Wedding Etiquette Rules for Managing Your Guest List

Etiquette expert Anna Post helps you navigate your guest list with grace.

Your wedding guest list is a snapshot of all of the special people in your life, and is well worth the care and effort to create. Find out how to create and finalize the guest list for your wedding events!

Photo: Thanos Asfis Photography

Lists become second nature to brides – highly organized lists of gifts, quickly jotted lists of flowers, carefully noted lists of fitting schedules. To-do lists that somehow never seem to be done. But there is one list that is the most important of all: the guest list. For some couples, it’s a breeze to piece this list together. For others, it’s a struggle to find the right balance between inclusion and intimacy, new friends and old, budget and blow-out. And that’s before moms and dads toss in their two cents – and their two hundred guests. But this wedding guest list is also a snapshot of all of the special people in your life, and is well worth the care and effort to create.

Neutral Dividing Lines

It may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but before you can build your guest list, you need to know how large it can be. If you have already selected a wedding venue, consider the size of your ceremony and reception locations. Whether or not you've chosen your wedding venue, you'll also need to consider how intimate you would like the celebration to be and the size of your wedding budget. As food and drinks account for 45-50% of most wedding budgets, limiting the guest list is one of the best ways to limit the overall cost. 

While there is no official rule that says you must divvy up your guest list, the couple and their parents will need to work together – no one person can trump another. Two of the most popular ways to keep a very personal task from becoming a battle royale are to divide the guest list into equal thirds, with the bride and groom, the bride’s parents, and the groom’s parents each inviting one-third of the guests; or, the bride and groom reserve half the list for themselves, with the other half of the list divided equally between their parents. 

Neutral dividing lines such as these (or any other quota allotment that suits your circumstances) keep the process of elimination from getting too personal. Just be sure to review the total guest list as it’s built, so that you aren’t both assuming the other is inviting your favorite cousin.

The Must List

There are some people who truly must be invited. All spouses, fiancé(e)s, or live-in partners of guests must be invited, regardless of whether you know or like them – couples committed in these ways are a package deal. Though offering an “and guest” to single friends or family members isn’t required, it is greatly appreciated when budgets allow, especially for members of the wedding party and VIP family members. Be sure to remember your officiant and his or her spouse, if applicable, as well as the parents of any flower girls or ring bearers. Anyone invited to the engagement party, wedding shower (with the exception of office showers), or bachelor/bachelorette parties needs to be invited to the wedding. These events build anticipation, and feelings will be hurt if a wedding invitation doesn’t follow.

How to Trim the Guest List

If you have to prune, eliminating a group – second cousins, work colleagues, gym buddies – is the most neutral option and keeps explanations from becoming personal. “I’m not able to invite work friends” is a lot easier to swallow than “I had to cut you.” This method also works well when you’re not inviting children. Just be sure to stick to your guidelines; it would be difficult to explain why you invited one aunt but not the others, or why you made an exception for your old roommate’s kids but not your sister’s.

Managing Wedding Guest Expectations

A standby, or “B”, guest list is a risky proposition, as it creates the potential for hurt feelings should a wedding guest find out they were second best. I don’t advise couples to go down this road, but I do understand the realities of controlling your guest list and spending. Truly, your best bet is to invite the entire list at the same time. Typically, 10-20% of invited guests will send regrets; do the math accordingly when planning. Should you choose to send invitations to a standby list, be very discreet, and send your first wave of invitations far enough in advance that you can receive RSVPs and still allow your second round of guests enough time to feel they weren’t an eleventh hour sub-in. Guests mustn’t have even the slightest idea that they’re weren’t your first choice.

When all is said and done, the reason most couples throw a wedding instead of eloping is to have their loved ones witness such a special event. Couples who find they just can’t trim the guest list might instead consider trimming the budget for food, flowers, or music instead. After all, the guests in attendance give a wedding far more life and make many more memories to cherish than a cake, a dress, or a band ever could.