1 Do your homework

Check out prospective planners' websites for photos of recent weddings they have done to help narrow down your list. Notice whether elements seem to have a cohesive look and if there is an overarching style that the weddings share — this is probably what the planner is most experienced with, so decide if it's one you like.

If all the weddings that he or she have planned look over-the-top and glamorous and you're looking for a small, intimate gathering, you may wish to look elsewhere. Also look for information about the types of planning services they offer, venues they've worked with, awards and membership in professional associations (such as the Association of Bridal Consultants).

2 Call your favorites

Call your top three or four picks to confirm the following: types of planning services offered, names of venues they have worked with, wedding date availability, and appropriateness price-wise (ask their typical price range and/or cost of the average wedding they plan). If their answers fit your budget and your vision, set up appointments to meet with each of them.

3 Prepare for your first meeting

Bring magazine clippings, photos and even your inspiration board(s) along when you meet with potential planners. At your meeting, you obviously want to get a sense of the quality of their weddings by asking them about events they've done and perusing their portfolios, but you're also looking at their personalities: Is this someone you can work with intimately for months at a time? Voice your ideas about your style and colors and see how the planners respond — they should meet them with enthusiasm. Then ask how they'd pull off your vision to get a better idea of how they work. A good planner should be able to listen to your thoughts and hone them to make your wedding something truly memorable.

4 Call references

Don't feel pressured to hire a planner you like on the spot. Be sure to call references and ask the following.

• How closely did they stick to your budget?

• Can you e-mail me photos from your wedding? (This is a good way to confirm the overall consistency and professionalism of the wedding. Planners' portfolios are filled with their best work, and, of course, they'll offer brides they know were happy with their work for references, so search online for other real weddings they've done as well.)

• How well did they interpret your ideas?

• Were the style and wedding exactly what you wanted?

• What did they take care of for you (guest list, vendor meetings, setup, etc.)?

• Did they have good vendor recommendations? Did they coordinate with other vendors?

• Did they respond quickly to your calls or e-mails? Were they nice to work with?

• Did the wedding go smoothly, according to your guests?

• Did anything go wrong, and how did the planner handle it?

5 Seal the deal

Also, take some time to compare and contrast prices, impressions, notes and, if provided, formal proposals (some planners may draft their overall vision for your wedding and their intended services in the form of a proposal, which would then work as the basis for your contract). Once you've found your planner, call him or her immediately to express your desire to move forward and have a contract prepared. As soon as you've signed the contract and paid your deposit, you'll have your right-hand woman (or man) secured.