Wedding Guest List: Let’s Get Started

The whos, hows, and whys

apw-x-planner

wedding couple at a beach with words "how to make a wedding guest list"

So, it’s wedding guest list time. Now that you’ve (sort of) figured out what you want your wedding to be like, it’s time start drawing up a list of people you love most in this world. Because there is nothing daunting about that, right? And, where do you even begin?

(Pro-tip: if you haven’t hit up our guide to starting wedding planning, our wedding planning checklist, and our advice on building a wedding budget, now is the time.)

Friends, now is the time to start talking about numbers. Specifically, two sets of numbers. First, how many people you think you’ll realistically have at your wedding. And second, how much cash you think you’ll have to spend. You might not realize it now, but these two numbers will drive most of your wedding planning decisions.

how to make a Wedding guest list

First of all, don’t start by cutting your wedding guest list immediately. Most of the wedding industry will tell you that if you have a limited wedding budget (and really, who doesn’t?), the first thing you should do is cut your guest list, so you can afford more things. I’m going to give you the opposite advice, because I think most of us throw weddings so we can celebrate our people (the glitter and flowers and tulle are just really nice side effects of that celebrating). Because of that, I think you should start with your loved ones and work backward.

In her book Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, etiquette sage Miss Manners wisely suggests that you should start by figuring out how many people you want to invite, and then figure out what you can feed them. When you and your partner sit down for a heart-to-heart, you might decide to have only your nearest and dearest around you, or that you have two huge families and a lot of friends you want to celebrate with. Whatever you decide, try not to let budget worries deter you too much. No matter what the wedding industry tells you, guests don’t come to your wedding for the fancy meal or the perfect decorations; they come to the wedding for the two of you. And if what you can afford to feed them is cake and punch… well, who doesn’t like cake and punch?

guest list questions to discuss with your partner

Putting together a guest list is an odd mix of logic, philosophy, and family dynamics. Before you jump in, flailing a pen around and assuming everyone is on exactly the same page, here are some questions to talk through with your partner and your loved ones:

  • What are your goals? What are your goals for your wedding? Tiny and intimate? Huge and intimate? A celebration of community? What does that mean for your guest list?
  • How many people are coming? Realistically, for each of you, roughly how many people do you have to invite? How many people will each of your parents want to invite?
  • Is there a guest list limit? Will you be setting limits on how many guests your parents can invite? (Related: Are your parents paying for the wedding? How much of the wedding are they paying for?)
  • What else should you be thinking about? Will you be including plus ones for single guests?  Will you be including kids? How many of your guests are local? How many of your guests will be traveling for the wedding?

Once you get through these questions, you should have a rough idea of the number you’re looking at. This number might be exactly what you expected, or it may be a bit of a shock. If you find yourself staring at at three-hundred-person guest list, and you know that simply doesn’t meet your goals for what you want your wedding to feel like (or what you can honestly afford, even if you are only feeding the hungry hordes cake), now is the time to reevaluate. If you had to make A, B, and C lists, what would that look like? If you had to tell your parents (or yourself) that there are limits on who they could invite, how would that go? Of the variety of plans and compromises available to you, which seems the most palatable?

wedding guest list spreadsheet

As you’re starting the process of creating a guest list, you also want to start a spreadsheet (and hey: we have a free wedding guest list spreadsheet right here!). Your guest list spreadsheet should contain all of the obvious facts, but it’s also a great place to collect as much information as you can. Think of this as your one-stop shop for all information wedding-guest related. You’ll want your guest list spreadsheet to include a variety of information, including the following:

  • Name (and honorifics, if you’re using them)
  • Address
  • Email and phone number if you can get them (Chances are you’ll need that later when people forget to RSVP)
  • A number for each invitee (You’ll include this as a tiny pencil mark on their RSVP cards, for when people forget to include their names)
  • Likelihood of attendance (Yes, you’re inviting your great aunt who lives across the country, but we both know she’s not going to come)
  • Events guests are invited to (Bridal shower? Rehearsal dinner? Just the wedding?) and a number of people from their parties attending each event
  • Dietary restrictions and food choices
  • Anything else you might need to track (Guest hotel accommodations? Dates of arrival? What you need to know will vary depending on your wedding.)

wedding rsvps and why they matter to your guest list

The final logical question to consider is how many of those on your wedding guest list will actually come to the wedding—don’t fool yourself into thinking that because everyone loves you, your RSVP rate will be nearly 100 percent. Everyone does love you, but there are also things like travel costs and babysitters and unchangeable plans to consider. So how do you guestimate an RSVP rate? The best way to do this is simply by knowing your crowd. You know if your family always turns up for everything, or if your grad school friends are kind of flaky and broke.

That said, it never hurts to have some hard estimates in your pocket… so let’s do the numbers. Here are average RSVP rates that wedding planners use for back of the envelope calculations (and we made it an image so you can pin it for easy access!). Construct equations as you will, remembering to exclude people who were only invited as honorary guests and will not be attending:

weddingguestrsvp

This post is an excerpt from the #APWPlanner

how did you put together your wedding guest list? how did you decide who to add to your guest list—and who to leave off? what advice would you give couples who are making their own wedding guest lists?

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  • This is really helpful and we definitely used this advice from the APW book when making our guest list. I’d say we mostly just made our lists, checked with our parents if there was anyone they really felt should be included (and shot down a lot of those inclusions, to be honest) and looked at the number and it seemed ok. We developed a couple blanket policies: we only invited significant others for people who were married/engaged/living together/super serious, we only invited children that we were related to, and we agreed to skip co-workers altogether (although that was a little challenging to decide on).

    One issue that came up was adding people after the list was made and save the dates were sent. Sure, a little wiggle room was fine for new friends who came along during our engagement or important folks we realized we forgot, but my fiance is a very generous and welcoming person; We ended up in a couple situations where we’d be hanging out with an old friend, they’d congratulate us on our wedding, and he’d say “Yeah save the date. You guys will definitely get an invite!” (while I’m inwardly glaring because they weren’t on the list). We probably gained 40 people over the five months or so after we were engaged and had some hard talks about that, mainly because we’d already settled on a budget, told the caterer numbers, etc. While he saw each new guest as a wonderful friend he wanted to share our special day, I saw them as another $30 we had to spend on food, drink, etc. It’s all turned out fine, but my suggestion would be to have a policy about this from the start and build in wiggle room (unless you’re pretty sure neither of you are the types of people to want to add a bunch of people).

