Guest list rules to help you keep your wedding small

Guest post by Annie
wave your flags everyone

Our biggest wedding planning challenge was the guest list! From the beginning, Kyle and I knew we wanted to have a fairly small wedding. What we didn't know was exactly how difficult that can be to pull off.

When we started making the guest list we realized that we had two options:

  • Give in and invite everyone we know OR
  • Invite only immediate family to avoid hurt feelings

Neither of those options represented what we really wanted for our wedding, so we decided to go with a third option…

Could we exclude people we considered to be some of our best friends just a short time ago but now only see once every six months? What about aunts and uncles that hadn't even met our son?

That third option? Painstakingly pour over a list of everyone we consider to be either family or friends, and decide which ones would make the cut. This was especially hard because, in the two years prior to our wedding, both of us had gone through a huge growing period (which included meeting each other, falling madly in love, getting pregnant after just four months together, moving three times and caring for our most fabulous son) and therefore our social circle had changed dramatically.

Could we exclude people we considered to be some of our best friends just a short time ago but now only see once every six months? What about aunts and uncles that hadn't even met our son? All of these people still mean a lot to us, but if they don't know us as a couple, what's the point of them being at our wedding? It was, after all, a day to celebrate our life together. And if we exclude these people that we have known and loved for years, can we really justify inviting people that have only become good friends in a matter of months? There was so so so much to consider!

We ended up coming up with two rules which more or less answered all of our many queries:

  1. Only people who knew both of us decently well and that one, or both, of us cared about immensely.
  2. Definitely not anyone that one of us had never met before.

This worked well, both in helping us making decisions, and as a reason to give people when they asked us why so and so wasn't invited.

In the end we ended up with about sixty totally wonderful and important people attending our wedding. Were we happy with how everything went and did we love the intimate feeling this short guest list provided? Absolutely!

Do we hope that people know that just because they weren't invited to our wedding it doesn't mean that we don't love them? For sure.

For more guest list advice, check it out…

What rules are YOU using to help you cut down your guest list?

Comments on Guest list rules to help you keep your wedding small

  1. This is a wonderful idea! The hardest part for my fiance and I in the planning so far is the guest list. he has a HUGE extended family, that all live in driving distance. My family is small and live on the other side of the country my list – 20; his list 200. AH! =0) I’m gonna run this by him tonight. When I think of my wedding day I think of only being w/ people I know and love. Not a crowd of strangers.

    • Are we getting married to the same family? All of his family is concentrated in one area. When he told me his side usually brings in 300 people, I sputtered. We’re trying for 150-180 tops. That’s going to mean a lot of cuts on his end. Sorry future family, I do love you!

      • I had a similar problem, but with slightly smaller numbers. I was imagining about 100 people total, he was thinking 200 family between us and about 50 friends!

        Our list is still mostly his family but at least we managed to compromise on 150 total.

      • Ha! Now I’m wondering if we’re marrying the same family because I had the same thing happen–a cousin of my fiance’s told me that his family usually brings in about 300 people to life-cycle events and my eyes bugged out of my head!

        • We’re having trouble getting down to 250. My parents had 310 and 90% of that was my dad’s family. Since I don’t know 90% of my 1st cousins, I think we will be able to use the “I don’t know you, can’t come” rule. I like that rule.

    • My Best friends widowed Dad was invited to my wedding because I love him and I allowed him a guest. My friend has a clique of women friends I don’t particularly care for.
      Lately my friend has ignored our friendship somewhat because she is very attatched to one of these women, this women moved three doors down from her. I love my frined very much but not her friend. Now shse tells me her Dad is brining this friend as his guest What do i do I don’t want her there?

  2. Props to you for getting all that sorted out and sharing it!

    I’m trying to plan a 50-60 person wedding myself, and I HOPE in the process I’m not making anyone angry at me. I’m thankful that my situation isn’t as difficult as yours. My thought is that this is a very important day in my life and I ONLY want to share it with the people I love and that mean something important to me. I LOVE the idea that only people who have met us BOTH are invited! That definitely cuts out a lot of my fiance’s family! Though there are a few we want to invite that haven’t met one of us, but they are very important to us and therefore it’s ok. I’m thankful that my parents are completely fine with my restricting my guest list and I only have to disappoint my mother in law!

