How to Plan the Perfect Guest List
By Lorna Urwin

25 January 2017

A wedding is a momentous occasion that’s made even more special and celebratory by the people it’s shared with. But with different constraints and conflicting views on who should make the cut, coming up with the ideal list can easily turn into one of the trickiest parts of wedding planning. Let our guide remove some of the hassle by taking you through the process step by step…

1/ The headcount 

Image by Carlie Statsky

Before you begin listing names, make sure you come up with a realistic head count. What is the maximum number of people you can practically have in attendance when taking into account constraints such as venue capacity and, crucially, budget? (Wedding costs are largely on a cost-per-head basis, so the number of guests makes a huge difference to spending.) You’ll also want to factor in your own preferences for event size and any family or cultural expectations. 

2/ Who gets a say

Image by Sawyer Baird

If one or both sets of parents are contributing financially to the wedding, they get a say in the guest list too. Even if you’re paying for the entirety of the wedding, it’s often a good idea to share guest list plans with parents to avoid any upset or confusion down the line. Sit down very early on and discuss each party’s ideas about guests. (You want to make sure everyone’s on the same page before any assurances are made to people without your say so!)
Are your parents happy with immediate family and a handful or close family friends, or do they envisage a larger line-up of distant cousins, neighbours and their wider circle of friends? Sometimes it helps to establish a mutually agreeable distribution of the list. Traditionally the bride and groom take half and each set of parents take a quarter (divided again if the parents are no longer together), but this isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Some couples split the list into thirds, or into different percentages depending on family size or situation.

3/ Establish ground rules and policies early

Image by Kate Holstein

Having broad strokes rules or policies in place early on can take a lot of the heartache out of lower level decision-making. The key to minimising offence and hurt feelings is to apply them consistently. Creating exceptions may seem like a kindness but will be a disservice to those who do abide by your wishes.  
The rules themselves should be specific to your vision for your wedding, but the following are two common considerations:
Will children attend? Will they be restricted to the bridal party and immediate close family, or be invited to the ceremony only? Will there be an age threshold? If you decide against inviting children, be sure to let guests know early (so they can make childcare arrangements) and make it clear that it’s a general decision. 
Plus ones
Usually, if the guest is married, engaged or in a long-term relationship, the partner will be included on the invite. When it comes to singles, however, there’s more of a grey area. Weddings are personal events; don’t feel pressure to invite anyone you don’t know personally. Take the number of single people on the list as a guide - if there are only a handful, it’s courteous and considerate to allow plus ones and avoid anyone feeling uncomfortable and left out. If there are plenty, there’s an argument that they’ll be able to mingle with each other (just not at a singles table!).

4/ Your long list

Image by Perry Vaile Photography

For this step, put aside the constraints you’ve already created (including the realistic head count and what proportion of the list is yours to allocate) and brainstorm everyone who you might possibly want to attend. You may want to do this along with the groom or create individual lists and both sets of parents should do the same. This will be the starting place from which you pare back to something more practical.

5/ Bring the long lists together

Image by Lauren Evarts

Remove duplicates between each party’s lists and merge into a single electronic document. You can then compare the total figure with the headcount you planned for above. In most cases, the merged list will exceed the planned headcount, and further cuts will follow. To keep the decisions as collaborative as possible, consider using a shared document online (a Google document is a good free option). Spreadsheets are particularly suited to guest lists because it’s so easy to add additional columns for future tracking - of invites sent or RSVPs returned, for example.

6/ Narrow it down

Image by Avodah Photography

It’s time to make progress towards a final list and (sadly) that usually means making cuts. Remember that keeping groups together tends to be the fairest way; if you invite one of your first cousins/work colleagues/gym friends, you should invite all of them. This works when cutting too: make your decision about ‘which groups are invited/not invited?’ rather than individuals.
Another popular option is a tier system, which can be applied to either groups or individuals. Typically guests are categorised as follows:

A list: essential/non-negotiable guests
B list: those you really, really want to attend
C list: those it would be nice to have

You then fill the available slots starting with the A list and working down (or cut the list starting with the C-list and working back).
Alternatively, you could apply one or more of the following criteria:
Have I seen or talked to X in the past year?  
Has my fiancé met X?
If I bumped into X after the wedding, how would I feel if I hadn’t invited them?
Would I feel X’s absence at the wedding? Would they make the wedding more fun?

There are even flowcharts online to make the decision process as easy as possible! The most important thing, however, is to listen to your instinct rather than any notion of obligation or convention, and remember that the decisions aren’t yours alone – ensure all parties are involved. If at all possible hold discussions in person, especially if the process proves difficult or emotional.

7/ The final list

Image by Larissa Cleveland Photography

Once the list is guest list is finalised, breathe a sigh of relief! Having the guest list sorted will be a huge weight off your mind, but there are still a few things to remember:
Have your finalised list proofread by each party for correct spelling on their guests’ names. Add in any relevant titles and up-to-date contact details so that you’re ready to start sending save the dates or invitations!
When writing the invite or speaking with guests, keep your policies abundantly clear to avoid misunderstandings. If you’re inviting some but not all members of a household, make this obvious by listing invited individuals on the RSVP card rather than leaving space for the guest to write names in.
Omissions from the list may cause disappointment. Be polite, kind and clear in response – explain that as much as you would love to have everyone, budget and space meant it wasn’t possible. Again, avoid making exceptions. It’s very unfair on those who you don’t make exceptions for.
Some suggest keeping a backup list of people to invite once you’ve heard back from guests who cannot attend. While this can work, you’ll want to time it very carefully (don’t leave it until the final month). No one wants to feel like an afterthought.
Never invite anyone who’s not on the guest list to pre-wedding events such as the engagement party, bridal shower or bachelorette party. You may mean well, but this comes across as soliciting for additional gifts.