    • Abs

      THIS. Even though we sat down and came up with “final” numbers several times, my fiancé did not treat them as final numbers–he’d say “yeah, this is final, but I haven’t decided who from work I’m going to invite.” So the guest list crept up from about 95 to about 115 over the course of a few months. If you guys have different styles of making decisions, make a policy about this early on (either to not do it or to let it go, but either way, talk about it!)

    • K. is skittish about disqus

      Oh god, my husband did this. His generosity of spirit is one of the things I love about him, but he invited very, very casual friends 2 YEARS before our wedding (long engagement). Yeeeeah, by the time our actual ceremony came around, we actually didn’t even like some of them anymore…they had shown themselves to be kind of horrible, obnoxious people. It was fine because ultimately it’s easy to avoid people on your wedding day, but I still give him loving crap about it.

      • Totally with you on the “generosity of spirit is one of the things I love” about my partner. So it was hard to be mad about him wanting to add extra people, just needed to be navigated within reason.

      • Laura C

        I am reading this thread realizing how much I have to appreciate my husband on this front, because same on the generosity of spirit front, but he was really disciplined about not freelancing. And it was hard for him because he was in law school where quite a few of his classmates were on the bubble and he saw them several times a week, often around people who were definitely invited, and he had to walk a careful line on that.

    • Katharine Parker

      My fiancé keeps mentioning people he hasn’t hung out with in years and trying to suggest a b-list. Dude, we discussed numbers and set a guest count for a reason–I know you have fond memories from high school water polo, but you see those guys once every five years. You can’t invite everyone to your wedding, and reasonable people understand that. They will be happy for you, not upset they weren’t invited.

    • sofar

      My husband was the saaaaaame. It drove me nuts. At one point, we were at a party and he was talking to a couple we had met TWICE before and he turned to me IN FRONT OF THEM and asked, “Hey, they’re on the invite list, right??” And I thought, “Shit, well now they are.” At another point, he called me in a panic and was like, “I was just talking to Haley (another distant friend we see only at mutual friends’ bday parties), and she didn’t get our invitation!”

      And I was furious because at that point it was clear he did NOT care about keeping track of the guest list and was perfectly fine letting me do all the dirty work of collecting addresses and sending out invites and adding random people he drunkenly told were invited.

      Costs aside, it was a nightmare keeping our list organized and not coming across as total assholes after my husband drunkenly “invited” people.

    • Cay

      THIS. Is. My. Fiance.

      Everytime he sees someone he was friends with (even if he hasn’t seen them in years or thought of them), and tries to add them. It got to a point where I told him that if he didn’t think to put them on the list the first few times, then they aren’t close enough to be on the list. Especially when we had close friends on our B-list because there was no more space

  • Amy March

    I also think it’s fine to start from the other direction. If your vision for your wedding is a fancy dinner, it’s okay to then figure out how many people you can afford to include in that. Especially if you are asking your parents who they would like invited I think that many of them are inclined to just send you a list of 75 people, but if you started with “here is what we are doing, we can afford for you to invite 15 guests” often it turns out that your old neighbors from 3 houses ago are not essential.

    And a note on plus ones- assume at least some singles on your list will get into a relationship by the time of your wedding and will need to be invited as a couple.

    • Abs

      For us there were also relationships we didn’t know about, because we had invited people we had been a little out of touch with recently. And of course there were the people who wrote their plus one on the RSVP card without talking to us beforehand…

      I would suggest leaving a fair amount of wiggle room in your budget and your venue for extra random people, because they will appear. Even if you think your guests are super polite and would never do that, it will happen.

      • Laura C

        Recipe for feeling like a crappy friend: getting the “is my boyfriend of eight months invited?” question about a boyfriend you didn’t know existed…

        • Eh

          No one got plus ones for our wedding. We asked single friends in advance about it and they all said that they weren’t seeing people (one started dating her husband less than 2 months before but said she felt it was too early to bring him). This was only an issue for people on my husband’s side who wrote in people on the RSVPs. I didn’t even know these people were in relationships. I had actually asked my husband to have his mother double check the spreadsheet and highlighted rows where people didn’t have guests. She didn’t give him any changes for those people so I was surprised to find out that they had partners.

          • Laura C

            Yeah, that’s a legit plan to have — the reason I felt crappy was because if I’d known about him, he’d have been invited based on our general criteria. Since she didn’t ask until fairly late in the game, I said I hoped we could, and he was definitely invited to the karaoke party the night before and the brunch the morning after, and we’d let her know about the wedding itself as soon as we had a clearer picture. And we did ultimately have space for him. I mostly felt bad at the evidence that I hadn’t had an in-depth conversation with her recently enough to know about him.

          • Kelly

            There were a few of my husbands friends that weren’t dating anyone specific, so we didn’t give blanket plus ones if that was the case. I figured it was all the same group of people, and they all travel to see concerts together without dates, so they’d be fine in this case

          • Eh

            We didn’t invite too many friends. Most of my friends are from different parts of my life and don’t really know each other. They were all game for it though.

            We didn’t ask our cousins who were single if they were ok with it because they knew lots of people. Plus, most of our cousins who were single were 17-20 and I didn’t really want them to bring friends (drinking age is 19 and we had an open bar). I would have made an exception for a cousin traveling across the country (from the west coast) if she didn’t want to travel alone.

          • Not Sarah

            That’s a feature we really like about our online RSVP system – we can set it to not allow people to write in plus ones or to edit names, which is great because we don’t want to do blanket plus ones. So on the other hand, using that means we need to check in with people before sending out invites to get the right names on the invites, but otherwise, we’re eliminating the ability to write in uninvited guests…

          • Eh

            In general, people know that only the people on the invitation are invited to the wedding. Unfortunately, my husband’s family doesn’t understand this. People in his family are always writing in names or assuming that people other than the people written on the envelope are invited. I think that if we had an RSVP site where the names were set then we would have had uninvited guests show up at the wedding. At least this way we knew about them before hand.

