The questions start just days after you get engaged.
When are you getting married? Where? How many guests? What will it look like? Are you thinking rustic? Modern? Outdoor? Church?
Of course your mom, friends, grandmother, co-workers, cousins, second cousins, old college roommates and that person you just met are just trying to be helpful or making conversation. But at the beginning, it can be difficult to answer those questions or even know what the first step is in planning a wedding. You suddenly find yourself calling wedding vendors without any idea what questions you should be asking -- or how to respond to their questions.
Here's step one: Take a deep breath. Better, right?
Step two: Take some advice from local professionals. We talked to key vendors -- planners, caterers, cake bakers, photographers, entertainers and florists -- about what you should know before you call them. Start your wedding binder out with these notes.
If you're hiring a planner, you can pretty much start from scratch. One must-do, though: Talk to your fiance about what each of you wants for the wedding.
"It's important to discuss because he may envision a 50-person wedding with just close friends, and she may envision inviting every person she has ever met," said Lisa Manning, owner of Southern Weddings. "They may have very very different ideas of what each one of them wants. They need to know where they can compromise."
Manning also suggests picking a few words you'd like to describe your wedding day: fun and relaxed, for example, or sophisticated and elegant.
Next, consider what your expectations are for a planner, Linda Smreczak, owner of Amanda Rose Weddings, said. Know how much you need them to do.
"There's such a big myth about what a wedding planner really does," Smreczak said. "A lot of them do everything -- and only everything -- but some will just do bits and pieces (of the planning)," she said.
Once you've done that, it's good to have a few numbers in mind: dates you're open to, what your budget is, and how many guests you will invite.
Your budget and guest list will help dictate the type of wedding you have, Manning said.
"You know what you can't do once you have a budget. Perhaps you have 200 guests and $10,000 -- that could be an afternoon wedding in the park with a dessert-only reception," she said. It's possible to plan a wedding on any budget, though -- you just may have to choose chicken instead of lobster tail.
If you already have some inspiration photos saved on Pinterest or in a binder, bring those to the meeting, Mattie Stokes Parrott, event design coordinator with Southern Graces in Beaufort, said. And let planners know upfront if anything is already concrete: a venue, a date or anything you know for sure you want.
But if you don't know any of those things, it's fine. Your first meeting with a planner will likely be sort of a brainstorming session.
"We just want to know what (the bride) is thinking," Stokes Parrott said. "We want an idea of how she wants to look, how she wants to feel and what's important to her about the day, so we can start working on that right away. ... We can just shoot out ideas to (the bride); we have a bunch of pictures and portfolios, so we'll get those out and usually we'll get some sort of response from there about what they like and don't like."
Meet with a planner early in the process; most said sometime between nine and 15 months before your wedding day is ideal.
"It depends on the couple," Smreczak said. "I have couples that are detail-oriented and want to start the process early. It just depends on them. If you come six months before (your wedding), you have to be a flexible bride, though."
CATERERS AND CAKE
Chances are you have at least some idea of what you want to serve at your wedding. Most people do, caterer Debbi Covington said. But even if you know you want barbecue, shrimp and grits or filet mignon, you may not know what sides you'd like. That's not a problem.
"I'll help them come up with options for vegetarians, people with shellfish allergies or other dietary restrictions," Covington said. "Then we'll make sure we've got enough variety on the plate so that you have color. You don't want a bunch of brown things."
Stokes Parrott with Southern Graces also said just a general idea is a good enough starting place.
"Our menus are completely customizable," she said. "If you just say you want seafood, we can build around that. You don't have to have everything planned out, though. That's why we're here."
Whether you have a buffet, seated dinner, serve food family style or have several food stations typically depends on your venue -- and the space the caterer will have to set up, Covington said. It also depends on the vibe you want your wedding to have.
"(With stations), people move around all night. It's more of a party atmosphere, rather than lining up at a buffet," she said. "It really depends on what you want -- do you want it sit down and formal or do you want a party?"
You'll also want to have some idea of how much money you can allocate to food -- which depends on how important it is to you. Covington, of course, thinks food is key, and she encourages brides and grooms to consider how important it is for guests.
"No one will remember if your plates are square or round or had a gold rim, or if you had gold chairs or white chairs. They will remember that the food was good, the band was fun, the bride was beautiful and the alcohol flowed. You have to be practical and put your money where it's best."
Both Covington and Stokes Parrott said caterers should be booked fairly early in the process; Covington said she's already got events booked for September and October, and even a few events in 2015.
Cakes can be left for a little later, though, said Courtney Glover, owner of Brown Sugar Custom Cakes. You'll want to have a few main vendors, such as the venue and your wedding planner, already booked because that can determine where and when the cake will be delivered.
Don't worry about knowing exactly what you'd want the cake to taste like, Glover said. That's what the tasting -- arguably the best part of wedding planning -- is for. But do bring pictures of cakes you like, or swatches of your wedding colors. Just keep in mind it may not look exactly like the picture.
