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wedding-guest-list-how-to-start-etiquette

Starting your Wedding Guest List? Here’s What You Need to Know

Your wedding day guest list is one of the most important elements of your Big Day. The people who you choose to celebrate this momentous occasion with can really influence your own experience of your wedding day: your memories, your reflections, your photos. Consider how being in the company of different people, or groups of friends make you feel. Some friends will always have you in fits of laughter, old friends might make you reminisce, while being around family might make you feel a different way altogether. How you feel on your wedding day will be related to who you are around.

Your Wedding Guest List – What’s important?

Starting your wedding guest list can be a daunting prospect – trying to finely balance the wedding budget, your venue’s capacity, and the risk of offending family and friends. To help with this part of wedding planning, I’ve put together the ultimate guide to your wedding guest list: etiquette, budgeting, and respectful ways to tell people they’re not invited your wedding.

When you first got engaged, did you sit down and talk to your partner about what was really important to you about getting married? What your wedding priorities and purpose were? If not, do that now – really try to find the essence of what’s important to you about your Big Day.

While many of us would love to invite all our friends, family and colleagues, often logistics make that impossible, but I also believe that having a smaller, more thoughtful guest list will benefit you in the long term. This about how much more time you will have with each of your guests. You are often so limited as to who you can really spend time with and talk to on your big day, so plan your wedding guest list while being mindful of who you really want those people to be. Be mindful of not just the ‘who’ but the ‘why’. Think about all the reasons why you are getting married, and therefore why you would invite each of your guests. 

How does your Wedding Budget influence your Guest List?

For many couples, it is the wedding budget which is the biggest determinate of your guest list. If you want to give your wedding guests an incredible experience with really great food, wine and entertainment, you’ll know that the cost per head can be very expensive. If faced with a limited budget and large guest list, it’s about finding a balance between the experience you want to provide and share with each guest, and how much it will cost you. Of course, the quickest way to reduce your catering and hireage expenses is to reduce the number of invited guests. A smaller number of guests also opens up your options for wedding venues, accommodation, transport and more.


As you may have already worked out, I am a big advocate for a small guest list, if possible. However, I know that’s not always a practical reality, with big families, lots of friends, and possibly pressure from parents – especially if they are contributing to your wedding budget.

So, for those of you who are grappling with a lot of potential guests, and you’re not sure where to begin, read on. See also a sample of the guest list pages of our wedding planner at the end of this article.

How to Begin your Wedding Guest List

If you’ve already begun searching for your wedding venue, you may have a target guest list to work to, and/or if you fall in love with a particular venue even after starting your guest list, you may wish to reduce the guest numbers to fit.

To get an idea of how many possible guests you have, even including those you probably know you won’t have room for, I recommend making a list, or starting an excel spreadsheet of all of those potential guests. Every person you would potentially invite – if budget, venue capacity, and even time with your guests were no issue. You may wish to do family lists each, and then go through your friend groups together. The guest list template is one of your essential wedding planning tools in the planning pack, and also included in the ultimate bundle with our best-selling wedding planner.

Once you have a list of all those you might consider inviting, you can do a quick calculation to work out how much it might cost on a per-head basis alone. For an all-inclusive wedding venue with a full-service dinner, you can expect to pay around $120-170 per guest, excluding beverages. Alternatively, take around 50% your total wedding budget, and divide it by the number of potential guests – to work out how much your wedding budget would probably need to allocate, per person, to cover catering, drinks and hireage.

You may immediately see that your wedding guest needs to be cut down, either to fit your budget, or your wedding venue.

Your Wedding Guest list is too Big, should you reduce it, or change your Wedding Budget or Venue?

If your guest list is too large for your wedding venue (or your budget) and you are faced with the decision to change one of them, return to your purpose, your intentions, and what you really want from your special day. If you can imagine standing up in front of your guests on your wedding day, perhaps at the end of the aisle or during the speeches, what would make you happier – seeing all the faces of those friends and family members on your list, or having a smaller, more intimate group that you can spend a little more time with?

When you envision your dream day, what are you more prepared to sacrifice, the venue, the budget or the guest list? You will probably instinctively know what feels comfortable for you. I suggest you think only about whose company you truly most enjoy, and who you expect to be part of your lives in the future, and invite them to spend this once-in-a-lifetime day with you.

Practical ways to narrow down your Guest List.

If, for whatever reason, you need to trim your original wedding guest list (don’t worry, most people do), head back to the list or spreadsheet you started. Take the list of everyone you’ve considered inviting, and put them into an order, using three columns: Definites, Probables, Maybes.

  • Definites/Non-negotiables – those you just can not get married without. 100% attendance required – for some this will be their immediate family and best friends, for others it will be more. Imagine you’re eloping, or heading off for a destination wedding, who are you taking with you?
  • Probables: If you can make it work, you’ll have them all… if they can all make it, that is. Put this list in order of absolute importance, from your ride-or-dies that’ve been with you since childhood to the colleagues that get you through Monday morning, get them in some semblance of an order.
  • Maybes: Extended family, friends you haven’t seen in a while, those you aren’t that close with but are vaguely in your friend circle, acquaintances, and others.

The “Definite” Wedding Guests

If the number of guests in this column fit with your venue capacity/budget/desires, you are already half way to organising your ideal guest list. You can already get married with all the most important people in your lives, and you get to do so in the venue you love.

If there’s already too many on list one, you need to find a bigger venue, reallocate your budget, or save for longer. People are everything, and you need those people there (you said so yourself).