      • Jess

        Yup, we estimated with about half the single people bringing a plus one, to account for anything. We gave people a lot of blanket plus ones that didn’t get used, which was fine.

      • nutbrownrose

        I’m assuming a lot of people will bring plus ones, but if I don’t know their name I’m leaving it up to the person invited to add them. It’s leaving a lot of room for other write ins I wasn’t expecting.

        • Amy March

          How will they know they are welcome to add a plus one?

          • nutbrownrose

            I’m sort of just spreading the word.

    • Katharine Parker

      Yes, I agree that starting from the other direction is fine. In my case, a cake and punch reception falls into the category of good for you, not for me–it isn’t traditional to my family or my fiancé’s, and they would find it confusing. Having 50 people (or 15) and a full meal would make sense to them, having 250 and cake and punch wouldn’t. It also is not what either of us wanted, so setting a guest list number that suited a dinner and dancing reception made sense for us.

      Also, definitely I suggest giving your parents a number of invites, and giving both parents the same number. And agreed on plus ones–give yourself that buffer room and err on the side of people bringing someone. We’re finding that not everyone’s partners can come, though, so it’s evened out.

    • K. is skittish about disqus

      The plus one thing can be especially crucial when you’re having a long engagement. Ours was two years and many of our friends met their life partners in that time. And even more had relationships that ultimately fizzled, but still mattered by the time our wedding came around. Yeah, it meant some “strangers” came to our wedding, some of whom we’ll never see again (and some of whom are now great friends of ours in their own right!), but it made a lot of our closest people feel valued so it was worth it.

      • Jane

        We are in that process. We are sending out invitations in the next few weeks and my FH and I realized that there were a number of friends neither of us had talked to much since Christmas. So, this past week I have had a bunch of long catch-up chats with friends, because I miss them and also because I had no idea whether they needed plus ones. Planning the guest list forced me to look at the friendships in my life and decide who I’m closest to / want to keep up with, and then do it. Not perfectly (hence the 4 months gap), but still better than like a 2-year gap.

        • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

          I’m also concerned about how much friendships can grow or drift apart during a long engagement. There’s probably not a whole lot you can do to predict that.

          • Jane

            There’s not. I felt obligated to invite anyone I had called individually to tell them I was engaged (not that it’s a rule, but I felt like, if we are close enough for me to call you, we are close enough that I should invite you). And those are not necessarily the same people I’d invite now, but only because I can’t invite everyone I might want – not because I will regret having those specific people there.
            Also, for all of my friends, I invited at least one (but usually more) other friend from the same social circle. So, it shouldn’t be like I have a friend there with whom I’m not that close and who doesn’t know anyone else.

    • Cay

      I think one of the ways to try to remedy this is to limit the plus ones. For us, all we had were those that were in long term relationships (at least a year), engaged or married. Our guest list just didn’t allow for everyone who wanted a plus one to bring one. We sat all the single people with those that we knew.

      But we have a relatively short (7 month) engagement, and so far we’ve had more breakups amongst our friends than relationships being formed

  • K. is skittish about disqus

    We got engaged in 2013 when tiny weddings were *super* en vogue. I think they still may be, but it was/felt extreme at that point in our lives. There was even an element of snobbery around it–that if we didn’t only have our closest 20 or so friends and family, that we were missing the “point” of a wedding because we were basically subsidizing family reunions with people we don’t really know or care about, or being “gift grabby” (my least favorite term on the planet). That our wedding wouldn’t be “authentic,” whatever that means.

    But! We both have large families that we’re actually close to and lots of friends from all stages of our life. To reach this intimate “goal” (decided mostly by the urban chic wedding industry at the time), we would have had to hurt many people who were very close to us AND been disappointed not to see people we love at our celebration. It didn’t make any sense for what we actually wanted, even if the photos looked so gorgeous. Overall, in my experience, trends affected us more than we realized.

    So just remember that YOU decide your own authenticity, not any external source, especially websites with weddings that are styled in a manner that are, let’s say, pretty or help you tie The Knot. Even if APW’s advice doesn’t work for you, throw it out! (Though, for the record, Meg’s first book was what gave us the revelation that a bigger wedding that celebrated our community was our exact vision).

    It seems obvious now, but it really, really wasn’t to me when I was in the throes of planning.

    • sofar

      Yes. And also, in some cultures, big weddings involving The Community are A Thing. We had people mention in front of us how big weddings were “inauthentic” and “wasteful.” And I was like, dude, I’m marrying an Indian guy. Please tell me how his culture is “inauthentic” again.

      • Laura C

        Luckily (for them) no one had the nerve to say anything like that to me, but when people expressed surprise that I, a known introvert, was having a big wedding, I did frequently cite my husband’s cousin’s 1500-person wedding to make the point that by some standards our wedding was on the small side.

        • sofar

          hahaha yes. People were so surprised. The most common question I got was “How do you even KNOW that many people??” And then I’d have to explain, we don’t. But his parents know a bunch of people and their friends know more people and they all have to come. It doesn’t matter whether WE know them or not. We’re supposed to meet them at the wedding.

      • Totch

        That’s another thing about K’s point and other cultures: in a lot of cultures big weddings are both authentic/meaningful and also GIFT GRABBY AF. Like, that’s the point and it’s ok!

        We had a small wedding but still did a tea ceremony, which is an honest to God transaction where I serve you tea and you give me money and jewelry. Explaining it to my white relatives and not sounding like the rudest, most gift-grabby bride ever was a challenge.

        • sofar

          I can only imagine.

          My friend is from a culture where the groom’s family gives expensive jewelry to the bride during the ceremony and she wears it during the reception for all to admire. The groom was not of that culture. So my friend’s family were in an awkward place where they either had to tell the groom’s family about the custom — or skip it and risk their family who had flown in from the homeland coming up to her new in-laws all night being like, “So where were the jewels??” They eventually reached a compromise where the groom’s family (which wasn’t super well off) gave the bride some of the groom’s grandmother’s jewelry. And when guests started saying stuff like, “OK but where’s the BIG necklace?” the bride would cut in with, “Oh it belonged to his grandmother who passed away last year, isn’t that meaningful?”

