How to Make A Wedding Guest List

wedding guest list guide

The first weeks of engagement can feel like pure bliss. Between admiring the engagement ring and sharing your good news with friends and family, it’s an exciting time! Then reality hits, you’ve got a wedding to plan! Where do you even begin?

For many couples, the entire process starts with the wedding guest list. Who you invite to your big day will impact your budget, your venue, and maybe even your wedding’s timing. While it may seem easy enough to draft up a list of your nearest and dearest, it’s a task that can quickly get out of hand—especially when parents get involved, and you realize that your friends and family may outnumber your budget. And unlike a lot of other wedding planning tasks, this is one that you and your fiancé can’t pass off to a planner.

Building a guest list shouldn’t dampen your post-engagement glow. To help you navigate the task with ease, we’ve enlisted advice from wedding experts and newlyweds across the country.

With this one-stop shop of organizational tools and practical tips, you’ll have everything you need to conquer the guest list and get on with planning your dream wedding!

Wedding Guest List Details

Wedding invitations traditionally don’t go out until six to eight weeks before the wedding—when (hopefully) you’ll already have the bulk of your wedding planned—but long before that, you still need to know roughly how many people will attend. That’s why wedding experts recommend prioritizing the task soon after the engagement begins.

“You cannot find a venue or develop a budget without knowing how many people you are inviting or might be in attendance,” says Lisa Thomas, a wedding planner with Ooh! Events in Charleston, S.C. “It’s task one after the engagement!”

Your wedding guest list will impact the entire feel of your wedding:
Do you want an intimate destination affair with only close family in attendance?
Have you always imagined a massive blowout with friends from every era of your life?

Every name you put on that list will influence your event. One study from psychologists at the University of Denver even suggests that the size of your wedding can predict how long your marriage will last!

What’s The Average Number of Guests at a Wedding?

  • The average wedding in 2014 had 136 guests, down from 149 guests in 2009.
  • CNN Money article reports that couples budget an average of $204 per guest.
  • This TIME article claims that the average bride and groom spends $66 per guest on food and drinks alone.

Keep Calm and Mind Your Manners

Today’s couples are generally more focused on creating a curated list than catering to everyone they know, but it’s still all-too-easy to inadvertently offend someone important to them. Planner Lisa Thomas says it’s a careful balance that couples try to achieve.

“In the past, you invited your entire family,” she says. “Now, people are much more in tune with creating an intimate and special experience, and are more selective on who they invite.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean families don’t still have a say in many cases. Wedding planner Tara Guérard, of Tara Guérard Soiree, notes that although the mother of the bride often managed the guest list in the old days, now it’s a much more collaborative effort. “Today, it’s more of a joint venture between the two families and their combined lists,” Guérard explains.

One thing that hasn’t changed? The potential for sticky situations.
Here are some common complications:

  • Dealing with parents’ excessive requests
  • What to do about work friends
  • Handling a destination wedding
  • Inviting children
  • Inviting guests to ceremony-only or reception-only

Blogger Alison Feller, who will marry her fiancé on September 26, 2015 quizzed her married friends early in the process to develop an approach for navigating the guest list.

“When we first started wedding planning, I asked a ton of married friends to tell me two things: the best part of their wedding, and what they would do differently if they could do it over again,” she says. “So many people said they would have invited fewer people because they spent so much of their wedding night greeting people—like their mom’s accountant or dad’s cousin—instead of dancing with their friends. We were very conscious of this and knew we only wanted people we absolutely love at the wedding.”

How to Get Started on Your Wedding Guest List

Ready to get started? Here’s how to build your list, followed by some practical advice from our experts:

  1. Sit down with your fiancé to talk seriously about both of your visions for the wedding (think about size, location, and overall feeling). First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure you’re on the same page!
  2. With your budget and ideal wedding size in mind, come up with a target number of guests.
  3. Create a list of potential guests, separating the list into tiers. Tier 1 includes people who must be invited; Tier 2 includes people who you would really like to invite; Tier 3 includes people you feel you ‘should’ invite, but maybe you’re not as personally concerned about.
  4. Do your parents or anyone else want to weigh in on the list? If so, ask them to send you their requests. Ask them to use the tier system, and be sure to give them a general number to stick to.
  5. Now, assess how your list lines up with your original number. If you’re over, you may need to start making some cuts!
  6. Create some cutting rules. For instance, if you haven’t spoken to someone in three years or more, you may decide not to invite them. It doesn’t mean you’re not still friends—make a point to get in touch or gather for a weekend after your wedding is over!
  7. Plan to have a finalized list at least nine to 12 months before your wedding date.

