How to Start Your Wedding Guest List

Choosing who to invite, and writing your wedding guest list doesn’t sound like it should be that hard – You choose people you want to spend your special day with, include the requisite family members, and hope that most of the invited guests accept your invitation, RSVP on time, and actually show up at the wedding… right?

For most wedding planning couples, it’s not that easy. Once you’ve started your wedding budget, you’ll know that the number of guests you choose to invite will not only have a huge impact on your budget, but might also determine which venue you choose. You might have to make some tough calls.

I know exactly what you’re going through: We had a wedding venue with capacity of 75 and a list of 105. Here’s how we were able to cut down our wedding day guest list to fit both our wedding budget and our small venue. If you’re interested, have a look at our actual wedding budget to see how the guest number impacted it.

How to Start your Wedding Guest List

Rather than starting by trying to narrow down your most-loved 70 people and write down all their names, I recommend beginning an excel spreadsheet of all the people you would possibly consider inviting, say if budget and capacity were no object.

You may wish to do family lists each, and then go through your friend groups together.

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Guest List / Budget

However many people you end up with on this draft list, do a quick calculation with your budget to work out how much that would allocate, per person, to cover things like food, drink and hireage. This will give you an indication of how much you actually need, and perhaps want, to cut down the guest list to a more reasonable number.

For an all-inclusive wedding venue with a full-service catering, you can expect to pay around $100-$200 per guest, excluding wine.

Guest List / Venue

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. We began with a list of over 100 people, but ended up with just 75, to fit the venue we chose.

Guests / Balancing Expectations, Family and Friends

Other common issues arising for couples to deal with are:

  • Having large numbers of extended (or even immediate) family whom couples feel they must 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

Guest List: What to Consider

A crucial point to consider is that the more people you have, the less time you will have with any of them, the more your wedding costs, and the more you have to organise (stationery, seating plans, hireage, meals, and transport, for instance). 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.

When it comes to the guest list, it can be really tempting to avoid any potential awkwardness by inviting absolutely everybody, but if you really don’t want to have a large wedding, there are a couple of alternatives:

  • Have a larger engagement party, and explain to guests that you will be having a very “intimate” wedding;
  • Have an informal reception party shortly after your small wedding or elopement, and invite others to join you to celebrate there;
  • Do absolutely whatever feels right to you and stop feeling guilty, because it is your wedding, and those that really care about you will understand and respect your decision either way.

Need to Narrow down your guest list?

Once you have a target guest number which fits your budget, expectations and desires, even if you are having a very large wedding, you may need to cut it down. Many couples like to narrow down their list with a few rules, like ‘no ring, no bring’, no colleagues, or no children. These rules may be right for you, but you don’t necessarily need rules to work out who you want to share your special day with, and it’s not always as easy as excluding all those people.

Instead, I suggest you think 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 you fall in love with a venue that doesn’t cater to your entire guest list, head back to excel (you have the guest list spreadsheet) armed with 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.

Okay, are you ready for this. Don’t skip past the photo until you have that list in front of you. Let’s pretend your desk is this tidy too…

If the number of guests in the first (“definites“) column match your venue capacity/budget/desires, you’ve already succeeded. 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).

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 plan…). 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.

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 every “Tom, Dick and Harry” just because – save your time, and wedding budget, for those you really want to be with.

Back to those Guest List Rules

If the numbers are still out of control, consider the following options/rules/guidelines for reducing the guest list:
– 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 a small army.
– Return to the step above and really, only invite those you absolutely must, definitely, non-negotiably cannot get married without!

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 have a guest list template in the planning pack, if you need a little extra help working out your list, and then your list of final invited guests can be filled into the little white book wedding organizer and diary.

Back-up plan

Because it’s unlikely that 100% of your invited guests will be able to make it, it is completely acceptable to have a ‘B list’ or back-up list of people to invite if the first ones can’t attend. For this reason, 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.

If any (potential!) guests cause any issues with your decisions, (I would) reconsider them entirely, and/or stick to my guns.  It’s YOUR day, and they need to respect that. 

Head to the wedding planning page for an index of our content, and if you haven’t already seen our wedding organiser and diary, take a little look at the little white book.


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