          • Totch

            It me! But reversed. During the tea ceremony you receive jewelry from the groom’s family and you must rip off whatever treasure you’re wearing and show off the gifts for the rest of the night. My mother had offered for me to wear her pearl necklace at the wedding, which was wonderful and meaningful and right at my taste level. I knew there was a good chance I’d receive jewelry at the wedding, and was hoping to politely demure and keep on the pearls (but knew I might have to make the swap).

            Then a couple weeks before the wedding, my MIL surprised us by saying “fuck tradition, it’s really important to me that you wear my gift through the whole wedding so I’m giving it to you now.” She gave me a pearl necklace, pearl and diamond earrings, a pearl and diamond ring, and a diamond ring. So like, a lot. It sounds like the dumbest problem, but the big flashy jewelry was really meaningful and so was the small understated stuff… but there was kind of this feeling from some people on my side that the big stuff was less meaningful because it was big.

          • sofar

            lol not at all a dumb problem. I would have been so anxious about feeling obligated to wear jewelry I didn’t love for my ceremony.

    • SLG

      Yup. Part of what we wanted was to celebrate with our community. We had lived in the same area for a long time, my parents’ house had been a hub of hospitality for decades, we both had large extended families, we had a short engagement, and we didn’t have time or energy to make the guest list A Thing (and we had a little wiggle room in the budget to make that OK). It was easier to just invite almost everyone, which added up to a 490-person invite list and roughly 350 people attending.

      We had the reception in a roller rink (cheapest way to get 350 people under one roof!), served them buffet barbecue, had an epic dance party, and five years later people still tell me our wedding was the most fun they’ve ever been to.

      (Plus, we let it be known that Home Depot gift cards were a completely acceptable wedding gift since we were about to renovate — and we got so many that we used them to buy a stove. There are definite pros to a large guest list.)

      • Engaged Chicago

        Thank you for this!! Sometimes there’s no skirting around a big community /guest list – and no desire to!!

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    • Totch

      That went the same for us in the reverse. A big community cake and punch wedding would be totally breezy on my side, and on for my husband’s cultural background 200+ person weddings are the norm. It felt like big weddings were the tradition and elopements were en vogue, but we didn’t have a model for a small wedding that was meaningful!

      And again, just do what works for you because it’ll always feel like some trend or expectation is working against you!

  • Her Lindsayship

    I totally agree with the advice to start with the guest list early in planning and let it inform some of those big decisions. However, I would also like to emphasize that you should carefully reconsider each person on the guest list when the time comes to send save the dates. We had a pretty small list in the first place, and then we booked a venue that would hold 60 people max, so there was no wiggle room. Now I’m a little annoyed that I didn’t rethink any of our invites based on that fact – particularly my coworkers. I like them, I spend a ton of time with them, and there are only three of them, so it seemed a no-brainer at the time. But now it’s like, oh, our attendance rate HAS to be 75% or lower in order for people to fit, and we wish we had invited a couple more of our local friends but there is really no room, and yet we have my coworkers and their partners as pretty much definites. And it’s not that I don’t want them there, but they are the only people on our list that aren’t family or really close friends. We were so caught up in designing and making our save the dates, and I guess in being excited about our wedding, that I didn’t think of bringing a critical eye back to that guest list once it was settled.

  • Abs

    Also, remember to include yourselves and your officiant (and their partner) in your numbers!

    • penguin

      And any other vendors you are expected to feed! For example, we need to feed our photographer.

      • Jess

        I have no idea if we forgot to feed our photographer or if our wonderful venue guy remembered to get her food. I hope she was fed.

        Do not be like me. Feed your vendors.

    • Lawyerette510

      Also check with your caterer/ venue about how vendors factor into your numbers, and if they do “vendor meals.” For instance, we had a firm cap (I think it was 65 people, I can’t remember) from our venue/ caterer (same entity in our case) but vendors didn’t count in that and they had a “vendor meal” that was a lower per-person cost than the full meal. They still got a delicious and filling meal, it was just arranged on a plate and available at a pre-planned time, instead of a 4 course family style meal like the guests were enjoying. In our case, we only had the photographer and his second-shooter, but it was nice to be able to tell them “at x point please go to y place and they will have your dinner for you, and here’s how that works into the timeline of what we want pictures of”

  • penguin

    Ugh we’re having guest list troubles right now. We had actually nailed down a complete list fairly early with both sides of the family. That was when fiance’s parents were definitely going to be paying for the vast majority of things, so we went for the larger end of our possible list (about 90 total, expected actual attendance around 50). Now we’re having issues with fiance’s mother (I’ve mentioned this before in Happy Hours), and we may end up paying for the wedding ourselves. So the $100/head food cost that seemed fine before ($0 rental fees for the venue, they do the food and alcohol) is now seeming like it may be a bit much if we invite all those people. We’ve already reserved the venue, but no invites have gone out yet, so we could still cut the list if needed. My FMIL’s knitting group is on the list, so we have room to cut people that we wouldn’t miss… but I know if we cut people that would be another whole round of drama.

    We haven’t had the cost discussion with them since all the drama happened. Originally they were going to pay, and we were just going to refer vendors to them as needed and they would pay as we went. Now that makes me (and fiance) decidedly nervous, since they could just decide at any point that they won’t pay, and we could be left in the lurch. Fiance thinks if they are going to pay, we should get a check from them up front for the estimated amount. I’m hoping this works out. If they pay, then I could pay off my student loans by the wedding. If they don’t, I’ll have to go down to minimum payments and bank everything until then.

    • Amy March

      You aren’t paying so your knitting group can’t come seems pretty fair! Assuming you haven’t sent save the dates.