The “Probable” Wedding Guests

For most couples, they will want to include more guests than just those that they absolutely could not marry without, and will want to include more of their most loved family and friends. Have a look at this list again – would you invite each of these people to your house for dinner, or a small party? When did you last see them, or talk to them? How would you feel if any of them couldn’t make it to your wedding. If you would feel disappointed not to have them, then hopefully your wedding budget and venue capacity can fit them in.

If there are any people whose presence you just don’t feel particularly bothered by, I really recommend you cut off your guest list with a smaller number. If you still have capacity and budget, think about why you really want to invite them.

The “Maybe” Guest List

If there is enough room for all of list one, and all of list two, and you still have room for those in the third column, think hard. You put them on list three. Are you sure you really, really want them there? Unsure? You don’t have to make a decision immediately, as your wedding is likely to be a while away at this stage, but I suggest you not be in a rush to invite everyone on this list “just because” – save your time, and wedding budget, for those you really want to be with.

Wedding Guest List Etiquette: Overcome Issues

You may now know that you need to have some hard conversations with family and friends about the size of your Wedding Guest List. Common issues arising are

  • Having large numbers of extended (or even immediate) family who will expect to be invited
  • One person having a much larger family or friend group than the other, and wanting to keep it balanced
  • Expectations from family about inviting parents’ close friends, when you’re planning a smaller wedding.
  • Expectations from friends to invite significant others (+1’s), their children, or reciprocate an invitation to their wedding
  • Anxiety about pressure of having to invite colleagues, old school friends, or reciprocate invitations for other weddings you’ve attended

Who you don’t need to invite.

  • Don’t invite anybody you haven’t spoken to in a year, even if they are family.
  • Don’t just mindlessly give guests a “plus one“.  Your friends need not be joined-at-the-hip to their partner, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to invite them if they’re not also your close friend. Your true friends will understand, and why are you bothering to worry about those that wouldn’t? Of course, do be thoughtful if your friends won’t know anyone else there otherwise, if you’re asking people to travel for a destination wedding, or they will be travelling to you.
  • If you’ve got a large list of colleagues, rethink whether you would be friends with these people out of work (if one of you moved jobs, for instance), and whether you’re going to be friends in the long term.  Be discreet at work, but only invite those workmates you’d spend time with outside work. Personally, with work colleagues, I’d suggest that unless you know their significant other, I wouldn’t invite their spouses, but rather have a small work group who can sit together.
  • If you can, and want to (we could), you can of course exclude children from the wedding reception itself, but keep in mind locality and availability for babysitters and be aware that this could discourage those with children from attending (or having a big night).  Subtly let them know it’s adults-only.
  • If you’re only inviting some couples because you went to their wedding (or were invited) years ago, consider whether you’re being polite for the sake of it, or whether they really are essential to your day.  You don’t know what their thinking was in inviting you (you may very well have been from a back-up list too!).
  • Renegotiate with your parents if they’re intending to invite lots of their friends.
  • Return to the step above and really, only invite those you absolutely must, definitely, non-negotiably cannot get married without!

Figure out Who May Not Come and Have a ‘B’ Guest List

We all have those relatives, friends or just out-of-town guests who we invite knowing they either will not come, can’t come or won’t be able to afford the trip. It’s unlikely that 100% of your invited guests will be able to make it, which may end up helping to reduce your guest list.

For this reason, it is also completely acceptable to have a ‘B list’ or back-up list of people to invite if the first ones can’t attend. You may even wish to stagger your invites, so that those on the B list aren’t all invited at the same time. Hand the invitations out in person – you save on postage, and it will make you very aware if you no longer catch up with a certain couple.

Invite those coming from overseas as early as possible, to give them the best chance of being able to make it.

Avoid Offending Family and Friends you’re not inviting

Though it can be tempting to avoid any potential awkwardness by inviting everybody, this won’t serve you in the long run. Here’s a few ideas about having a smaller guest list and narrowing down your guest list. Remember, the more people you have, the less time you will have with any of them, the more it will cost, and the more you have to organise (stationery, seating plans, hireage, meals, transport).

To avoid hurt feelings, many couples like to narrow down their list with a few rules, like ‘no ring, no bring’, no children, or not inviting certain groups, like co-workers. They may be right for you, or you may wish to work it out on a person by person basis, as rules might exclude people you’re really close to.

How to Explain to Someone they didn’t make your Guest List

You may not want to rush into this, just in case there is some room to manoeuvre later, but at some point you will have to tell someone that they’re not invited to your wedding. This can be an incredibly awkward conversation but there are ways to be respectful and polite.

  • Set the tone early. If you know that you will be having an intimate wedding, let your friends and family know well in advance, so they aren’t as likely to expect a wedding invitation and then wonder why they’re not invited.
  • Explain that your wedding budget is limited. Anyone who has ever been married will understand wedding budget constraints, and it’s a tough one to argue with even if you haven’t. If you are unable to invite a ‘plus one’ then it’s advisable to let friends know prior to invites going out – otherwise they’re likely to ask you anyway. It’s best to front-foot conversations like this and set the tone early.
  • Be respectful and don’t talk about your wedding at length in front of people who are not invited.

Stay Organised

Like your wedding budget, your guest list isn’t static either, and it’s very useful to have a single place to refer to for the guest names and addresses, RSVPs, any dietary requirements, and then even to go back to after the wedding, to make a note of the gift from each couple, and refer to the address, so that you can send a thoughtful and personal thank you note. The little white book wedding planner is designed with this in mind, and we also have an excel spreadsheet for organising your guests (both are included in the ultimate bundle.

See below a sample of the guest list pages in use – with 10 pages, room for 200+ wedding guests, addresses, notes and more.

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