Need a little more help getting your list together? Let’s go to the experts!

Guest List Inspiration and Advice

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s hear a few tips from wedding professionals and real-life couples:

Create an excel spread sheet. Tara Guérard, Tara Guérard Soiree

wedding-influencer“Starting early is key. Once you have your list(s) finalized, keep everything in an Excel sheet and update RSVPs as they come in. Most couples have last minute add-ons. Our best advice is to create a master list and be very adamant about keeping it up to date. We instruct clients that need to narrow down their list to divide their list into tiers to decide who stays and who goes.”

Stick to a specific Guest Count. Lisa Thomas, Ooh! Events

wedding-blogger“Couples can opt to pay the incremental costs that come with inviting extra people. The best way to keep the list from growing is for the bride and groom to be hard and fast on a number from the very beginning and stick to it. They can give each set of parents an allotment of invites, and manage that specific number.”

Don’t overdo it. Hunter McRae, Hunter McRae Photography

wedding-photographer“If you get stressed, take a breath and walk away from it for a few days. Come back with a clear mind. And if you’re planning something you’re both not super excited about or that seems overwhelming, take it back to the drawing board. It’s about enjoying this moment as a couple—not everyone else.”

Take it online . Blair Menzel, Blogger, Blair Blogs

wedding-planner“We used a dynamic Google Doc. (Dynamic meaning that different parts of the spreadsheet are linked and update automatically!) We had six tabs: bride family, bride friends, groom family, groom friends, B-list, and final head count. Each tab was a spreadsheet with columns for name, address, and RSVP yes or no. On the final head count tab, the spreadsheet automatically calculated how many people we invited from each tab (so that I could un-invite some friends if I had dozens more than my fiancé, for example), and who RSVP’d yes or no. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually super simple and a real time saver!”
Use a Dinner Party. Olivia Rae James, Wedding Photographer

wedding-stylist“The guest list is so tricky. I like to think of it in terms of who we would feel comfortable having over to our house for dinner, or spending time with one-on-one. During the ceremony I want to look out and see a sea of faces of people I feel comfortable with and know will be in our lives for a long time.”

Real-life Guest List Challenges and How to Overcome Them

One of the toughest parts of planning a guest list is that no couple’s situation is the same—every wedding is different! There’s no simple guidebook for navigating the task, but you can still learn a lot from other’s experiences.

Let’s look at six couples who have conquered the guest list:

We always wanted to have a small wedding. We talked about 25-30 people, but then when we actually started to write out our list, it added up much quicker than expected. We realized that at the end of the day, what was important to us was getting married, and who was or wasn’t able to be there didn’t matter much, outside of our immediate family and friends.

From there it was easy. We originally invited 55, but we had to narrow the list down once we found out that the maximum our venue could accommodate was 40. My family and a majority of my close friends are in California, which actually worked in our favor, since we knew most of them would not be able to make it, due to the short notice (we got engaged in February, getting married in May of the same year) and cost.


The Destination Wedding Guest List

Fallon & Joe. May 9, 2015. San Juan, Puerto Rico

We encountered nothing but challenges when we created our guest list! We both have large families and large friend circles. Additionally, I oversee nearly 150 volunteers at my job, which only further complicated it — who do we invite? Anyone? Can we pick and choose without hurting feelings? We also met post-college, so we don’t have any mutual childhood or college friends.

We sat down together for about an hour and wrote down every single person who we could think of to invite. (To do this, we scrolled through each of our Facebook friend lists!) Then, we cut that in half. Then we cut that in half again, moving some people to the B-list. We had to ignore “people pleasing” feelings and chose people to invite who we really, genuinely want to be there.


Adding Work Associates To The List

Blair & Riley. July 31, 2015. Denton, Texas.

We are blessed to have a ton of wonderful friends and a very large family, and our guest list was gigantic. After meeting with caterers, we realized it wasn’t in our budget to invite as many people as we wanted and still have the wedding we were envisioning. In all honesty, we never wanted a big wedding; we just didn’t feel comfortable with cutting our guest list. It was really difficult to find a solution.