      • penguin

        That was my thought too, thanks! Fiance’s family is smaller than mine, so I think his mom was padding their list with her friends, and her knitting group, and distant relatives on her side so that our two family invite lists would be about even in number. Part of the problem is that if we were going to cut people, more of them would be from his side, since those extras are the people we don’t know and don’t particularly care about.

        We haven’t sent out any save the dates or invitations, we’ve just told family and close friends (people who would be invited no matter what) about the date.

        • Laura C

          FWIW, my husband’s family is much larger than mine and … his mother’s guest list was much larger than my parents’ guest list. In fact, my parents probably had fewer friends there than she did, too — they just didn’t ask for any padding at all, in fact didn’t ask for a few I would have thought were totally understandable to want there.

          I totally get the drama of making those cuts from her list when you’re already having drama with her, but it might help just to firmly focus on it as being about the people on the list vs. the people adding them to the list.

        • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

          It might help to sit down and discuss what’s more important: that the people you invite are of a certain level of closeness or importance to you, or that you have equal number of guests you can take credit for.

          • I want to push back on your phrasing here, because phrases like “important” and “taking credit” risk turning the guest list into a judgement of a person’s values (especially FMIL’s, which is only going to add to the drama). I think maybe phrasing it in terms of looking for other ways to make it feel “fair” to both families could be less confrontational – what you’re looking for is a way of making everyone feel equally valued. Having a small family and fewer friends can make you question why you’re not more popular, especially if you’re forced to compare yourself to your future spouse. FMIL wants everyone to think her son is just as popular and valuable to his community as penguin, and she’s addressed that by padding the guest list. I think unpadding the list is a good idea, but it’s worth considering FMIL’s underlying concerns and whether there are better ways to address them that match Penguin and her fiance’s values (like making sure both sides have equal weight in readings and toasts, maybe even weighting it more to his side to mollify FMIL).

        • jem

          Coming up with rules/formulas for who’s on the list and who’s off worked well for us when his mom started to pad the list. Also understanding WHY she was padding the list allowed us to empathize with her and arrive at some good compromises.

          • “I Don’t Knowww, Margo!”

            Yes! Our litmus test for friends was “Do we hang out socially outside of the venue we know each other from?” and it really helped us to have that hard line. There were a couple exceptions, but mostly it was a really easy way to determine who to put on the list.

        • jem

          I wonder if you could actually put the date drama to work here– explain that wedding planning is all about compromises, and that you’ve compromised for his family re: the date, so would she be willing to compromise on the guest list? Even tho his family may be underrepresented in terms of numbers, his family seems to be well represented in terms of the planning considerations. In other words, challenge her conception of “fairness”

    • BSM

      Just throwing it out now based on my own shitty family-related wedding planning experience: pay for it yourselves.

  • FailBox

    This is very timely! My fiancé and I had had the “rough estimate of guest list” discussion before we put the deposit down on a venue that only has room for 126 in the dining room, and he agreed that this seemed reasonable. Only when we tried to make an actual rough guest list, he had waaay more than his half of people! Part of the problem is that my family is pretty small whereas his mother keeps reconnecting with second or third cousins on facebook. The idea of spending $100+ feeding someone that he’s only met twice seems crazy to me, but its harder to draw the line when you get “but they’re faaaaamily!” in response.

    • Laura C

      The distant family vs. friends issue deserves soooo much more attention. Like, academic studies worth of more attention. I think it’s really generational? I mean, there are people of all ages who are close to their families, but the idea that family you don’t really know trumps your dearest friends seems generational as I observe it in practice.

      • janie

        Also! When you’re coming from disproportionately sized families. I have a big and close extended family, and my fiance has a very small family. Should my Mother In Law be allowed to invite more friends, with increasing levels of distance to us as a couple in order to “balance” out the invite list?

        I don’t know the answer, but it there has definitely been some tension. “How many people do I get to invite?” we don’t know yet, just send us who you want to have there! “But how many guests are janie’s parents inviting?” Does it matter??? Apparently.

        • Laura C

          Ha — if you read one of my comments elsewhere in this thread, my case was reversed. I had the small family and my husband the big close one. But luckily my parents did not want to invite a ton of friends to make up for it. They had less than two tables of “their” people (two tables, but I padded them out with a few of my friends who I knew would work at those tables) where my MIL had probably nine tables.

          • janie

            I actually feel like I agree with you! I think it’s bizarre to make it feel like it’s a popularity contest in either direction.

            Maybe I would have been more conscientious if the numbers were vastly different, but they ended up being close enough that I thought it was silly to split hairs over it.

        • Eve

          I’m totally feeling the disproportionate family size thing. When we ran the numbers, his family comes in around 50-60 people, which includes aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins’ spouses, and a handful of kids, all of whom MUST come.

          And then on my side it’s a grand total of 12-20 people since I’m not inviting my Midwest (and according to FB, primarily Trump supporting) cousins I haven’t seen in 15 years. And, like, I don’t feel the need to invite those people just to make our numbers more equal, but it’s feeling a little like we’re hosting a family reunion for his side instead of a wedding.

          • Laura C

            I have a friend who recently kept her wedding to like 25 people precisely so it wouldn’t be a family reunion for her husband’s family. Facing the same dilemma, I, on the other hand, went with the 250-person wedding because if we’d kept it to family he’d have had probably 70 and I’d have had two. And what that also meant was that if we’d each had any number of spaces below 70, I’d have been able to invite all of my closest and many of my medium-close friends and he’d have had either all family (with some still left out) or have gotten in a few friends at the price of big fights with his mom about how it was wrong to invite friends when the whole family wasn’t invited. So we made it big enough that his whole family could be there and we could still have enough friends that it felt like an event for us.

          • Eve

            At this point, something along the lines of what you described doing is what the plan is. I also don’t have a ton of close friends (and to be fair, neither does he), so we’re just making it big enough that I don’t have to cut anyone that I really want there.

            And I do realize that my reaction is as much or more rooted in emotions about our very different relationships to family. I’m such an introvert that his descriptions of spending Thanksgiving with approximately 5000 family members gives me hives, but it’s a fond memory for him and we’re trying to figure out how to honor all of that somehow for the wedding.

