Getting a Budget from Clients

How to get a clear budget number from potential clients to avoid costly issues down the road.  

Here is a secret from my business:  I don't meet with potential clients unless I first have an idea of their budget.  I don't need a spreadsheet with every penny accounted for (In fact, I really don't want that!) but I do need a starting number that they feel comfortable with.  

Here is another secret to getting this number: You ask.  Then if they don't know (many don't and this is okay!) then prob further.  Keep asking in different ways to get a number from them.  Don't waste their time or your own entertaining a project that is an impossible budget.  Usually there are two types of clients, those that have a number but don't want to share it because their afraid you'll abuse their money.  Or they really have no idea what it should cost.  If you're lucky you'll get a client that has an appropriate budget.  If you're unlucky you could get a client that has an unreasonable budget. 

Getting a Budget Number from Clients

With either type of client, the best way to make clients feel comfortable enough to give you a number is through transparency.  The more they trust you and feel that you're being up-front with them the more likely they will be to share their number.  The client sets the budget, they are the ones spending and deciding what they would like in their home.  

Here are some ideas to help clients reach their number: 

  • Ask them to write down some numbers for what they consider reasonable costs of different items.
  • Show them examples of past budgets on projects of their size, in this case, literally spreadsheets.
  • If you don't have any past budgets, create a sample budget.  
  • If you normally come in close, at, or under budget let the potential clients know.  
  • Let them know you that your selections will be based on their budget.  The project could be 20K or 100K depending on the quality of goods they want in their home.  

Talking About Budgets

One thing that you don't want to do is avoid talking about money.  It doesn't look professional to clients and it can cause real trouble down the road.  You want to talk about the budget early and often.  You certainly don't want to start any work until you know what your client has allocated for the work.  You want to get a number from them so you know where to shop, however, you should also let your clients know that while you will keep a general eye on things, it is ultimately the clients responsibility to keep themselves on budget.  Let them know if you are showing them something that is over what you've allocated, but it is their choice what to spend.  (A side note on this: Watch out for how much you do this because there have been too many design projects where the clients can't finish because they run out of money.)  

Here is the bottom line: talking about money is never easy, but the more you do it the easier it gets.  Avoidance will just cause project issues.  

Best Practices for Budgeting

Here are some tips for budgeting that will help you set up your client's expectations:

  • Include 20% overage for unexpected expenses, something always happens.
  • Include estimate of shipping/freight/storage/installations costs.
  • Clarify if their budget number includes design fees.
  • Iterate that budgets are estimates.  
  • Ask them if they want to see any "reach" options.  Some people are more pragmatic than others.  

You should never feel like you need to give away your time for clients to have nice things in their home.  

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