7 Tips for Creating Your Wedding Guest List

a wedding guest list with roses on top

There’s a fantasy-like aspect to writing out your wedding guest list, but there’s also a very practical side to the whole process. Deciding who you’ll invite and who you can’t (or won’t) affects everything from how much you’ll spend to how chaotic the actual day will be. How can you create the wedding you want without bludgeoning your budget or making your mother-in-law cry?

Before you send out save-the-dates, bring out your inner wedding planner using our tips for building a better guest list.

1. Set a limit before you start

a jar filled with coins labeled “wedding budget,” sealed with cork"

If you want to get yourself in a colossal mess, start building your guest list before you know how many people you can accommodate. Whittling down a list of 400 people to 200 is painful. Save yourself the stress (and, let’s be honest, the potential arguments) and put a cap in place before you write down a single name.

  1. What’s your vision? Some couples want glitz and glam with as many people as possible witnessing the grandeur. Others dream of an intimate affair. Both are valid but require very different guest lists.
  2. What can your venue hold? You’ll need to either pick a venue first and use its capacity to determine the size of your crowd or accept that making your guest list first could limit your venue options.
  3. What’s your budget? You can’t realistically host 500 people on a $2,000 budget. Knowing how much you have to spend will influence how many people you ultimately invite.
  4. What are your priorities? There are a lot of ways to allocate your wedding funds. Americans spend an average of just over $33,000 on their weddings, with about $70 per person going to catering. A 150-person guest list at $70 per head means your food bill alone will be $10,500. That doesn’t leave a lot for venue, entertainment, dress, printed wedding invitations, transportation, photography and so on. If you want a more expensive dress, you may have to invite fewer people or consider cheaper food.

2. Decide whose input matters

a young couple talking to one of their parents

Obviously you and your spouse-to-be will be determining the majority of your guest list, but in some cases there may be other contributors. Your parents and future in-laws likely have their own list of people they’d like to see at their kiddo’s wedding. This can be an especially touchy subject for couples who are getting some help from family to pay for the wedding.

If you’re going to let family members collaborate on the guest list, decide ahead of time how many guests they’ll be able to invite. Then, let them use those slots as they see fit. If your mom and dad get 25 seats and want to invite 27 people, it’s up to them to figure out who goes. This approach should reduce friction, as everybody is on the same page early on.

3. Create categories first

a woman making a list with cup of coffee by her side

Rating people is usually considered to be pretty rude, but not when it comes to wedding planning. It’s just a fact of life that you can live without seeing some friends and family on your big day, while you can’t imagine not inviting others.

Sit down with your partner and decide who is essential. This likely includes immediate family, best friends and a handful of other integral people. Those are the A-listers. Next come the B-listers. These are people you really like and will be next up if you have the budget and physical space to expand your invites. C-listers are distant cousins, your mom’s sewing circle ladies whom you’ve never met and the neighbor who brings you pie every week even though you’ve never actually hung out. People on the C list are the first to go when it’s time to make cutbacks.

This is also a good time to make a list of who absolutely cannot be invited. This will take both people in the relationship to identify deal breakers and ensure everyone gets to have a happy, drama-free day. This list may include:

  1. Exes
  2. Friends or family members that aren’t accepting of the future spouse or their lifestyle
  3. Anyone who is known to create a scene, such as an aunt who frequently drinks to excess

4. Remember plus-ones and kids

a bride wearing a wedding dress as she kneels on her knees as two children kiss both sides of her cheek

Traditional wedding etiquette says that you only have to extend plus-ones (an offer for your guests to bring their own guest) if the original invitee is married, engaged or living with their significant other. There are other reasons to allow plus-ones, though. If you have a single friend traveling a long distance or a solo coworker who won’t know the rest of your guests, they may feel more comfortable having a date or buddy by their side. It’s not your job to make sure they have a good time, but it’d be an awfully nice thing to do.

Kids are another story. Having an adults-only reception may fit your formal venue or help you save money, but don’t be surprised if it ruffles some feathers. Parents are protective of their offspring. It’s also difficult for parents to find babysitters (especially if the family is coming in from out of town) and spend the day away from smaller children who are still very attached to Mom and Dad. One option is to have a smaller room in the same venue that can be used for childcare. Hire a couple nannies, serve the kids more affordable, child-friendly food and you’ll be doing a good deed giving tired parents a much-needed night off.

5. All or nothing

two wedding guest lists, one labeled with “hers” and the other labeled with “his”

The fastest path to hurt feelings is to invite a few members of a group but not the rest. This rule applies to coworkers, second cousins, neighbors, teammates from your adult kickball league and your old sorority sisters or frat brothers. People who share the same connection to you or your fiancé/fiancée may assume they’re of the same importance. Invite one and not the other and feelings get hurt. Imagine inviting only two people from the office and then being confronted by the rest as soon as you get back from your honeymoon. Ouch.

The safest route is to invite everyone that shares a particular connection or omit them all, but ultimately you can invite whoever you want. Just get comfortable with the idea that some people may not understand and know that a simple explanation (“We didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but our space and budget were limited”) is more than enough.

6. Just say no to ceremony-only invites

a bride and groom celebrating with guests at their backyard wedding reception

Well-meaning people may suggest you invite those C-listers from above to your ceremony but leave them out of the reception. This is bad advice. Ceremony-only invites are like telling people they can come to a Monday morning meeting but not eat any of the donuts. You’re basically saying they’re allowed to watch the business end of the proceedings, but you don’t want to party with them after. Not very nice.

You can, however, invite people to the reception but not the ceremony. This usually only happens if you’re having a religious ceremony that may not be appropriate for loved ones of another faith or if your ceremony venue is small, such as an old church.

7. Find creative ways to include anyone who you can’t invite (or who can’t otherwise attend)

a bride takes a selfie with her girlfriends

There are bound to be some people who would like to attend your wedding but can’t. Perhaps you love your college roommates but haven’t talked to them aside from social media in five years. Or maybe you have an aunt and uncle in Europe who can’t physically cope with the long flights.

It’s not your responsibility to cater to everyone’s feelings. That said, there are some ways to ensure people feel included if you decide that’s something you’d like to do.

  1. Set up a webcam and livestream your ceremony
  2. Send out a formal announcement after the wedding
  3. Give extra-special loved ones a framed photo of you and your new husband or wife

Lastly, remember that this is your day. You don’t have to invite someone just because you were at their wedding if you’re no longer close. No one gets to bully you into extending an invitation. Create a guest list that makes you smile and is full of people you can’t wait to pull onto the dance floor. It’s a celebration, and your guests are a huge part of that festive vibe!