Selling Out."