The Ultimate Guide to Building a Wedding Guest List

For many couples, the entire process starts with the wedding guest list. Who you invite to your big day will impact your budget, your venue, and maybe even your wedding’s timing.

​While it may seem easy enough to draft up a list of your nearest and dearest, it’s a task that can quickly get out of hand—especially when parents get involved, and you realize that your friends and family may outnumber your budget. And unlike a lot of other wedding planning tasks, this is one that you and your fiancé can’t pass off to a planner.

Building a guest list shouldn’t dampen your post-engagement glow. To help you navigate the task with ease, we’ve enlisted advice from wedding experts and newlyweds across the country. With this one-stop-shop of organizational tools and practical tips, you’ll have everything you need to conquer the guest list and get on with planning your dream wedding!

The Guest List Nitty Gritty

Wedding invitations traditionally don’t go out until six to eight weeks before the wedding—when (hopefully) you’ll already have the bulk of your wedding planned—but long before that, you still need to know roughly how many people will attend. This is essential for both venue options and save-the-date cards which should be sent our 5-6 months before the big day. That’s why wedding experts recommend prioritizing the task soon after the engagement begins.

“You cannot find a venue or develop a budget without knowing how many people you are inviting or might be in attendance,” says Lisa Thomas, a wedding planner with Ooh! Events in Charleston, S.C. “It’s task one after the engagement!”

Your wedding guest list will impact the entire feel of your wedding: Do you want an intimate destination affair with only close family in attendance? Or have you always imagined a massive blowout with friends from every era of your life?

Every name you put on that list will influence your event. One study from psychologists at the University of Denver even suggests that the size (and price) of your wedding can predict how long your marriage will last!

Keep Calm & Mind Your Manners

Today’s couples are generally more focused on creating a curated list than catering to everyone they know, but it’s still all-too-easy to inadvertently offend someone important to them. Planner Lisa Thomas says it’s a careful balance that couples try to achieve.

“In the past, you invited your entire family,” she says. “Now, people are much more in tune with creating an intimate and special experience, and are more selective on who they invite.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean families still don’t have a say in many cases.

Wedding planner Tara Guérard, of Tara Guérard Soirée, notes that although the mother of the bride often managed the guest list in the old days, now it’s a much more collaborative effort.

​”Today, it’s more of a joint venture between the two families and their combined lists,” Guérard explains.

One thing that hasn’t changed? The potential for sticky situations. Here are some common complications:

  • Dealing with parents’ excessive requests
  • What to do about work friends
  • Handling a destination wedding
  • Inviting children
  • Inviting guests to ceremony-only or reception-only

Blogger Alison Feller, who will marry her fiancé on September 13, quizzed her married friends early in the process to develop an approach for navigating the guest list.

“When we first started wedding planning, I asked a ton of married friends to tell me two things: the best part of their wedding, and what they would do differently if they could do it over again,” she says. “So many people said they would have invited fewer people because they spent so much of their wedding night greeting people—like their mom’s accountant or dad’s cousin—instead of dancing with their friends. We were very conscious of this and knew we only wanted people we absolutely love at the wedding.”

The 7 Simple Steps To Getting Started On Your List

The 3 Absolute Essentials

Once you’ve gotten started on your list-making, there are some essential pieces of advice to take into consideration and abide by. Here are the 3 Absolutes:

  1. Write every name down. And don’t delete anyone from the list until it’s actually time to start narrowing down to the must-haves that coincide with your venue, budget, and vision. If you start crossing off too soon, you could forget someone important and have a big regret (and hurt feelings) later.
  2. Make an A-list and a B-List. As you create your draft, place your people in columns. There should be an A-list that holds people like grandparents and best friends. And then there’s a B-List that may include your high school football coach. This will help conquer and divide at a later date as well.
  3. Jot down names on response cards. This will make it clearer to your guests who is (and isn’t invited, like a plus one, for instance) and will make it clearer to you who is actually coming. It also stops loved ones for adding extra people to the guest list by squishing names onto the RSVP line.

Extra Tips to Consider

  • Don’t forget yourselves! So many couples forget to count themselves into the final list.
  • Don’t verbally invite anyone. Mentioning your wedding offhand or an invite in this casual manner can be easy to forget for you but maybe not the co-worker that you said it too. This can cause hurt feelings at a later date as well. Just keep it traditional and wait for the pretty stationery to be sent!
  • Don’t forget the children. Decide early on if you’re going to be welcoming to the little ones or not. And if you are, don’t forget to think about them in terms of numbers.
  • Have some kind of system in place for guests who decide to RSVP in alternative ways. You’ll receive yes’s and no’s in the form of e-mails, text messages, phone calls, and even when they see you around town. Make sure you know where to go to mark off or check off at a moment’s notice.
  • Similarly, have a system in place to send out invites to your reserve (or B-list). When you have a regret roll in, be ready to send off a new invitation ASAP.

Inspiration & Advice From The Pros

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s hear a few tips from wedding professionals and real-life couples:


“Starting early is key. Once you have your list(s) finalized, keep everything in an Excel sheet and update RSVPs as they come in. Most couples have last-minute add-ons. Our best advice is to create a master list and be very adamant about keeping it up to date.


“If you get stressed, take a breath and walk away from it for a few days. Come back with a clear mind. And if you’re planning something you’re both not super excited about or that seems overwhelming, take it back to the drawing board. It’s about enjoying this moment as a couple—not everyone else.”


“Couples can opt to pay the incremental costs that come with inviting extra people. The best way to keep the list from growing is for the bride and groom to be hard and fast on a number from the very beginning and stick to it. They can give each set of parents an allotment of invites, and manage that number.”


