THE BLOG
10/01/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

The Key to Wedding Gratuities - A Primer for Newbies

Wedding gratuities, and tipping in general, can be a sticky business. Most of my brides and grooms don't know the basic rules about how gratuities, service charges and "tips" work at weddings and it's my job to explain. Many have no idea who to tip, when to tip or how much, if they've even thought about it at all.

Tipping is actually a hassle for the bride and groom on their wedding weekend. Trying to remember who you need to hand cash to, and how much, isn't something you want to think about on the most important day of your life. And even if you plan ahead to do it, that doesn't mean you'll actually succeed.

When Bill and I got married on Vieques Island, we had a black-tie reception a week later back home in Washington, DC. We'd had a mini-moon in between, but we arrived back home less than 24 hours before I had to be at the nail salon with my girls getting beautiful. So I was rushed. Remember, I wasn't a destination wedding planner back then. I had all the tips down pat -- and hadn't screwed them up on the island at all. So the night we returned, I carefully put the money for the photographer and the tips for the vendors servicing our event (all very carefully sorted by paperclips with labels inside an envelope) inside the interior breast pocket of Bill's tuxedo jacket so he wouldn't have to remember to do it the next day.

Imagine my surprise when I asked my new husband for the money to pay the photographer and there was no envelope in his jacket pocket! I almost freaked. But then I could picture myself very carefully putting the envelope in the interior pocket of his Navy blue blazer he was wearing to the farewell brunch the next day instead of the tux. I messed up.

Thank God the photographer was a friend of a friend who found it all funny. And fortunately there was an ATM nearby that a friend ran to for me so I'd have the other tip money. But I was mortified all the same. And it taught me a lesson that I've incorporated into the way I plan weddings. When all the planning is finished, I estimate the necessary tips for my clients and they pay them in advance. I don't mean the vendors get them before services are rendered -- I mean that they pay me and I tip the vendors. There are certain standard and customary amounts that I pay to each member of the wedding crew, but if a client is unhappy, that will certainly be reflected. Though I'm proud to say that's only happened a few times in almost eight years of wedding planning because I only work with the best.

Sometimes clients balk about letting me handle the tips, but I point out it's all clearly explained in the client guide they got when we first started working together. I think once they've paid the tab, most of them are actually relieved they won't have to worry about it when they finally have all their wedding events. They have enough to do.

If you don't have a wedding planner, you should assign somebody else to manage handing out gratuities for you at your wedding events. Somebody who is likely to be sober at the end of the reception. Put it all in sealed envelopes with the vendor's name or designation on it. For example, you don't know the names of the kitchen catering staff but you can label the envelope as such and tell your designated tipper to split the amount between them.

Find out if the service staff's gratuities were included in the caterer's charges. If not, find out how many there are and plan to give them 20 percent each based on what you're paying them to work. Try to have a mix of bills so that you can adjust the tip if you're displeased -- but try not to be overly judgmental. Remember, just like in a restaurant, it's not the servers' fault if dinner runs late or the food is substandard. In that case, you should be adjusting the catering tip.

Be prepared to tip the DJ, the pastry chef who delivers the cake, the florist who makes your bouquets and centerpieces, the musician who plays your ceremony and all the other various vendors and characters who have come together to create your perfect day. You don't have to tip the minister if you paid a flat fee for a random non-denominational officiant, but if you've asked a minister from a real congregation to perform your ceremony, you should be making a contribution to the church, whether or not you get married in the actual structure.

It's a good idea to have a couple hundred extra dollars in all denominations on hand just in case you want to throw a little extra cash at somebody particularly amazing. There are a lot of wedding venues where there's no ATM nearby, and most brides and grooms are fairly cash poor on their wedding nights, unless they want to hit the gift envelopes they've received. That said, don't count on getting cash that you need for your tips because you might not receive exactly what you were expecting. And it's tacky.

You do not need to tip your photographer on your wedding day. Although you do have to pay him -- the envelope I misplaced contained his fee! You have the right to receive your pictures and make sure you like them before you decide if you want to send them a gratuity for their work. Same with videography. That's the one tip I leave out when I have my clients pre-pay gratuities. It's up to the bride and groom to send a thank you tip if they're happy with the final results.

Whether or not you choose to tip your wedding planner is entirely up to you. If they own the company, it's less common to extend an additional tip above their fee. But if you're working with an account executive who planned your entire wedding for a larger company, you might want to give her a little something extra if she blew your mind with her professionalism and creativity. But it's not included on the "standard and customary." However, if you do tip her, be sure to hand her cash -- a gratuity paid through the larger company may not trickle down exactly as you intended.

It's very easy to forget about the gratuities even after an amazing wedding experience. And I personally remember the horror of thinking I'd totally screwed it up at my own reception. Make a list of EVERYBODY who needs tipping in advance and have the money ready well before your wedding day so you don't have to scramble. You don't want to goof and leave anyone who worked hard to make your day a success thinking you didn't appreciate their efforts.

Until next time, happy wedding planning from Weddings in Vieques and Sandy Malone Weddings & Events!