"You don't want to completely take someone else's work," Glover said. "You tweak it some so you can make it original."
When you think about the photos you'll have of your wedding day, what do they look like? Are they soft and romantic? Or are they more true-to-the-moment and clear?
Beaufort photographer John Wollwerth said you should consider whether you want traditional photos, which are typically posed with some lighting, or more of a photojournalism or documentary style, which captures the wedding as if it were a storyline.
That's most of what you need to know before you book a photographer. Decide what style you like, and then find someone who matches it, Beaufort photographer Susan DeLoach said.
"If you want dreamy, washed out, sunlit photos, don't come to someone who produces crisp, clean images," DeLoach said.
Come to a meeting having some idea of what you want to spend on photos and a rough idea of how many hours you'll need a photographer, Wollwerth and DeLoach said, so you can pick the right package.
You can also discuss specific shots you have in mind, Wollwerth said. But remember that photographers are creative, and you're hiring them for that talent.
"When you start to have too much input, you start to put off the creative process," he said. "I have a certain idea. The pictures (you liked) on my website are there because I was creative."
One more thing: Consider their personality, DeLoach said. You spend a lot of time with a photographer on your wedding day. You don't have to be their best friend, she said, but you should get along.
"You spend more time with a photographer one-on-one on your wedding day than you do with your spouse," DeLoach. "From getting ready to go down the aisle, to your formal images -- then you're with your spouse, but I'm still shooting in the background. I've already spent half the day with them. It's important we get along -- and that I can get along with their family."
By the time you get to flowers, a few decisions should already be made, florists say. You should know when you're getting married, so that the florist can check the availability of flowers that aren't in season. You should know what colors you're using -- especially what color your bridesmaids are wearing -- so that you can coordinate. Having a vision for your wedding overall also helps, Stokes Parrott with Southern Graces said.
"The flowers can really affect the overall feel," she said. "It can be bold and dramatic, or soft and romantic. You should have at least a little bit of an idea."
Most of the time, brides bring photos that inspired them to their first appointment with a florist, Dawn Kiritsy, owner of A Floral Affair on Hilton Head, said.
"That way we can say she likes round bouquets or romantic bouquets but not a lot of flowers sticking out or a wildflower look," she said.
You don't need to know the names of flowers you prefer, though.
"We always ask if there are flowers you would like to use, or ones you don't want us to use," said Joan Solley of Flowers by Freshcuts. "But if you're not that detailed, we will work with you to create a vision. It's a work in progress from that initial meeting up until about a month before the wedding. We do a lot of back and forth phone conversations or emails."
Flowers are typically about 10 to 15 percent of your total budget, Kiritsy said, but since flowers are decided on later they can be a place to cut costs if you're starting to go over budget.
"There's a lot of parameters," she said. "It's like buying a car. You can get a leather interior, or tinted windows or a sunroof. If you're trying to be on budget and have a certain look, we can pick flowers that aren't as expensive as peonies or orchids."
Just be realistic if you're looking to cut costs, Kiritsy cautioned. You can't get something elaborate on a shoestring budget.
April, May, June, September and October tend to be the busiest wedding months in the Lowcountry, Solley said. If you're getting married then, you'll want to book a florist sooner rather than later. Otherwise, you can wait until four or five months away from your wedding.
Do you want a disc jockey or band for the reception? String quartet for the ceremony?
To make the decision, think about what's important to you -- do you have a set song list you want to hear, or do you prefer live music?
You need to have a date and a venue, but you don't have to have all the details ironed out before you start looking for your vendor, Jessica Jameson, wedding sales manager with Hilton Head Entertainment, said.
"Most people book what they want, and then as they are planning they might start working on a song list," she said. "We have questionnaires we send that we ask they return about 45 to 60 days before the wedding. We ask for any songs they especially want to hear and any ones they don't want to hear. Sometimes the 'do not play' list is more important than the play list."
If you're struggling to pick songs for the first dance, father-daughter dance or mother-son dance, Jameson and Reggie Deas of band Deas Guyz said you can ask your DJ or band for help. Just be sure to listen to the words of a song, too -- it might not mean what you think it does.
Keep in mind how popular a DJ or band is, since that can affect how far out they are booked. Deas said Deas Guyz need about six months to a year notice. They've already started booking for 2015, he said. Jameson said they've also got weddings on the books for 2015 -- but they still have dates available this March, so if you're behind, planning last-minute or something falls through it could still be possible. You just may have to scramble a bit.
And if you're torn about a decision, Deas said consider your guests.
"They need to know their audience," he said. "When couples choose a band, and they are looking at music, they are choosing music for their guests not for them. We have couples that will say they don't want this song or that song. But their guests will want that. If your guests are having a good time, it's a successful wedding and everyone is happy. But if they're not having a good time, they will leave, and the band or DJ is blamed. Look for a band (your guests) will enjoy. ... You want them to leave saying 'This reception was great.' "
Follow assistant features editor Rachel Damgen at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.