    I think the biggest issue I’m having right now is with a small group of friends… Including partners, there’s a group of 8 people from college/work/former roommates that would hang out together on a weekly basis. There’s Laura(& Husband) and Patty (& boyfriend) who I lived with for 2 years (2 years ago).
    Laura also works with me and sits behind me so I see her a couple times a week when she’s in the office. Also working with me is Greg, who I’ve talked to on a daily basis for the past 5 years and we are friends and occasionally would hang out outside of work (but not recently). I have been invited to both Greg & Laura’s weddings. Finally the last group is Mike and Krystal. Mike, Patty, Laura & I all went to the same college and all work for the same company and began hanging out when we started working here, we’d visit with him weekly and do other things together. Mike, Krystal & Greg also then later lived together for a year. (Mike & Krystal are best friends and always one anothers wedding dates, Krystal is great and I wouldn’t mind her coming, but I would then have to invite Mike).
    I am closest to Patty even though we have only seen each other maybe twice in the past year.
    The problem is that I DO NOT want Mike at my wedding because he always gets really drunk and makes a fool out of himself. I do NOT want attention at my wedding going to him and his antics, I don’t want anyone distracted by his nonsense, and I don’t want anyone’s strong memories of the day having to do with him. But the problem with not inviting him is that I know he would be insulted if I then invited the others.
    I most want to invite Patty, and I feel like I could get away with inviting Patty & Adam if I also invite Laura & PJ, with my reason being that we lived together and therefore are closer than I am to Greg & Mike, even though that’s not really too true because I never really got too close to Laura. I talked to Patty about it and she said she’d go even if she didn’t know anyone else at the wedding, and she also said she’d be fine if we decided not to invite her. So, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t think she’d have as much fun because she’s not really friends with any of my other friends, but I still do like her a lot… I don’t know.. Sorry for babbling my issue here 🙂

    • Don’t worry about the babbling…I’m a total babbler myself. 🙂 You’ve definitely got a hard situation there but it seems like you have it mostly figured out. If you do end up inviting them all could you possibly ask mike about his drunken antics? Could you pull a ‘simmer down there turbo’? If not then I would say definitely go with your gut even if it does unfortunately hurt feelings. It’s your day and they way I looked at it (and maybe this is harsh) was did I want OUR day tainted for US? Or did I want OUR day tainted for SOMEONE ELSE? I sure wouldn’t want someone elses day tainted for me so I thought the answer was obvious!

    • Who do you have tending bar? Would it be possible to give that person a heads up about the possibility of Mike causing trouble if he drinks too much, and ask the bar person to make sure Mike’s “cut off” before he gets too toasted?

  3. I’m not really sure if we had any rules. Officially we did but we seem to have had just as many exceptions.

    For example we cut family at first cousins, but then invited my great aunt and her family on the basis that my mum is an only child so her kids were like my cousins growing up.

    We said friends had to be people we’ve seen in the last year, but also invited my best friend who moved to South Africa over a year ago because I could not imagine getting married without her there.

    So I suppose they’re more guidelines than actual rules. But it’s still very helpful to have a basis for who should be included as a starting point at least because trying to pick individuals to exclude is very hard (and made me feel guilty for choosing between my friends).

  4. Thanks for this! I can completely relate. We’ve cut and recut our guest list more times than I can count, but now I think we finally have come to an acceptable list. Hopefully most of those who didn’t make it will be understanding.

  5. We stuck with ‘If we haven’t heard from or seen you in the past year, you aren’t invited.’

    We ended up inviting about 100 people but due to snow (in Houston, where it snows once every twenty years) only about 40 showed up. We still had an awesome time.

    • For the past two and a half years [as in, way before I even got engaged], I’ve been cringing over the concept of the guest list. We’re still trying to figure it out now, and the wedding is right around the corner! In theory, I’m a big girl who can handle petty family drama….but in reality, I’m the “peacemaker” who is constantly steamrolled by the fear of offending people and causing political issues among the relatives. If I could invite only friends [as in, the people who actually know us and saved our lives by helping us through all our family dysfunction through the years], I would…but it’d be difficult [and probably not the wisest thing in the world] to explain why I chose to not invite either set of parents…

      Here’s hoping I can figure out a middle ground, and fast; thanks for all the helpful advice! 🙂

  6. It seems so hard to keep the guest list down these days, because you also have to consider the +1s and the children of whom you’re inviting. +1s can nearly double your guest list in certain areas! So now I’m wondering whether I should even bother with a social group just because of their +1 additions (like close co-workers, because the s.o. and I did meet at work!) It can be pretty challenging.

    • Actually thats the other thing I should have included in the post. No plus ones unless we knew and were also friends with their partner. And actually no one seemed to mind too much which was great!

      • I saw something somewhere with the idea of putting ___ out of 1 attending on the RSVP so that it is clear you’re not inviting any +1s or kids.. but then I mentioned it to a friend and he thought that it would be rude to do… any thoughts?
        I did see guideline somewhere that it’s OK not to invite the +1 unless that person doesn’t know anyone else at the wedding, which makes sense. Though that doesn’t help if you know the +1 is someone you don’t like!

