Creating the guest list for your wedding often feels more difficult than finding your one true love. After all, while falling in love may take time, it’s just two people deciding they want to spend the rest of their lives together in the end.
When you’re considering who will be there when you say your vows, everyone from your future mother-in-law to your mailman seems to have an opinion. Before you put names on a seating chart, you need to figure out how many people to invite to your wedding. Here’s how to come up with that one shining number that will guide dozens of decisions to come.
Decide on Your Vibe
There’s a dramatic difference between an intimate affair with 20 or so people in attendance and a total blowout reception for 300 or more guests. A scaled-down wedding is quieter, often more personal, and gives you more time to talk to those nearest and dearest to your heart. A big wedding feels über festive, and you can welcome people from all parts of your life — childhood friends, fraternity and sorority buds, colleagues, second cousins, even your mom’s hairdresser if she wants. But you won’t be able to talk to them all or even notice they’re all there.
There’s nothing wrong with insisting on two witnesses, you and your future spouse, and an officiant with no guests at all. Just like it’s perfectly fine to have a thousand guests. It’s purely a matter of personal taste, but knowing how much of a crowd will feel comfortable is a crucial part of designing your big day.
Know Your Budget
The average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2020 was $19,000, down from an average of $28,000 in 2019 (a drop likely related to COVID-era restrictions). Your wedding budget should be based on what you can comfortably afford and what allows you to incorporate the elements that are most important to you and your partner.
Once you’ve decided on a budget, think about how you want to allocate those funds. For example, say you’re budgeting $5,000 total for your wedding. Experts estimate that food and drink should account for about 40% of your budget, so that’s $2,000 for a bar and catering. The average per-person cost for wedding catering in the U.S. is $27 for a buffet and $40 for a plated meal.
Using those numbers, your $2,000 catering budget can accommodate about 74 guests if you serve a buffet and 50 guests if you’re planning on a sit-down meal. If you’re foodies who know for sure you want a three-course plated dinner served to your guests at their tables, you now know that your guest count is capped at 50.
There are other budgetary considerations related to guest count, too. More guests means a bigger venue, more printed invitations and other stationery like wedding programs and menu cards, and more rentals like chairs, tables, and linens.
What’s More Important: Your Venue or Your Guest List?
Some people want to invite as many loved ones to their big day as possible. Other couples have their hearts set on a specific venue. Often one preference will have to take precedence over the other. Many venues are limited in terms of the amount of guests they can accommodate. For instance, a hotel ballroom may be designed to hold hundreds of revelers while the renovated barn you stumbled across on the internet is a total dream but only holds 75 guests for a sit-down dinner.
If your choice of venue is important to you, its capacity may dictate how many guests you can ultimately invite.
Children and All Those Plus-ones
When deciding how many people to invite to your wedding, remember that sometimes it’s not just the person invited but the person they want to invite as well. Sometimes it’s a significant other or maybe it’s a gaggle of children. Either way, wedding invitation etiquette dictates you set the standard ahead of time and hold all guests to it equally.
If you intend for an adults-only reception, your invitation should include language that makes that clear. “Please note this will be an adults-only celebration” or “Adult (18 and older) reception to follow” is fine. The same goes for plus ones. Traditionally, you should extend an automatic plus one (the original invitee plus one guest) to:
- Anyone who’s married
- Couples who are engaged, live together, or who have been dating for an extended period of time (more than a year)
- Those in your wedding party
- VIP guests who might otherwise not know anyone, like your BFF from college or your boss
Remember to include all of those possible plus ones in your total guest count. Until you hear otherwise via a lower RSVP number, plus-ones are invited guests and have a seat at your ceremony and/or reception. If plus ones force you over budget, the proper etiquette is to prune the original list of invitees, not to eliminate plus ones and force people to attend on their own.
Accounting for Fall-off and No-shows
Even royal weddings have invitations that go unanswered or result in a polite “thanks, but no thanks.” Some invitees will have unavoidable conflicts (all the more reason to send out those save the dates early on). Others will say they’re coming and then fail to show up at the last minute because of illness, transportation woes, or because they got heat stroke at the resort pool (hey, it happens!). The question is whether to account for fall off in your invite total or send out a second wave of invites to make up numbers after the initial RSVP deadline passes.
Experts recommend inviting no more than your budget can allow. If you’ve budgeted for 150 people, you should send out 150 invites. On the off chance some of those prospective guests send their regrets, feel free to send out more invites to “second tier” guests, but only up to that original 150-person total. And be prepared for hurt feelings; it’s likely those second-string guests will know from other guests or the late invite date that they didn’t make the original cut. It’s up to you to figure out how much drama you think that will generate and whether it’s worth the risk.
Who Has Decision-Making Power and How to Be Diplomatic (just in case)
It’s nice to think that the sole decision-making power in who’s invited belongs to you and your intended. But that’s really only true if you’re the ones paying for the wedding and you don’t care what anybody else thinks. If your parents or other relatives are contributing monetarily, they’re likely going to have their own ideas about who to invite.
Then there is the political element. If you invite aunts and uncles from your dad’s side of the family, will the aunts and uncles from your mom’s side be jealous? Often the best plan of attack is to keep things even. Either all aunts and uncles are invited or none of them are. Of course, you’re welcome to do whatever you like. In the event someone is offended that they were left off the list, be honest but gentle with your response. “We would’ve loved to celebrate with all of our loved ones, but our venue and budget restrictions simply didn’t allow it. We’d love to celebrate with you soon!”
According to the Brides American Wedding Study by Brides magazine, the average guest count for weddings in the United States is 167, with the majority of weddings falling between the 100 and 200-guest mark. Whether you fall in that range or opt for something different is totally up to you. Once you decide who you want to come, it’s time to send out invites. Check out our wedding invitations for tons of design ideas to help bring your wedding theme to life.