Back to top

Planning the Guest List


Your wedding day is one of the most special moments in your life - and one you’ll want to share with the special people in your life. But, as many couples have learned, creating the guest list can be one of the most complicated aspects of their wedding planning. And even with the best planning, the unexpected is sure to arise. You can minimize surprises, unexpected expenses and hurt feelings with some simple planning techniques. What’s Your Budget? The best way to manage your budget is to manage your guest list. Food and drinks are typically the most expensive costs of a wedding. A full buffet or plated dinner can run $25 to $200 per guest, depending on food selections and location. For an open bar, a good rule of thumb is approximately 1 1/2 to 2 drinks per person per hour. Since catering is charged on a per-person basis, it’s easy to see how the costs of an additional 20 or 30 invitations can quickly impact your budget, particularly since most invitations are for a couple. Decide what you can afford, and how many people you can afford to invite. If your budget is tight, keep it small.

What’s Your Dream Wedding?

Have you always dreamed of an intimate wedding in a small country chapel, or a big bash with all your friends and family? What does your fiancé want? You may decide it is more important to have a more expensive meal for 30 people, rather than a large event on a tight budget. Once you’ve determined the type of wedding you both envision, you’ll have a better idea of the appropriate guest list size. Start with your wish list of guests, but be ready to cut.

What’s the Venue?

If your dream wedding is in the small country chapel, inviting several hundred people probably is not realistic. You’ll need to decide what is more important - the location or the number of guests. Keeping the wedding small not only cuts costs; it gives you the freedom to consider more non-traditional settings like a small inn, yacht or elegant restaurant. If your guest list just simply can’t be cut, look for a larger venue rather than trying to pack too many people into an uncomfortable space. The venue’s event coordinator can provide estimates for wedding and reception seating capacity. Be sure the facility has adequate parking for your guests as well.

Who’s Paying?

Traditionally, the bride’s parents paid for the wedding and determined the number of guests to be invited. However, many couples today pay part – or all – of their wedding tab and are more likely to determine the guest list. If your parents are paying, talk to them first about the number of guests they want and how those invitations will be divided between the bride’s parents, groom’s parents and the couple. You may find that your parents have a larger guest list in mind than your dream ‘small chapel’ wedding will accommodate. If they are paying the bill, try to keep their wishes in mind and negotiate a comfortable compromise you both can live with. If you and your fiancé are footing the tab, it will be easier for you to determine the guest list size but be sensitive to your parents’ wishes. In the end, a few extra guests will not make a huge difference in the bottom line and may be worth adding to avoid hurt feelings.

How Do We Estimate RSVPs?

According to wedding consultant Linda Kevich, “The formula commonly used for estimating how many people will attend is to double the number of invitations that you send and subtract 33%. Example: If you issue 120 invitations, expect 161 guests to attend.” In other words, typically about two thirds of your invitees will actually attend. However, these are just guidelines. Don’t invite people thinking they ‘will never show’. Be prepared for surprises. For one thing, it’s not uncommon for guests to mistakenly RSVP for more guests than you invited. Says Kevich, “ Most wedding guest lists end up, believe it or not, with a few additional names added by guests themselves. “Many people mistakenly believe that because it is up to them to fill in the response card with the number of guests attending, they are ‘allowed’ to include an additional guest or two, should they feel it appropriate. They do this, intending no harm, often entirely unaware that this is any form of social blunder,” she says. If that occurs, you’ll have to decide whether adding the guest causes a real problem – for instance, if you are already at your venue’s capacity. If so, the best solution is to call the individual to whom the invitation was sent (or have the groom’s parents call if it involves one of their guests) and politely let them know that while you would like to accommodate the extra guest, your facility already is at capacity. If the extra guest is not causing a real problem, the best response is no response. Remember the social fauxpaus was probably not intentional, and you will be better served by graciously ignoring it.

How Do We Create the List?