      • We also skipped the plus ones. We had 29 guests total and only person we’d never met (a very good friend’s wife). It was only ever occasionally awkward and there were no long-term hurt feelings. And with such a small group it was obvious that lots of people were excluded and it was nothing personal. Our guests were all people who truly knew “us” and could appreciate all the sappy, strange things we did during the ceremony.

        • Thats great that it worked out so well for you! Especially considering how small you managed to make it.

          • In the process of planning my own wedding, I’ve felt that the smaller the number of guests, the easier it is to justify cutting many people out.
            With only 35 guests, everyone (friends and family alike) was SO understanding when it came to not attending the ceremony. Luckily we’re planning a huge garden-beer-party in a couple months to make it up to them!

          • Thanks for writing something about the “plus one.” We created a some rules, once was that the couple was to be married (if we have not met their sig other) or in a long term relationship. Our wedding is in 2 months. So far 2 people have asked before they RSVP-ed and totally understood. Just recently someone invited a family member, without discussing before she mailed in the invite. I had to break the news to her. 🙁 We are paying for our won wedding so the rules must be followed. I do have some guilt, hence my search to read about other couples and how they manage the plus one. Thanks again!

        • Im so glad I found this website. I’ve been panicking trying to plan a wedding on a very small budget. I’ve been trying to explain to my fiancée that we needed to only invite the family who we actually spent time with. He’s so worried about offending someone even if he never sees them. I’d never thought that with such a small guest list people would not take it personally if they weren’t invited. I would love a small wedding with around 20 guests then go to a nice restaurant for a meal and a few drinks. Is it wrong that I don’t care if I offend some relatives I’ve never met?

  7. That’s fantastic!

    We decided to invite all the people we ‘should’ invite – extended family and godparents etc. People assume we’re doing this under pressure but that’s not it at all.

    The main thing is that we’re happy with this decision. If we weren’t, there’s no way we’d do it.

    • “The main thing is that we’re happy with this decision. If we weren’t, there’s no way we’d do it.”

      That right there should be a rule for everyone. Whether you’re aiming for a tiny intimate wedding or a huge party the important thing is it should be what YOU want.

  8. We’ve been pouring over our list for (what seems like) ages. The biggest challenge for us is kids. We’re inviting kids but children of our friends that I can’t name aren’t invited. If the list reads “daughter 1 and daughter 2”, they both get crossed off.

    To expound on another poster’s/respondant’s reply, I would L-O-V-E to see a post on how to deal with drunks at your wedding. My futer sister-in-law is an alchoholic (a falling-down, screaming, yelling drunk) and turns everything – including holidays and her son’s birthday parties – into a drunken debacle. Because my finace comes from a family of alcoholics (albeit, functioning alcoholics) no one will confront her about her behavior. Dare I say a word about her cutting back for the day or do I have to make every other guest suffer by not allowing alcohol at the wedding? Every other guest on the list likes to have a cocktail or two now and again, especially in the company of friends. Any advice on THAT topic?

    • I hear you on this! For the longest time I was thinking I’d have an alcohol free reception since my brother is an alcoholic. I do now want alcohol at the wedding, but we can’t afford an open bar, so I’m hoping that that will curb the alcohol abuse a bit if he has to pay for his own! And at least my parents would be angry if he got drunk and might make him leave…

      Would you do an open bar if you had alcohol? You could always find out if there’s a specific type of alcohol that she hates, and make that into a signature drink 😉

      • Were having an open bar only up to a certain dollar amount to keep people from getting wasted. Because my thinking is a drink or two will keep people happy, but not stupid. And then it will turn into a cash bar after my initial amount is spent.

        So maybe you could do that, or maybe you could do drink tickets? Everyone gets 2 drink tickets, otherwise it is a cash bar?

    • This is a REALLY tricky topic, Jen, because for a lot of ‘functioning’ alcoholics, their strength and conviction comes from NOT admitting they have a problem. If you ask your future SIL to avoid or cut back on the drinking at the reception, you may end up in an argument about why she needs to, which turns into an argument about whether she has a problem or not, and you’ll probably lose. Denial is a functioning alcoholic’s stock in trade.

      I’m usually all for healthy, peaceful confrontation, but if her whole family is backing her up about how “normal” her drinking is, you could alienate them all by trying to get her to change her behavior. That is not necessarily the kind of drama you want to have before your wedding.

      You could a) have a cash bar, b) follow Sue’s excellent suggestion, figure out what liquor she HATES, and feature it, or c) detail a groomsman or a member of Team Bride to stick with her throughout the reception, make sure she doesn’t drink too much, and politely take her aside if she does, so she doesn’t cause too much of a scene.

      Good luck!

    • If you want a bar, could you do drink tickets? So everyone gets 1 drink (or whatever) and the rest is cash, or simply cut everybody off at two? I feel like most casual drinkers would be perfectly happy with two, which is hopefully not enough to bring out the drama.

