Think twice before discussing budget!

Designers are creatures of intrinsic value. The role of any designer is to make improvements that add value to an object, whether it be a watch, car component or a garden.  The added value is often not directly attributed to dollars, but can only be measured in more subtle ways, like performance, durability, usability, sustainability and, the most subtle of all, liveability. 

Discussing project cost and budget are not part of our natural vocabulary, and can make even the most confident designer feel a little uneasy.  Knowing the intrinsic value of the landscape will far outweigh any construction cost, many designers think discussing budget before completion of the final design is unhelpful and generally unnecessary. A friend of mine who has been designing gardens for over thirty years once said to me, "If they love what you do, they will find the money." I have found this to be true, however I still have a twinge of guilt after the construction quote comes in at double or triple what the client had in mind.  I know my design is worth the construction cost and will add considerable value to the property, but I can't help feeling that I should be doing more to avoid my clients' budget shock!

How can you convince a potential client to consider tripling their budget at the first consultation, without risking losing the job?

3 steps to avoiding budget shock!


They may have a Mercedes in the driveway, however your new client may have also grown up in suburbia with a lawn and a lemon tree. Without a reference to the intrinsic value or the actual cost of a landscape, it is understandable that their budget is a wild stab in the dark that barely covers the cost of a driveway.  As the designer, it is important to empathise with your client and not be dismissive of their lack of understanding.


During the consultation listen for cues as to your client's understanding of value.

Do they see value in:

  • The usability and liveability of the garden
  • Resale value (return on investment)
  • Keeping their partner happy (don't see any value, only cost)
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Hub of family activity
  • Quiet enjoyment
  • Sustainability
  • Low maintenance

 Speak their language of value

Take time during the consultation to discuss value with your client in their language. If you are consulting with a couple, each may have a very different way of measuring value, so you need to include both in the conversation. After they have a clear understanding of the potential value of the garden, ask them what they would expect to invest to achieve the desired result.  Images may help; show your clients gardens with a similar style and finish discussed in the brief, then let them know the investment required to achieve the results in the photo. At this stage, it is usually safe to go on to discuss their budget and, if it seems low, it should now be easier to discuss the need to invest more to achieve their desired result. In some cases, you may notice the colour drain from your clients' face, so at this stage it is probably better to give them space to think about it.  Let them know you will come back to discuss the design contract and you can discuss the budget further then. Without badgering the client, you must keep the lines of communication open. Remember to empathise. The idea of a garden having value can be a new concept for your client. You must be available and open to answering their questions.

If you are successful in speaking your clients' "language of value,"  not only will discussing the necessary investment be easier, it will also explain the value of your time and expertise completing the design. Through increasing your client's confidence in achieving a high value landscape it also allows the designer freedom to charge appropriate design fees.

 Final tip

Know when to walk away, if you can't find a way to connect on value, you will find it difficult to find a connection on other aspects of the project. The result will be lose/lose; if you stick to the low budget, your client will be disappointed with the result and, if you design what is needed to add real value, the client will be disappointed with the cost. Your landscaper will also be annoyed at the pressure to cut costs, reducing their margin or standard of work. The best way to keep everyone happy is to give your client the confidence to invest what is needed to add real value to their property.