How to Trim Your Wedding Guest List

A place setting photographed for an article on how to trim your guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

Baby, it’s cold outside here in New York City. What better way to stay warm then to remain inside the house spending time whittling down the guest list for your wedding? Well, maybe not, but for many of my clients just starting the process of planning their wedding, this is exactly how they are spending their time.  So, here are some tips for how to trim your wedding guest list:

For most of my couples, trimming the guest list and simultaneously trying to keep everyone happy is the number one chore of wedding planning. No one can do it for you, and ultimately someone ends up feeling bad for having to shut the door on a potential guest. To help alleviate any guest list trimming trauma, I have put together a few strategies to make the process stress-free. That is, until the next item looming on your ‘to do’ list.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

  1. Basic math. Start with your overall budget. You only have so many funds to work with, and that translates into only so many mouths you can feed. The average catering bill is $30 to $70 per person, and you have plenty of things to pay for as the wedding process continues. You don’t want to go into debt over your wedding, so make sure to leave plenty of room to handle any emergencies. Last minute tent needed to avoid a downpour at the ceremony, perhaps?
  1. Stick to your priorities. First and foremost, what kind of wedding are you envisioning? If you wanted a small wedding on a beach in Hawaii, then keep this image forefront in your mind. It would be great to invite everyone, but if that means sacrificing your dream of a perfectly simple ceremony, then it is not worth it. You can always invite everyone to a giant cocktail party after you get back from Hawaii.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

  1. Percentages (unfortunately) rule. Once you determine the number of guests you can afford, split the number down the middle. If you are throwing the wedding all on your own, then the list should be 50% for the spouse-to-be and 50% for the other. If, however, your parents are paying for the fête, then you will want to make the numbers read 50% of the guest list for the couple, and 50% of the guest list for the couple’s parents. Yes, you read that correctly. When you are not paying the bill, you only have control of half of the people you are inviting to your wedding. Whoever is paying for the wedding, gets the privilege of a bigger say in the wedding guest list. It’s only fair. Let this be motivation to pare down your wedding and throw a super small affair that keeps you in total control of the guest count.
  1. Know who is important. Trust me, you will always have more names to start with than people you can actually invite. Hopefully your starting guest list isn’t too far off the mark, but if it is, then you need to tier your guests in order of importance to determine who makes the cut. Essential family members and bridal party are at the top of the list (think grandparents, siblings with their plus one’s), then close friends and extended family, followed by work colleagues and less-close friends. Trim the list now from the bottom up in order to save hurt feelings later.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

  1. Be socially savvy. We all have a few close friends who fit into specific social groups within our lives – book club, college cohorts, coworkers – and you feel like if you invite one person, then you need to invite them all. In this case, the kindest cut might be to not invite anyone from the group at all. There is nothing worse than having one member of a group talk to another member and find out the hard way that s/he didn’t get an invite. If you and your friend are besties, then by all means extend an invite. But if the bottom line is looming, then it may be wiser to say to no to the entire group.
  1. It’s a wedding, not a reunion. Weddings are a great way to catch up with friends and family you haven’t seen in a long time. I like to think of weddings as a family reunion with better hair. That said, if you are on the fence for inviting someone and you haven’t seen the person in a year, catching up over a cup of coffee would be a much better (and cheaper) way of reconnecting one-on-one rather than waving at each other across the room at your chaotic wedding.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

  1. Make sure distant relatives remain distant. As with any friends you haven’t seen in a year, if you have family members that you haven’t seen in a long time but feel like you have to send them an invitation, then address the issue up front. Sending a hand-written note telling your relative about your upcoming wedding is a wonderful way of spreading the news. Just make sure you say in the letter that you don’t expect her/him to make the long trip for the wedding or to give you a gift. You are letting your relative know about your wedding while also letting them off the hook for attending. Win-win.
  1. Plus one or plus none. This is your wedding we’re talking about here, not a paid-for date night for other couples. If you are inviting someone and have socialized with their other half, then extend an invite to both sides of the couple. If not, then no invitation needed for the guest’s partner. If you are inviting single family members or friends, the stipulation of no plus one’s allowed is actually a good thing. As a single girl myself, it is nice to get an invitation and know up front that I am not expected to bring anyone with me. Further, weddings are a great opportunity for single people to meet one another, so sell it as such.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

  1. Kids are cute…until they’re not. While you may love all of your cousin’s kids, you may not love having to pay for all of them. Decide now whether or not this is going to be an adults-only affair. If so, make sure that your invitations are addressed as such: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, NOT The Smith Family. If kids do get invited, consider roping them off at a kids table (or better yet, a kids-only area at the back of the reception) with a much cheaper kids meal. You may also want to factor in entertainment for the kids (crayons, art projects, or even a special entertainer) as well as paying a babysitter to let the adults have their fun.
  1. Just say no. Inevitably, you will be pressured into inviting someone just because they invited you to their wedding. Just say no to feeling guilty about reciprocating. If you can extend them an invite, then by all means do, but if you can’t, then don’t. Social niceties should not push you into debt.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

  1. Confirm your guest list, then invite. Planning a wedding is much like planning a war: you need to have a battle plan set in stone before marching forward. Make sure that whomever is giving you a list of guests – be it your other half, your parents, or other family members – that they send you the list of names BEFORE they start making calls or sending emails to invite people. Get everyone on the same page and give the go ahead before any informal invitations are sent. Nothing is worse than having to ‘dis-invite’ someone because you couldn’t afford a place for her/him at the table.
  1. Don’t get in this mess to begin with. I know of more couples that started with grand wedding plans, but quickly changed their tune once financial reality hit. If you find you simply can’t afford to throw an event on a scale that will make everyone happy (including yourself), then maybe it is time to consider a much smaller wedding with only immediate family present. No excuses needed for not inviting everyone: you only had family present. Everyone will understand, and if you still feel guilty after the honeymoon, then throw a big cocktail party and invite everyone at that time.

Finally, if you are looking for a free wedding guest list spreadsheet, check out this one from APracticalWedding.com or the almighty guest list manager at The Knot.


For more wedding tips such as how to trim your wedding guest list, or to view more photos, please visit my website.

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

Photo for an article on how to trim your wedding guest list, by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams


If you would like to see more images from my portfolio, such as the photos featured in this article entitled ‘How to Trim Your Wedding Guest List,’ please visit my website — www.KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com

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