          • Engaged Chicago

            This. Yes.

            Except reversed for me. I have 35 first cousins (including a few spouses), 20+ aunts and uncles, and more than a half dozen siblings (including steps.) So my “family only” list is about 70. And that barely counts some of my most important people – friends. His family is much smaller but they’ve supplemented with close “family friendships.” It’s complex so, shrugs, big wedding it is!

          • Yael

            I am in exactly the same position (well, minus the Trump voters). My family is tiny compared to his because I have no first or second cousins and my mother is an only child, while his parents have multiple nieces and nephews and he still has a living grandparent. We made our guest list and kept it mostly limited to closest friends and family, and his list was literarily 2x mine and involved loads of people I have never met and he never talks about. The big sticking point for him was his mother – he was convinced she would never forgive him for not inviting his cousins who he never talks to, mostly because he was invited to their weddings. I tried convincing him that reciprocal invitations ARE NOT A THING but it wasn’t until I had a panic attack about the list (which was under 100 people but I’m an introvert and we’re paying for this ourselves) that he finally agreed that absolutely no cousins would be invited.

        • “I Don’t Knowww, Margo!”

          I don’t think MIL needs to balance the sides, but what worked for us was that my husband invited more work friends than I did, since our guest list had 80 of my family members and 10 of his. I encouraged that so it felt like he wasn’t getting the short shrift in any way!

        • penguin

          This is happening with our guest list, and FMIL padded her side of the list so the sides would be “equal”. It’s also hard to tell who she really wants to invite, and who she’s just sticking on the list to try and balance things out.

        • Lexipedia

          Ugh. I have a big, and close, blended/extended family (and we’re getting married near them) and FI’s mom is feeling very sad that she won’t have many people coming. They aren’t very close with their family members and they will all have to travel. She said to FI “is it ok if we don’t do bride’s side/groom’s side at the ceremony?”* which made me feel guilty. He then reminded me that even if we had it where we live now, OR where his parents live, everyone in his family would still have to travel. I’ve encouraged her to invite some people that wouldn’t make the “proximity cut” with my family, because I want to make her happy and feel included, but we will see.

          *not like we would do this anyway

        • Not Sarah

          I’ve been having this problem with my parents – they are convinced they have no friends and still haven’t wanted to invite anyone…

        • Anna

          I have an enormous and close-knit extended family (mostly on my mom’s side, going out to third and fourth cousins I’m close to), and weddings are HUGE events for our family, and fiance – understandably, given that he’s an only child and at most kind of knows his first cousins, plus various social anxiety stuff – wanted none of that on his wedding day. So we’re doing a 55-60-person wedding, just close friends and relatives out to aunts/uncles/cousins, and then a separate, low-key reception a couple months later for my family (and various other family friends and so on, basically the category of “people fiance hasn’t met before but who are part of our larger community”) that’s likely to be around 200 people, which my mom is organizing.

          We’re lucky enough to have the option to have two parties, and my relatives all seem to be pretty understanding about this. On a symbolic level I think my ideal would be to have all those cousins there for the actual wedding, but in practice I think doing it this way will actually let me spend more time with them, plus make our wedding day way less stressful.

    • jem

      We come from huge extended families so we created a hard and fast rule for this: all aunts and uncles but only cousins (including second cousins, once removed, etc) who we’ve had dinner with in the last year. “Yes, they’re family but we need to prioritize because of the size of our venue and budget. We look forward to catching up with Third Cousin Mike at the next family reunion!”

  • LucyPirates

    We had 100 people for the day and only about 15 extra in the evening. Things I learnt:

    – Don’t worry about equal numbers from each side – you are creating a big team (my Husband was difficult about the size of the guest list as he felt he didn’t have a lot of friends from his side due to moving around a lot as a child – it took him a while to come to terms with the fact that they are our people)

    – The ‘Number’ can be good and bad – We knew everyone very well but when you write all the names down, it can be a shock when you add them all up. A 100 people sounds a lot but people go outside, people wander, half the people won’t dance etc. so our venue didn’t actually feel like we had a lot of people. However 100 people you know well and want to talk to meant I spent a lot of the night anxiously having 2 conversations at the same time. I wish I had walked round with my husband for some of it or stood closer to the bar so that I could have had a drink and people might have drifted in and out more naturally!

    – Be vague about wedding details especially if you are not sure who you are inviting yet. Some people will be keen to pin you down and if you are a people pleaser it will be VERY HARD not to feel awkwardly obliged to invite co-workers or acquaintances just because they ask questions and show an interest. Having a vague answer ready stops a lot of awkward! ‘Probably mostly family, I have a lot of irish relatives!’ kind of implied that it was very family focused and we didn’t have a lot of space for people we weren’t very close to (also true.)

    – If you are on the fence about inviting cousins or family that live a little further away, invite them. I regret not inviting all my cousins as the ones I am not close to wouldn’t have come and the ones that cared would have made the effort (the distance makes people less inclined to feel obliged to come if they don’t want)

    – We only invited plus ones we had met if they hadn’t been together long – this is controversial I know and although it means I didn’t invite someone I probably should have, for the other 4 people this concerned, none of them were dating the same person by the wedding. Also, we did tell everyone that was the rule so they had the opportunity to arrange a get together if they could.

    – I swear by APW advice and it is spot on; set the budget and people numbers, HOWEVER once you have done this, you really have to accept the cost and move on. It is very tempting to start seeing your guests as SIMS characters with the cost per person hovering over their head… Keep in mind that you are inviting people who are part of your lives and are there to witness and celebrate. They chose to come and participate and what you decided to spend was not their decision! We had various arguments about the guest list before I had to lay down the rule that once decision was made about the guest list or cost, we had to move on and not keep moaning about it if we had decided to go with it!

    • Jess

      That equal numbers thing was really hard. I have a larger family than R, and a lot of his extended family didn’t end up coming and mine… did.

      I spent a lot of time worrying about whether or not he felt ok about that and it was not worth the worry.