​”The guest list is so tricky. I like to think of it in terms of who we would feel comfortable having over to our house for dinner or spending time with one-on-one. During the ceremony, I want to look out and see a sea of faces of people I feel comfortable with and know will be in our lives for a long time.”

Real-life Guest List Challenges & How To Overcome Them

One of the toughest parts of planning a guest list is that no couple’s situation is the same—every wedding is different! There’s no simple guidebook for navigating the task, but you can still learn a lot from other’s experiences. Let’s look at six couples who have conquered the guest list:

The Destination Wedding

Fallon & Joe. May 9, 2015. San Juan, Puerto Rico

We always wanted to have a small wedding. We talked about 25-30 people, but then when we actually started to write out our list, it added up much quicker than expected. We realized that at the end of the day, what was important to us was getting married, and who was or wasn’t able to be there didn’t matter much, outside of our immediate family and friends.

From there it was easy. We originally invited 55, but we had to narrow the list down once we found out that the maximum our venue could accommodate was 40. My family and a majority of my close friends are in California, which actually worked in our favor, since we knew most of them would not be able to make it, due to the short notice (we got engaged in February, getting married in May of the same year).

What To Do With Work Friends

Blair & Riley. July 31, 2015. Denton, Mass.

We encountered nothing but challenges when we created our guest list! We both have large families and large friend circles. Additionally, I oversee nearly 150 volunteers at my job, which only further complicated it — who do we invite? Anyone? Can we pick and choose without hurting feelings? We also met post-college, so we don’t have any mutual childhood or college friends.

​We sat down together for about an hour and wrote down every single person who we could think of to invite. (To do this, we scrolled through each of our Facebook friend lists!) Then, we cut that in half. Then we cut that in half again, moving some people to the B-list. We had to ignore “people-pleasing” feelings and chose people to invite who we really, genuinely want to be there.

The Giant Guest List

Hunter And Stratton. Aug. 30, 2013.

We are blessed to have a ton of wonderful friends and a very large family, and our guest list was gigantic. After meeting with caterers, we realized it wasn’t in our budget to invite as many people as we wanted and still have the wedding we were envisioning. In all honesty, we never wanted a big wedding; we just didn’t feel comfortable with cutting our guest list. It was really difficult to find a solution.

Our answer was to plan a very intimate wedding in Scotland. We took our immediate families and just a few of our closest friends each. Then we came back and had a low-budget, big party at home with gumbo, beer, and wine. Everyone had a blast, and we were able to invite everyone we wanted to. It was the best of both worlds. We were able to truly be present with each other and our closest loved ones.

Parental Pressure

Alex & Frank. Sept. 6, 2014. Groton, Mas

Both sets of parents wanted to invite SO many people. We were both the first children from our families to get married, so our parents were very excited and proud of the big day. My husband’s family is 100 percent Italian which means a lot of family and friends… even a lot that we had never met before or my husband didn’t even remember. It was difficult for us to try to cut the list without hurting anyone’s feelings.

​I did not want to cause any problems with my new in-laws, so I had my husband (then fiancé) deliver most of the news to his parents. Also, our venue had a maximum amount of people it allowed, so it was easy for us to always use that as an excuse. My mother and I argued a lot in the beginning. Usually, as long as I was respectful and we talked it through we were ok.

​kids Or No Kids?

Kali & Stephen. June 8, 2014. Princeton, Mass

One of the biggest challenges was deciding that our wedding would be adults only. I had always imagined having children at our wedding, but we soon realized that it would not be feasible. Had we invited second and third cousins, we would have added 30-plus guests under the age of 12.

However, since many of my cousins have children and were traveling from out of state, they thought it wasn’t right to come without their kids, and did not make it to the event. This caused me a lot of stress since I wanted my cousins to make it, but could not go back on my decision not to invite children. It was simply too much money, plus we didn’t feel as though the event space was all that “kid-friendly.”

The Unbalanced Family

Andrea & Nicholas. Oct. 11, 2014. New Orleans,

My husband has a huge family and mine is tiny, so our guest list was very off-balance. He has about 25 first cousins, aunts and uncles, and we had to invite them all or none—or else it would cause some rifts in the family. Since our overall list was so constrained to begin with, it was pretty challenging to accommodate this and we ended up having to cut some friends.

Since Nick’s family was so much bigger, we also decided to have it in the city where he is originally from and where the majority of his family resides, rather than where we live, so that his family would be able to attend. This led to a bit of conflict at the beginning, but luckily he’s from an awesome city, and having it there ended up being the best decision.

A Guest’s Guide To The Guest List

The wedding hosts generally have the guest list handled, but the guests are a big part of the equation, too! So what is the guest’s role in all of this?

  • Don’t make assumptions. Whether it’s a close co-worker or a longtime friend, don’t assume that you’re invited to the wedding until you’ve received verbal confirmation or an actual invitation. There’s nothing more awkward than telling a couple you can’t wait for their wedding when they have no intention of inviting you.
  • RSVP in a timely manner. For anyone planning a wedding, RSVPs are the key to staying organized and planning for the correct amount of guests. Even if you’ve verbally confirmed your intent to attend, send in your response card.
  • Read the envelope carefully. Whose name, besides yours, is on the invitation? That’s the only other person who’s invited to attend—and if no one else’s name is on the envelope, prepare to fly solo.
  • Be cautious about kids. Did the host “forget” to put your kids’ names on the invitation? Be aware that it may not have been a mistake. Many couples choose to have adults-only weddings, so don’t assume that the tots are invited.

Don’t take things personally. Maybe you didn’t get invited, or you received your invitation super late, suggesting that you were on the dreaded “B List.” Don’t pout.