Wedding Guest List Etiquette – The Ultimate Guide

How to Start Your Wedding Guest List

An essential start to planning your wedding is to organise your guest list – a task easier said than done. Wedding guest list etiquette can be a daunting prospect, trying to finely balance the wedding budget, the wedding venue’s capacity, and the risk of offending lots of people. To hopefully help with this tricky part of the planning process, I’ve put together the ultimate guide to your wedding guest list: etiquette, budgeting, and respectful ways to put in words the fact that you’re cutting someone from your big day.

When you started wedding planning, we talked about finding your purpose and how to plan a wedding with intention. The wedding guest list can be a really tricky task, you’re essentially becoming the HR team for your own wedding, so it’s really important to come back to your purpose and be mindful of not just the ‘who’ but the ‘why’. Think about all the reasons why you are getting married, and therefore why you would invite each of your guests. 

Plan your Wedding Guest List with Purpose

While many of us would love to invite all our friends, family and colleagues, often logistics make that impossible. Instead of focussing on how many people you may have to cut from your guest list, focus on how much more time you will have with each of your guests. Even from someone who had a small wedding, you are often so limited as to who you can really spend time with and talk to on your big day, so plan your wedding guest list while being mindful of who you really want those people to be.

Wedding Guest List Template

Consider how your Budget works with your Guest List

For many couples, it is the wedding budget which determines your guest list and potentially how many people you may need to exclude. In fact, if you already know that your budget is going to be tight, one of the the easiest solutions to saving a lot of money is to reduce the number of invited guests. This will immediately trim your budget on a per-head cost basis, but will also give you more options for the size of your wedding venue, and simplifying other wedding planning logistics.

How to Begin your Wedding Guest List

If you’ve already begun searching for your wedding venue, you may have a target guest list to work to, and/or if you fall in love with a particular venue even after starting your guest list, you may wish to reduce the guest numbers to fit.

However, rather than begin with a magic number and immediately trying to narrow down your guest numbers to fit, I recommend beginning an excel spreadsheet of all the people you would like to invite – if budget and capacity were no object. You may wish to do family lists each, and then go through your friend groups together. The guest list template is one of your essential wedding planning tools in the planning pack, together with the budget calculator which will also be useful here.

Once you have a list of all those you might consider inviting, you can do a quick calculation to work out how much it might cost on a per-head basis alone. For an all-inclusive wedding venue with a full-service dinner, you can expect to pay around $120-170 per guest, excluding beverages. Alternatively, take half your total wedding budget estimate and divide it by the number of guests to work out how much your wedding budget would probably need to allocate, per person, to cover catering, drinks and hireage.

You may immediately see that your wedding guest needs to be cut down, either to fit your budget, or your wedding venue.

wedding-guest-list-etiquette-template-guidesShorten your Guest List, or Change your Venue?

If your guest list is too large for your wedding venue (or your budget) and you are faced with the decision to change one of them, return to your purpose, your intentions, and what you really want from your special day. If you can imagine standing up in front of your guests on your wedding day, perhaps at the end of the aisle or during the speeches, what would make you happier – having all the friends and family members on your list, or having a smaller, more intimate group?

When you envision your dream day, what are you more prepared to sacrifice, the venue, the budget or the guest list? You will probably instinctively know what feels comfortable for you.

I suggest you think only about whose company you truly most enjoy, and who you expect to be part of your lives in the future, and invite them to spend this once-in-a-lifetime day with you.

Practical Ways to narrow down your Guest List.

If, for whatever reason, you need to trim your original wedding guest list (don’t worry, most people do), head back to the excel spreadsheet you started. Take the list of everyone you’ve considered inviting, and put them in order.

  • Three columns: Definites, Probables, Maybes.
  • Definites/Non-negotiables – those you just can not get married without. 100% attendance required – for some this will be their immediate family and best friends, for others it will be more.
  • Probables: If you can make it work, you’ll have them all… if they can all make it, that is. Put this list in order of absolute importance, from your ride-or-dies that’ve been with you since childhood to the colleagues that get you through Monday morning, get them in some semblance of an order.
  • Maybes: Extended family, friends you haven’t seen in a while, those you aren’t that close with but are vaguely in your friend circle, acquaintances, and others.

The “Definites”

If the number of guests in the first (“definites“) column match your venue capacity/budget/desires, you’re already half of the way there to planning your ideal guest list. You are getting married with all the most important people in your lives, and you get to do so in the venue you love. If there’s already too many on list one, you need to find a bigger venue, reallocate your budget, or save for longer. People are everything, and you need those people there (you said so yourself).

The “Probables”

If there are fewer guests on that list than the capacity of the venue and your budget allows, this is a bonus! Now you can invite even more of your most loved people from list two (“probables“). Possibly, you won’t get all the way through list two, but you get to marry the person of your dreams in a dream location, so you’re still winning! Remember, the more guests you invite, the less time you’ll have with each of them and the fewer memories of your time with them to look back on (also, the more complicated the seating arrangements…). Also, only 80-90% of those you invite are likely to be able to make it, so you’ll probably be able to add a couple more along the way.

The “Maybes”

If there is enough room for all of list one, and all of list two, and you still have room for those in the third column, think hard. You put them on list three. Are you sure you really, really want them there? Unsure? You don’t have to make a decision immediately, as your wedding is likely to be 12 months away. But seriously, don’t be in a rush to invite everyone “just because” – save your time, and wedding budget, for those you really want to be with.