      • Kelly

        To be truthful, the whole equal sides of immediate family was one of the main reasons I didn’t want to do the family only destination wedding. Because it would have been my mom, dad and brother. His side: Mom, mom’s husband, uncle and his wife, brother 1 and his wife and his toddler, brother two, and sister and her boyfriend. Plus they tend to be a little more assertive than my family in terms of interpersonal dynamics if that makes sense

        • Jess

          I would have opted out of that, in your shoes, also.

    • Eh

      I agree, not to stress over trying to make the sides equal. I have a much bigger family than my husband because my dad is remarried (it probably would have been pretty equal otherwise). We focused on inviting people who are the same “closeness” to us.

    • Shirley Schmidt

      Oh god yes the not having to make sides equal!
      Signed, someone who is having a ~50 person wedding where only ~11 people are exclusively friends/family of the groom.

  • Ashlah

    This absolutely depends on the type of wedding you’re having, but in my experience, I worried way too much about exact numbers of guests/RSVPs. We had a casual park wedding with a buffet meal. Yes, I needed to know how many chairs we’d need and a general idea of how much food and whether there’d be enough room at the tables. But we did not have a seating chart or a plated meal or anything that could be screwed up by an extra guest or a no-show.

    I should have let my dad invite two extra friends who I hadn’t seen since childhood, instead of freaking out that I hadn’t planned for that and how could he and shouldn’t he know better. I shouldn’t have worried about whether cousins would bring dates I didn’t know. I shouldn’t have stressed myself out so much trying to track down every individual RSVP. I shouldn’t have worried so much about keeping the number of guests “reasonable.” For our wedding, an exact guest count simply didn’t matter, and the addition of four or ten extra people made no difference. Actually, scratch that, every extra person who showed up added to the excitement and joy of our wedding, and I wish I had realized that a lot sooner.

    (That said, RSVP to your damn wedding invites, people.)

  • Eh

    Spreadsheets! – Very important. Instead of putting the number in pencil on each RSVP we wrote it in invisible ink (visible using black light). No one forgot to write their names on the RSVP though (my husband was a bit sad that we never had to use it).

    We invited 165 people and had less than 80. We got married in my husband’s hometown, and we had a good turn out from his family (probably 85%). All of my guest had to travel a long distance, and from some locations flights are either difficult to get or very expensive (plus some of my family doesn’t fly). We also got married on October so it was harder for families with school age children to travel.

    My dad’s philosophy on who should be invited to your wedding is your “Christmas Family”. Those people who you would invite over for Christmas (or other big holiday) if you had the money/space and travel wasn’t an issue.

    My MIL’s idea was to invite people that she felt were offended that they were not invited to my BIL’s wedding the year before. My response was that I wouldn’t want anyone to be offended that they didn’t get an invite. She then tried to push the limits a bit. When my MIL added her cousins and their children (and grandchildren) – people my husband had not seen in over 10 years – my FIL said “there is no way they would be offended if they weren’t invited”.

    • sofar

      Oh god the spreadsheet numbers SAVED us. We got so many rsvps back that said, “We can’t wait.” But no names written in the little spots where CLEARLY a name was meant to be written.

      • flashphase

        We didn’t get this but one envelope arrived empty (like no RSVP card at all) and I *wish* we’d thought to put the numbers on the envelopes as well!

    • Nell

      Love the “Christmas family” idea!

    • Jane

      I love the invisible ink idea. I’d have been disappointed too.

  • CCR

    Amateur mistake warning. :/ Question: After sending out STDs, we have
    run into the problem of, oh crap, our guest list is too big and some of
    the people we aren’t as personally close with as we initially wanted to
    admit, and now we have others that we wish we could invite, but can’t
    afford to grow the guest list, AND Mother in law wants to add 20 people
    (Ahhh!) So we wondered, is it ever okay to talk to a few people that got
    a Save the Date and explain that situations have changed and we just
    can’t invite them anymore? Or perhaps just invite them to the day after
    party instead of the wedding? Maybe that is a bad consolation prize, but
    they may also be fine with it because we aren’t that close in the first
    place? (I feel so bad about this and wish I could invite everyone and
    also wish I could elope)

    • The problem is…. not really. if you’ve backed yourself into a corner on this, there’s no way out where you can avoid hurting people’s feelings, and you’ve got to accept that now. People might be understanding of “we got carried away and overfilled our venue” but there’s no way anyone is going to take “so we’re replacing you with someone we/MIL likes better” and still want to be friends with you. Either be honestly rude to people and accept the consequences, or be polite and accept that you can’t have everyone you want at the wedding.

      (the tough thing is if you bump people now, you might get a lot of negative RSVPs and you could have had everyone you wanted, but if you wait until after RSVPs come in bumping people once they’ve already had an invite is not so much going to burn bridges as nuke them from orbit)

    • jem

      So the answer is no, but I’m wondering if there’s not a more appropriate solution to your problem. You say you can’t afford to grow the guest list. Is this because of financial or physical constraints? If it’s physical (your venue is too small), this is trickier, but I’m sure there’s a way to be flexible (switch from seated dinner to cocktail party?). If it’s financial, you may have a little more wiggle room than it feels like. You can tell MIL that if she wants to add 20 people, she needs to cover their costs. You can consider downgrading some of your catering selections (nix the open bar and passed hors d’oeuvres, serve only beer wine, choose a cheaper entree).

      What you really shouldn’t do is uninvite people who received save the dates. It’s super rude and hurtful and will definitely imperil any future relationship with them.

      • “Venue says no” is a good line to give to MIL to stop her inviting extra people, at least. “Sorry, Fire regs say we can’t have more guests. I mean, you don’t want to put the lives of your bridge club friends at risk, do you?”

      • penguin

        Also, it would depend on if this is “invite 20 more people” (who may or may not come), or “invite 20 more people who will all definitely be there”. That will affect things in terms of budget/space. I agree that if it’s money, and if the FMIL wants these extras bad enough to pay for them, then that would be an option.

        It’s definitely easier/more polite to not invite more people, than it is to uninvite people who have already been asked.