Our answer was to plan a very intimate wedding in Scotland. We took our immediate families and just a few of our closest friends each. Then we came back and had a low-budget, big party at home with gumbo, beer, and wine. Everyone had a blast, and we were able to invite everyone we wanted to. It was the best of both worlds. We were able to truly be present with each other and our closest loved ones during our intimate ceremony abroad and then we were able to mingle and celebrate with our friends and family back home without any obligations, stress or worries. It was the perfect solution for us!


Organizing a Large Guest List

Hunter and Stratton. Aug. 30, 2013. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Both sets of parents wanted to invite SO many people. We were both the first children from our families to get married, so our parents were very excited and proud of the big day. My husband’s family is 100 percent Italian which means a lot of family and friends… even a lot that we had never met before or my husband didn’t even remember. It was difficult for us to try to cut the list without hurting anyone’s feelings.

I did not want to cause any problems with my new in-laws, so I had my husband (then fiancé) deliver most of the news to his parents. Also, our venue had a maximum amount of people it allowed, so it was easy for us to always use that as an excuse. My mother and I argued a lot in the beginning. Usually, as long as I was respectful and we talked it through, we were able to come up with a solution.


Parents and The Guest List

Alex & Frank. Sept. 6, 2014. Groton, Mass.

One of the biggest challenges was deciding that our wedding would be adults only. I had always imagined having children at our wedding, but we soon realized that it would not be feasible. Had we invited second and third cousins, we would have added 30-plus guests under the age of 12. However, since many of my cousins have children and were traveling from out of state, they thought it wasn’t right to come without their kids, and did not make it to the event. This caused me a lot of stress since I wanted my cousins to make it, but could not go back on my decision not to invite children. It was simply too much money, plus we didn’t feel as though the event space was all that “kid friendly.”


Should I add Kids To The Guest List

Kali & Stephen. June 8, 2014. Princeton, Mass.

My husband has a huge family and mine is tiny, so our guest list was very off-balance. He has about 25 first cousins, aunts and uncles, and we had to invite them all or none—or else it would cause some rifts in the family. Since our overall list was so constrained to begin with, it was pretty challenging to accommodate this and we ended up having to cut some friends.

Since Nick’s family was so much bigger, we also decided to have it in the city where he is originally from and where the majority of his family resides, rather than where we live, so that his family would be able to attend. This led to a bit of conflict at the beginning, but luckily he’s from an awesome city, and having it there ended up being the best decision we made.


The Unbalanced Family

Andrea & Nicholas. Oct. 11, 2014. New Orleans, La.

My husband has a huge family and mine is tiny, so our guest list was very off-balance. He has about 25 first cousins, aunts and uncles, and we had to invite them all or none—or else it would cause some rifts in the family. Since our overall list was so constrained to begin with, it was pretty challenging to accommodate this and we ended up having to cut some friends.

Since Nick’s family was so much bigger, we also decided to have it in the city where he is originally from and where the majority of his family resides, rather than where we live, so that his family would be able to attend. This led to a bit of conflict at the beginning, but luckily he’s from an awesome city, and having it there ended up being the best decision we made.

Guest’s Tips To The Guest List

  • Don’t make assumptions. Whether it’s a close co-worker or a longtime friend, don’t assume that you’re invited to the wedding until you’ve received verbal confirmation or an actual invitation. There’s nothing more awkward than telling a couple you can’t wait for their wedding when they have no intention of inviting you.
  • RSVP in a timely manner. For anyone planning a wedding, RSVPs are the key to staying organized and planning for the correct amount of guests. Even if you’ve verbally confirmed your intent to attend, send in your response card right away so they’ll have a physical record of your plans.
  • Read the envelope carefully. Whose name, besides yours, is on the invitation? That’s the only other person who’s invited to attend—and if no one else’s name is on the envelope, prepare to fly solo. If the invitation specifies “and guest,” feel free to invite a date, but never assume that you have a plus one if the invitation doesn’t specifically state it.
  • Be cautious about kids. Did the host “forget” to put your kids’ names on the invitation? Be aware that it may not have been a mistake. Many couples choose to have adults-only weddings, so don’t assume that the tots are invited.
  • Don’t take things personally. Maybe you didn’t get invited, or you received your invitation super late, suggesting that you were on the dreaded “B List.” Don’t pout about the supposed snub. Keep in mind that every couple has their own vision for their wedding as well as budgetary and venue constraints. Be understanding, and congratulate them all the same.