Wedding Guest List Etiquette: Overcome Issues Without Offending Anyone

The guest list is often the hardest thing for many couples to tackle, common issues arising being:

  • Having large numbers of extended (or even immediate) family they have to invite
  • One person having a much larger family or friend group than the other
  • Expectations from family about inviting parents’ close friends
  • Expectations from friends to invite significant others (+1’s), their children, or reciprocate an invitation to their wedding
  • Anxiety about pressure of having to invite colleagues, old school friends, or reciprocate invitations for other weddings you’ve attended
When it comes to the guest list, it can be really tempting to avoid any potential awkwardness by inviting everybody, but if you really don’t want to have a large wedding, there are a couple of alternatives you could consider to reduce your guest list, without offending anyone.
  • Have a larger engagement party, and explain to guests that you will be having an  intimate wedding;
  • Have an informal reception a couple of months after your small wedding, and invite others to join you to celebrate there;
  • Do whatever you feel like and stop feeling guilty, because it’s your wedding, and those that really care about you will understand and respect your decision!

Remember, the more people you have, the less time you will have with any of them, the more it will cost, and the more you have to organise (stationery, seating plans, hireage, meals, transport). There is a growing trend to instead opt for a small wedding, with even ‘pop-up’ weddings of 30 guests, or even smaller elopements, gaining popularity.

Narrow down your guest list

Once you have a target number that fits your budget, expectations and desires, even if you are having a large wedding, you may need to cut it down. To avoid hurt feelings, many couples like to narrow down their list with a few rules, like ‘no ring, no bring’, no children, or not inviting certain groups, like coworkers. They may be right for you, but you don’t need rules to work out who you want to share your special day with. It’s not always as easy as excluding all those people.

Wedding Guest List Etiquette: Who you can Cut Out

– Don’t just mindlessly give guests a “plus one“.  Your friends need not be joined-at-the-hip to their boyfriend or girlfriend, and if the relationship is within its first year or so, and the couple are not yet ‘de-facto’, living together, or have each other in their own ‘definite’ futures, don’t feel like you have to invite them to celebrate your definite future.  Your true friends will understand, and why are you bothering to worry about those that wouldn’t?  Personally, with work colleagues, I’d suggest that unless you know their significant other, don’t invite their spouses – those people aren’t a part of your relationship with them. Do be thoughtful if your friend won’t know anyone else there otherwise, or is coming from overseas.
– If you’ve got a large list of colleagues, rethink whether you would be friends with these people out of work (if one of you moved jobs, for instance), and whether you’re going to be friends in the long term.  Be discreet at work, but only invite those workmates you’d spend time with outside work.
– If you can, and want to (we could), you can of course exclude children from the wedding reception itself, but keep in mind locality and availability for babysitters and be aware that this could discourage those with children from attending (or having a big night).  Subtly let them know it’s adults-only.
– If you’re only inviting some couples because you went to their wedding (or were invited) years ago, consider whether you’re being polite for the sake of it, or whether they really are essential to your day.  You don’t know what their thinking was in inviting you (you may very well have been from a back-up list too!).
Renegotiate with your parents if they’re intending to invite lots of their friends.
– Return to the step above and really, only invite those you absolutely must, definitely, non-negotiably cannot get married without!

Figure out Who May Not Come and Have a ‘B’ Guest List

We all have those relatives, friends or just out-of-town guests who we invite knowing they either will not come, can’t come or won’t be able to afford the trip. It’s unlikely that 100% of your invited guests will be able to make it, which may end up helping to reduce your guest list.

For this reason, it is also completely acceptable to have a ‘B list’ or back-up list of people to invite if the first ones can’t attend. You may even wish to stagger your invites, so that those on the B list aren’t all invited at the same time. Hand the invitations out in person – you save on postage, and it will make you very aware if you no longer catch up with a certain couple.

Invite those coming from overseas as early as possible, to give them the best chance of being able to make it.

How to Explain to Someone they didn’t make your Guest List

You may not want to rush into this, just incase there is some room to manoevre later, but at some point you will have to tell someone that they’re not invited to your wedding. This can be an incredibly awkward conversation but there are ways to be respectful and polite.

Set the tone early. If you know that you will be having an intimate wedding, let your friends and family know well in advance, so they aren’t as likely to expect a wedding invitation and then wonder why they’re not invited.

Explain that your wedding budget is limited. Anyone who has ever been married will understand wedding budget constraints, and it’s a tough one to argue with even if you haven’t. If you are unable to invite a ‘plus one’ then it’s advisable to let friends know prior to invites going out – otherwise they’re likely to ask you anyway. It’s best to front-foot conversations like this and set the tone early.

Be respectful and don’t talk about your wedding at length in front of people who are not invited.

Stay Organised

Like your wedding budget, your guest list isn’t static either, and it’s very useful to have a single place to refer to for the guest names and addresses, RSVPs, any dietary requirements, and then even to go back to after the wedding, to make a note of the gift from each couple, and refer to the address, so that you can send a thoughtful and personal thank you note.

I designed the pages of the little white book wedding planner to tick all these boxes, as well as designing an excel spreadsheet for organising your guests. They’re available together as part of the ultimate wedding planner bundle, or for sale individually in the Shop.

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