    • Em

      So this happened to me. What I will tell you is-if you do need to do this, tell these people SOON and make sure you try as hard as possible not to make it personal. I had already booked accommodation to go to a friend’s wedding (in a super expensive region) and after going to quite a small engagement party where there had been a huge emphasis on how small and intimate an engagement part and wedding it would be….before I got told by my friend-in a frankly horribly rude letter that they had had to cut numbers and that they just didn’t think I’d played as important a role in their relationship as other people and inviting me to travel 3 hours each way to attend their ceremony rather than being invited to their reception.

      Needless to say, I haven’t spoken to her since. So please learn from my former friend’s example and don’t do this!

      • Kelly

        That is terrible, what if you had already bought plane tickets?!

    • Amy March

      No. It’s really not okay. It’s rude and hurtful and honestly zero people want to be uninvited from your wedding but still come celebrate you then next day. Tell MIL no, accept that you can’t add people, and make it work.

  • sofar

    SO GLAD you gave this advice (the Miss Manners-approved advice). I had read her book cover to cover before even getting engaged, so, the second we started planning, I sat my fiance down and we came up with our list. We asked our parents for their lists. And it was 400+ people.

    So glad we did that because I probably would never have assumed we’d invite that many. But it helped us narrow down our venue search and not even consider the cute little venues that would fit only 100.

    My husband comes from a giant cultural community and I have a giant Irish Catholic family. I can’t imagine the heartache it would have caused to pick the venue first and then “make cuts.” Or choose an amazing “foodie” caterer who would have left us broke with their per-head cost. Or had to leave out kids.

    For us, people were what was important. We wanted to include everyone who raised us into the people who fell in love with each other. We anted to include everyone who helped our in-laws get a foothold in the U.S. We wanted to include my huge, insane family. So the guest list informed ALL our planning. And generating our guest list early ensured we didn’t get stuck with plans we couldn’t afford.

    • Clare C

      We are following the same process but with opposite results. All through being preengaged I had imagined/estimated we would have about 150 people at our wedding (big families, lots of friends and acquaintances from various circles) and had even ruled out a favourite party venue because it was too small. But when we actually made lists it was more like 90 and that venue is now an option…though it’s a river cruise boat so ultimately may not be right for other reasons.

      • sofar

        I would SO love a river boat cruise wedding!

  • Jess

    Additional Spreadsheet tip: On our spreadsheet we added a column for “How do we know them?” This helped us make sure that we had a good blend of invitees from both my family and his, but also…

    1) Adding or cutting back! Categories help you quickly add the ones you want (“Yes, we can add more of our new local friends!”) or cut the ones that you don’t really (“Maybe we don’t need to invite a bunch of coworkers?”)
    2) RSVP Follow-ups! We had parents track down family/family friends who did not RSVP. This line item was super helpful because we could sort the list, and copy-paste it in an e-mail to them.
    3) Thank-you note assignments! We made a rule “You write the Thank You for the people you know” and split the ones we both know.
    4) Seating Charts! If you are doing assigned tables, knowing that Xavier Wallace III belongs to the “R’s Dad’s Old Colleagues” group means you can quickly throw his blue color-coordinated post-it onto the right table, blending seamlessly into the 4 green “R’s Family Friends” already sitting there.

    We ALSO had our parents submit their guest wish-list with a column for “Courtesy Invite/Unlikely to come” so we were able to get a better numbers estimate for picking a venue.

  • Kelly

    So my husband “owned” the sending of our invites. Which is great because obviously *we* were getting married. I ended up having to call a few friends and tell them that yes please bring your BF, I’m sorry that the invite just says your name, no please really bring them! Also, turns out my MOH was upset that I didn’t give her a plus one, when in reality we had already discussed it so I thought everything was good but then her invite only had her name so she assumed I had changed my mind and just never brought it up to me.I found out through another BM who told me…

  • Nell

    We actually started our entire process with the list of people who we wanted to be there. A number is just a theory. You can “want” a 200 person wedding – but do you actually know 200 people?

    We had 3 “tiers” (that remain secret from our family and friends to this day). Tier one was “like family” (basically people who we couldn’t imagine getting married without). Tier two was “friends” and tier three was “good buddies” (anyone who we liked and thought was cool to hang out with, but it would make almost no difference if they were there or not). From there, we could imagine three different weddings: One in which only tier one was there, one in which tiers one and two were there, and one with all three tiers. We ended up with all three tiers – but I found it really helpful to be able to look back at that list when the numbers felt overwhelming.

    The other thing that worked for us (though maybe won’t work for everyone) was to create a rule that we had to have BOTH met every guest before our wedding. This pushed us to actually reconnect with old friends before we got married, and it resulted in rekindling some nice friendships. It also meant that I didn’t spin out and start inviting every person who was ever nice to me in college.

    • Yael

      I wanted to have the both meet every guest rule, but then I moved to Europe and some of his friends/family live in the middle of nowhere in the Mid-West (which is not to say the Mid-West is the middle of nowhere). But the friends he’s inviting who I haven’t met are still people that he talks to or about frequently, so they’re not just obligation invites.

  • Engaged Chicago

    Our current list is like 330 (with 25 of those as kids – younger cousins/ cousins’ babies – who would need to fly in). Our venue can hold 400 and we’ll do buffet but my fingers are naively crossed for 275!!

    There are def about ~30 on the list who are friends of the various parents but who likely won’t come/ I have never met (but know who they are) / I don’t know at all. It irks me a bit to see names I don’t recognize but my mom is paying for a large chunk of the wedding so I respect their list (After i made her cut 10 couples.).

  • Totch

    We knew we wanted a small wedding, and certainly started with that in mind. So we made 3 lists as an exercise to understand what small meant to us: 9 people, 28 people, and somewhere around 80 people. The 9 were our siblings (without spouses) and parents, basically the people we came into the world with. The 28 were what we called immediate family (we added in-laws, grandparents, nieces/nephews, and godparents). The 80 were family including aunts and uncles, plus a small number of close friends.

    At no point did we make a list that included cousins or coworkers or a liberal plus one policy because we knew we’d never want that. But it really helped to look at a concrete list of names and decide that as much as we loved those 80 people, the wedding we could have with 28 was the one we wanted.

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