Once you have determined how many guests to invite, divide the number in thirds: 1/3 - Guests of the bride’s parents 1/3 - Guests of the groom’s parents 1/3 - Guest of the bride and groom Next, prioritize each list into three separate categories. A List: Must Haves - These are the people you have to invite. That includes family and close friends. Also on this list should be the officiant and their spouse or guest. “Who is so important that you can’t imagine getting married without them there? Until you have your reception and ceremony venues finalized, you won’t know how big your guest list can be,” says freelance wedding consultant Nina Calloway. “However, it’s a good idea at this stage of the game to start counting family and your closest friends, and get a sense of how many essential invites you have. After all, if you have 60 essential invites, you should probably forget about the charming chapel that only seats 50.” Also send invitations to your parents and the wedding party, as a keepsake. They don’t have to reply. Wedding etiquette experts also say children over the age of 16 should receive their own invitation.

B List: Should Haves - These are the people you should invite, such as distant family members and good friends/acquaintances. The B List guests are the ones with which most couples struggle the most. Do you really need to invite your mom’s great aunt from Kalamazoo? How about her staff from the office? A good rule of thumb: invite only people you personally know and like. “As for friends-in-law you wish you’d never met, start with this crucial connubial ground rule: You two are separate people with different tastes,” says Calloway. “You don’t have to like each other’s friends, but hey, letting them share some champagne with you on your big day is not going to hurt anyone.”

C List: Like To Haves - These are the ones you’d like to include if there is room. This might be your first-grade friend you haven’t seen in years, or old neighbors and business associates. “If the issue at hand is the potentially hurt feelings of the uninvited, remember that remote cousins often feel as indifferent toward you as you do toward them, and may be happy not to come. The same goes for distant friends,” says Calloway. “A wedding is not an excuse to round up every lost intimate friend you have known since you were 10 – focus on people who matter now.”

What About the ‘no way are we inviting them’ Guests? If there are ex-girlfriends, ex-spouses, obnoxious drunks or estranged family with whom you’d rather not share your special day, now is the time to speak up. Together decide who is absolutely not on the guest list. How Do We Handle “No Children”? For some couples, one of those not-welcome groups is children. You have a few options for letting your guests know not to bring their children. One is simply to leave their names off the invitation. Secondly, you can rely on family to pass the word that children aren’t invited. Or, you can take the direct approach so there is no misunderstanding or hurt feelings. On the invitation reply card, include wording such as: * Adult Reception * We hope that the (# of) of you will be able to join us. Remember, however, that ‘no children’ means no children. Bend the rules for your favorite niece, and you’ll have a lot of hurt guests.

Who Pays For Extra Guests over the Allotted Number? Once you have established the number of guests each group (parents and couple) may invite, any additional guests should be at the expense of the individual initiating the invitation. If the groom’s parents add an extra 50 names to their list, for instance, you should remind them of your budget and ask that they either trim their list or cover the additional costs.

Do Shower Guests have to be Invited to the Wedding? The short answer is yes. Inviting people to a wedding shower, but not to the wedding, is not only poor etiquette, but also implies that you are only interested in a gift. Avoid hurt feelings by assuming that any guest at a bridal shower will also be on your wedding guest list. How Can We Trim the List? So you’ve prioritized the list, and made initial cuts - yet it is still too large.

You may be able to trim the list a bit more with these steps:

• Make the reception “adult only”. Caterers charge per person, even little persons.

• Don’t invite coworkers. Nixing all office invites is a simple way to pull in the reins on your ever-growing guest count.

• Limit the number of friends your parents invite. If they are inviting friends of their own, set a limit for both sets of parents and stick to it if space and budget are limited. Wedding announcements can be sent to those not on the list, in lieu of invitations.

• Eliminate the “and guest” if a friend or relative is not in a serious relationship, says Henry. As long as there are familiar faces at the reception, your solo friend will be fine.

• Invite only close family. That third cousin or your first-grade best friend you haven’t seen in years probably won’t care that they are not invited. How Do We Stay Organized? Managing your guest list can be as easy as creating a simple spreadsheet that tracks names, addresses, RSVPs, gifts and thank-you notes. For a low-tech option, set up a card file. Create a card file with each guest’s name and address. Highlight the name (example, pink for guests of the bride’s parents, blue for guests of the groom’s parents, and green for your guests) to help in seating arrangements. Leave room at the top of each card to note RSVPs, and provide space elsewhere to track the gifts received and thank-you notes mailed.

Online tools are also available at that help manage the guest list and provides a web site for the wedding couple. There’s even an online planner that can be printed that has seating charts and more.  

Newsletter Subscribe