How to Make a Wedding Guest List
By Rob Franklin
We’ll give it to you straight: this one’s tough.
Of all the logistics that go into a wedding, creating (and then cutting down) your guest list may be the most brutal. There are so many considerations — the optimal mix of friends and family, party-starters and wall flowers — as well as questions of etiquette. Like, is a second cousin really a cousin? Do you have to invite someone to your wedding just because they invited you to theirs?
All of these drill down to one central question: what do these people mean to you?
Which can be uncomfortable to ask. But if you approach it with tact, you’ll be able to navigate the process without unnecessary frustration or ruffling any feathers.
First, Set a Working Vision With Your Partner
Let’s get on the same page- what are you aiming for? Do you want the feel of your wedding to be small, intimate or are you planning for an event-of-season kind of celebration? Even if you’re shooting for something in the middle, you probably can’t invite everyone you know.
So you and your partner should start by settling on a few general guidelines, rather than a strict number of guests or price per head. At this point, you’re just creating a working vision (and we can help — click here to begin designing your ceremony with a guided reflection).
During this conversation, you may also want to discuss norms for how you’ll communicate and make decisions: for instance, how much (or how little) do you intend to let your families influence the guest list? Are you open to plus-ones? Setting these boundaries early may come in handy when your great-aunt comes begging to bring along her hairdresser.
Second, Create a Preliminary List With Your Partner
Before speaking with your families, a wedding planner, or cross-referencing your list with every paperless post you’ve received in the last five years, work with your partner to create a preliminary list.
These are just the essentials: the immediate family and closest friends it wouldn’t even be worth having a wedding without. You may also add any parental additions that you know are non-negotiable.
Now, review that list — how many names are there? Twenty? Fifty? The size of this “preliminary list” can help you decide what total number you should be aiming for — a number that should also be informed by budget, venue, and the working vision outlined in step one.
Third, Review the Preliminary List with Your Families
To prepare for that conversation, you and your partner may decide on a number of total “extended family or parental friend” invitations you’re willing to extend, beyond the people you actually, you know, want there. Split it. So if it’s 30 total, you each get 15.
Now go speak with each family and get their take on your preliminary list: who are you missing?
They may have crucial, new information — a cousin who just announced her engagement and intends to invite your whole family — as well as names you’ve simply forgotten. But unless circumstances radically change, try to stick to the agreed-upon number.
Fourth, Consider Modern Wedding Invitation Etiquette
Sorry, but if you’re having a mid-size to large wedding, you likely will have to consider a few “obligatory” invitations. So it’s worth reviewing a few pieces of modern wedding etiquette:
- Invite couples whose weddings you've attended recently: Most wedding planners consider 18 months to two years to be a reasonable timeframe. If it's been longer but you've remained in frequent contact, extending an invitation is considered polite.
- Account for "significant other" plus-ones: You should plan to invite the partners of any friends in long-term, live-in, or engaged relationships. Some couples may choose to invite only partners they have met personally to help trim the guest list.
- Go all or nothing with extended family and kids: If you decide to invite one aunt, you should invite all aunts and uncles on that side. Your partner may choose differently and invite none. A similar rule applies to children: decide if you want children at the event and be consistent with all guests.
While you should feel empowered to break with tradition, knowing the established etiquette can help you make decisions with intention and tact.
Fifth, Add the “Nice to Have” Guests Who Will Round Out Your Party
It’s sad that this comes last in our comprehensive, nine out of ten dentist-approved methodology because it’s often the most fun step. Here’s where you get to move past those questions of obligation and etiquette and on to the vibes.
Who would just be fun to have at your wedding? Party starters and great conversationalists, fascinating people whom you knew in school but have lost touch with since. Adding some of these names to your guest list may help round out your wedding socially, providing the necessary glue (or fuel) to make the night one for the books.
A wedding can be a great impetus to reconnect with old friends, communicating that you want a deeper relationship. Given these fifth-steps aren’t exactly first circle, you can expect that some won’t be able to make it, and that’s okay! Often the invitation itself is enough of a gesture to jump-start that relationship.
While putting together your guest list, you're probably also thinking about your wedding party. Don't forget to send help take the stress out of them writing their toasts and send them Provenance's Toast Builder here.