      That’s a really tricky situation, I hope you find a good solution.

    • Honestly I would not make other guests suffer for the one person with a problem (if it’s multiple people, or one person in a very tiny 10-person wedding, or you, your intended or both are recovering alcoholics, that’s different).

      My solution would be whatever bar I would have had otherwise, in my case an open bar (we could provide our own liquor so an open bar was a very affordable option) but not everyone does this…and have a few designated attendants or people close to me keep an eye on the potential troublemaker. If that person causes a scene, your Bridal Bodyguards take him aside.

      NOT in a “you’re drinking too much” way, because that is an argument they aren’t going to win, especially at a wedding, and it’s not their job to confront an alcoholic about hizzer life choices…just hizzer behavior *at that moment*. But take them aside in a “you’re not acting appropriately” way, potentially distracting them or even making them leave.

      Or, honestly, in the “Mike” story, I do think you can get away with not inviting Mike and Krystal, though I was a bit confused. If it’s a friend and not a close family member it’s easier to just avoid the problem altogether and not invite them.

      You can also warn the bartender ahead of time (or have someone else do it) about the person with a drinking problem, so the bartender knows after two drinks to start watering that person’s order.

      Or just don’t do an open bar…some people will criticize you for it, and it’s “not done” in my family, but you won’t find any judgment here over doing it!

      In the “the whole family is functioning alcoholic” way…if you think you can get someone who is NOT in her family to take her aside, do that. If you think the whole thing will be a big mess because they’re all alcoholic to varying degrees on that side, then restrict the bar in some way or pre-warn the bartender about her. Wedding bartenders get a lot of flak, but they’re used to weddings so a warning to water the drinks of a particular guest will be adhered to. It will be nothing new.

      I don’t think there is an easier solution, unfortunately.

    • I’ve seen some good advice around other sites (I’m fairly new here) that you should give the bad offenders’ pics and names to the bartenders and they serve the first drink or two normal to them, then the rest of the drinks are so spritzer that no one could get drunk off them, but they don’t get ‘cut off’ so they aren’t offended, but can’t get drunk either, so sneaky, so perfect 🙂 we are either doing a ticket then cash bar, or a 3 hours only open bar, depending on the venue as one venue has a 3 hour bar included in the deal, along with MANY other perks, I just need a quote now 🙂

    • We’re not having an open bar, but we are offering a signature cocktail and champagne to toast. If any of our guests can flag down the waitress often enough to actually get drunk, I would be impressed. 😉

  9. Great post! We pretty much did the same thing. The guest list was so hard, almost as hard as the seating plan 🙂

    • Seating was HELLACIOUSLY hard. Isn’t it just amazing how your social groups don’t fit into neat little packets of 8 or 10? 🙂

      We had a few plans of attack on the seating:

      1.) The Singles Table NEVER WORKS. Don’t group guests by marital status – group them by interest. That means couples and singles can share tables (2 couples/6 singles, 3 couples/4 singles, 4 couples/2 singles etc). Our table groups were things like “The Overachieving Professionals Table”, “The Young Hippie Table”, “The Vintage Hippie Table”, “The Affable Straight-Laced New England Liberal Academic Table”, “The Old Boys Who Like Hunting Table”, “The Traveler and Expat Table”…like that. My family is generally close so most of them just got seated in a big clutch of tables near enough each other that it didn’t really matter exactly where they were.

      • That’s fantastic! I love it! Because our wedding was so small some of the tables only had like 4 or 5 people instead of 8 (but it didn’t matter because they sat at picnic tables). We mostly went with young family + young family = a good match! 🙂

  10. I got married in Darwin (North Australia ) where we live, last year and due to its remoteness it certainly cut down on who was prepared to travel this far, even from other parts of oz. I felt if people were happy to make the trip, they obvipusly regard us as good freinds and it was worth the distance. A lot of freinds live all over the place. Sadly because of this lots couldn’t come from the UK (where our families are)and it immediately solved the family issue and just 5 relations came.

    The trickiest bit was who to invite from Darwin. I was concerned more about the food costs- which was silly really and keeping the rather alternative ceremony intimate. We had more of an open invite after food (about 7pm) for people to enjoy the after after party- which worked pretty well. This could be a solution. To be honest I wish I had just just invited those extra people all day and asked them if they wanted to come to ceremony and party or just party, as it is a beautiful thing to share. It was silly as the videographer’s helper ended up joining in the ceremony and someone’s mum who was visiting and I’d never met- so after the details of who we wanted to be there people were randomly there anyway. But man- the guest list is the trickiest. We had 60 in the day, and proably 90 all up in the evening.
    It’s so hard as some freinds who came in the eveing have become really good freinds since. This is not great advice- I’m just saying- it is a real hard one.

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