After picking your wedding date and drafting a budget for the big day, one of the first steps in wedding planning is making your guest list. A lot of decisions need to be made in that process, so let’s discuss those today.
Talk with your families
While this is your big day, often your families may want to be involved — especially if they’re helping to pay. Modern couples often have full control of all parts of wedding planning, but traditionally the couple’s parents on each side would get about a third of the guest list. Whether that’s your plan or not, you’ll still need to talk to your family to find out their expectations (and gently head off any relatives-not-invited drama before it starts).
Make your must-haves list
Each of you probably has that best friend they always wanted at their wedding and a list of the absolutely non-negotiable family members and friends. Write those out, and make sure to keep any partners in mind as plus-ones.
Make a want-to-haves list
Now write a separate list for all the people you don’t absolutely need at the wedding, but would really, really love to include if at all possible. Include any partners in this list too.
Evaluate your expenses
Next, it’s time to look at how your guest list realistically works with your budget and vision. A fairy tale ball with separate ceremony and reception venues, elegant white tent and three-course catered dinner simply can’t include 250 guests on a $5,000 budget.
The greatest effect your guest list will have on your budget is on the two most expensive items: food and venue. The size of the venue will be determined by your guest list, since you won’t want a 300-person reception hall for 80 people, and you can’t book a 100-person garden for 200 guests. However, the most direct monetary factor on the guest list is food. Whether you’re choosing a plated dinner, a buffet, or some more unique modern option for food at the reception, you’ll need enough to feed every single person on your list.
There are ways to make more guests with less money work, like holding your wedding at 2:30 in the afternoon and serving light refreshments instead of a full dinner. Or you might opt for a barbecue buffet over the plated salmon dinner you wanted. But whatever you adjust, you do need to make sure these three planning pieces align from the start: budget, vision, and guest list.
Editing the lists
Ah, the hard part. When your budget maxes out at 100 guests and your combined lists come to 146 people, this dreaded step in wedding planning is next. Often this can be the hardest part of the entire planning process. I’ll do what I can to help make it as painless as possible for you, but sometimes this is one headache that just can’t be avoided.
Start with the must-haves list. If this list is already too long, take a long, hard look at each name. Anyone on this list out of obligation, move to the “want-to-haves” list. If you’re worried about family drama, ask your parents or another close family member honestly what they think would happen should someone be left out. Is your childhood best friend really a must have? Have you even spoken with them in the last year? (Occasional Facebook messages don’t count.)
Now the want-to-haves list. Again, anyone there out of obligation — have an honest conversation with your partner and/or someone else close to the situation to determine if feelings or relationships would actually be hurt if that uncle on the West Coast or the fifth member of your college club cabinet is left out.
Go over each name individually. I know I tend to mentally group people on a guest list (“mom’s relatives,” “college roommates,” “first job coworkers”). If you have a group of five friends from a book club but are only personally close to two, the other three probably don’t need to be invited. (Just make sure to be polite and discreet when it comes time to deliver invitations and discuss details — i.e., not in front of those not invited.)
Combine all your lists and write them in a new order (like alphabetically). Sometimes just rearranging information can help you take a new look at it. Go over this list again, making sure nobody is there because you feel like you “have” to invite them or because you promised them in college, back when you were still close.
If you’re still stuck, turn to Pinterest: there’s an endless supply of flow-charts to help you examine each person’s place on your list.
Things to note
While you can’t control the size of your family, and some people are just more social than others, do try to maintain some balance between each “side” of the final list. If you’ve got 80 people and your babe has 18, make sure everyone your boo wants is included, and double-check that everyone on your list really needs to be there.
If you’re really lucky and your lists are already fine as-is, don’t jump to add anyone else. Those extra spots on your list will be valuable to you in the planning process, especially if you have a long engagement ahead. You never know if your new volunteering partner at the animal shelter will become a part of your closest inner circle over the next ten months.
Also keep in mind that you can always add people to the list later, but you can’t un-invite. Once someone has been sent a save-the-date, there’s no going back.
What about children?
Whether or not to allow children at your wedding is up to you. There are some things you’ll want to think about.
How does your venue and vision work with kids in the picture? A $10,000 event in a four-star hotel is less kid-friendly than a casual sunset ceremony on the beach.
How will this decision affect guest attendance? Guests with children invited to a no-kids wedding will either have to shell out extra money for child care (which gets particularly difficult to figure out for weddings 100+ miles away), or decide not to attend at all.
How upset will you be if (aka when) a kid disrupts the day? A new mother will do what she can to keep baby quiet and happy, but nobody controls when a bout of gas or colic will turn little Kristie into a wailing mess, interrupting everything in the few minutes it takes for that poor mom to slip out the back. And if you’ve ever taken a spirited six-year-old to the movie theater, you’ll know how impossible it can be to get a child to sit still and quiet. Noise, interruptions, unexpected messes, stains on the rented tablecloths — having kids at your special day will definitely mean extra issues to plan for. But if the event is more casual and you’re a laidback bride, or if your sister in California with three kids is an absolute must-have guest for your wedding in Maryland, those may be issues you’ll choose to face.
What about plus ones?
If your brother has been married for three years, it should be pretty obvious that his husband should be on the list. If your college best friend has been living with her boyfriend for seven years, he should definitely be included in most cases. But what about your friend with a partner of three months who they insist is “totally the one”? Or that one brother who is the only one out of five kids to not have an established, long-term partner yet? Should they get plus ones?
It depends on your circumstances. If you’re keeping the guest list at under 50 people, your friends and family should understand that absolutely no extraneous plus-ones will be invited. And if you’re doing a 12-person destination pre-packaged wedding, even your maid of honor’s seven-year live-in boyfriend can be understandably left off. But if your event is the more typical 100-to-250-person party, plus-ones are generally expected.
It’s your wedding, of course. All these choices are ultimately your call as a couple. But making controversial decisions like “no plus-ones at our 300-person buffet-dinner wedding” could lead to many very uncomfortable conversations with friends and relatives, so be prepared.
Best of luck to you both
Finalizing the guest list is my least favorite part of any event planning process. I don’t envy the logistical hurdles you’re dealing with. But look on the bright side: once you’ve finished, the fun parts like cake and colors are next! And everyone who does make the final cut will be so excited to celebrate your love with you.