The Ultimate Guide to Creating Your (intentional) Wedding Guest List
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Hey there, small wedding seeker,
When you begin developing your wedding day, creating your wedding guest list is one of the very first steps. A lot of couples completely underestimate how completely overwhelming this step can be! I'm here to give you my best tips for how to cut through the noise and create a guest list with purpose.
Maybe you've always dreamed of an intimate elopement, but you're quickly realizing your list of "must haves" is larger than you thought. Or, maybe you've always assumed a large family meant a large traditional wedding, and you're stressed about trying to entertain hundreds of people. No matter what you have felt planning your wedding so far, I'm here for you.
In case we haven't met yet, I'm Keilah (she/her), lead wedding planner and chief magic officer here at Bespoke Socials. Bespoke Socials was born out of a true desire to challenge some wedding industry "standard" and produce stunning and meaningful weddings and events. Intention is the cornerstone of everything we do. If that sounds like something you are looking for, you can learn more about our wedding planning packages here. When you are ready, contact me here to get started and I will be with you every single step of the way. Otherwise, keep reading to discover how to create a thoughtful and practical wedding guest list.
Before you Create Your Wedding Guest List
The default way of building a guest list is to make a list of everyone you know and try to fill a ballroom. Stop right there! The large majority of wedding drama comes from wedding guests. Unspoken expectations breed resentment. Before you start compiling a list of names and typing into Google "who gets a plus one", take a deep breath. First, I want you to commit to looking at your relationships with grace and looking at your life with gratitude.
Oftentimes we come up with a list of people based on who we used to be close to or who we wish we were closer with. Perhaps you wish your list of loved ones was longer, or closer, or easier. Forgive yourself for lost connections, friends turned acquaintances, and distant relatives. Be honest about who it is that you really want there, and who you merely feel obligated to invite. Let go of the pressure to get closer with people in time to celebrate with them in the future. Appreciate who is in your life now. Choose to celebrate that, whatever it looks like.
If now isn't the time to put your foot down with an insistent parent, when? If now isn't the time to be honest with the distant sibling, when? Before you enter into this new phase of life, I want you to commit to radical honesty. Take a serious inventory of your community. Fix what needs to be broken, let go of what's weighing you down, embrace who has always been there. Whatever you have is enough. Better to have a smaller room full of genuine love and joy than a large room filled with burdensome responsibility and "seat fillers".
Set Your Intention
Of course, the first step in planning your wedding is to set your intention. Your wedding purpose should be specific, unique, and bold. It will help you make tough decisions (like the guest list). If your wedding purpose doesn't help you with the guest list, it probably isn't specific or bold enough.
A wedding with the intention of throwing a family reunion will have a very different guest list than one with an intention of defining a new family unit, for example. A wedding with the intention of combining two ethnicities into one happy community will have a different wedding party from one that seeks to redefine gender norms. A wedding that seeks to put the couple in as bright a spotlight as possible will gravitate toward separate decisions than one that seeks to create a cozy, private environment for your VIP's.
An intentional wedding is a beautiful thing. It helps you make the sort of impact on the world that you want to, instead of replicating staid traditions or just going through the motions. It connects you and your guests to what you are doing and why.
Big or Small?
Some environments work better with more people, and some work better with less. Start with the way you want to celebrate, and that will help you determine if you want to consider going bigger, smaller, or mid-sized. Remember the goal is to make your celebration fit you and your people, not the other way around. Instead of defaulting to dinner and dancing, perhaps you're more "food truck and bonfire" type of people. Or "private chef brunch and garden stroll". Or "progressive dinner on a party bus and karaoke". Here are some things to consider for both camps:
What's great about larger guest lists (100+ people) is not leaving anyone out, rambunctious dance floors, and lots of spotlight. There's something amazing about getting everyone you care about in the same room together, and your wedding can serve as a happy occasion to bring loved ones together. There's less opportunity for awkwardness or hurt feelings, and there's "wow" factor when walking down the aisle or making a grand entrance into a packed ballroom. It will also be more streamlined to plan, with most of the industry (venues, catering minimums, etc.) set up for a larger number of people. Large guest lists are great for people who love tradition and like being the center of attention.
Of course, a large guest list also has its downsides. Besides the much more considerable expenses, you'll spend a lot more time playing host/ess instead of enjoying the celebration yourself. The more variety in the guest list (a wide range of ages, interests, closeness, tastes, etc) means that you'll need to work harder to make everyone feel included and ensure that they have a good time. That also means you'll spend less time with the people you're most excited to celebrate with (like your new spouse!). Planning will involve a lot more time designing seating charts, chasing down RSVP's, organizing hotel blocks, and adjusting for food restrictions. The timeline will be much more strict, and the day will go by at a much quicker pace. Large weddings are fun, but many couples report them being a much bigger headache.
With an intimate wedding (50 people or less, my personal favorite!), you can instead curate a very small group of your closest family and friends and create an experience around them. You have more options for entertainment since you aren't relegated to huge venues or ballrooms, can spend more generously per guest, and bask in lots of quality time with your VIP's. You'll spend less time in the spotlight or in host/ess mode, and your day will go by at a more leisurely pace with less pressure. You'll get to enjoy your wedding as a member of the festivities instead of in front of it all. Though you'll still probably need to do things like a seating chart and chase RSVP's, it will take considerably less time to do so. As an added bonus, the smaller the guest list, the easier it is to break a few rules.
Of course, there is more potential for drama with an intimate wedding. You'll have to consider complicated family dynamics, be comfortable saying no, and work around an industry that's set up for a different idea of what a wedding is "supposed" to be. Minimums can make it difficult to plan with certain vendors, venues are typically designed for a large amount of people, and there's far less inspiration for how to celebrate this way. Couples often underestimate how much work it still takes to plan an intimate celebration, and get overwhelmed quickly with how many details there still are to manage. The details actually stand out more in an intimate wedding, with less people to distract or detract from the environment. An intimate wedding has many benefits for different people, though. It all depends on you, your values, and your vibe.
If you are trying to create a warm and welcoming environment, with custom calligraphy touches and personalized place settings, it's a lot more manageable with a smaller guest list.
Determining Your People
Your crew, your community, your posse... whatever you want to call them, weddings are about bringing "your people" together. You're going to honor them with a good time by considering them thoughtfully, spending generously (no matter the size of your budget, weddings are pricey!), and accommodating their needs. They will spend considerable time, money, and energy to celebrate you in turn. Take these responsibilities and privileges seriously by answering honestly- who are your people? Take some time to reflect on this question for yourself first, and your fiancé can do the same.
Here are some questions to consider when determining who your people are:
Would you reschedule/reconsider your wedding if this person couldn't make it?
Would you treat them to a $200 outing in other circumstances?
Think about travel, expenses, planned activities, etc. Will this person participate happily? Would you do the same for them?
Would you take time off during a very busy season of life or work to attend a celebration of theirs?
Admittedly, the list above makes for a pretty strict guest list! As an intimate wedding planner, we concentrate on the most essential members and throw one hell of an experience for everyone. Of course, if you want a larger celebration, loosen the requirements a bit. You should apply the purpose of your wedding (a family reunion? A thank-you to your parents? An epic memory for the two of you?) to the people. Your overall wedding intention will determine who and how many people to invite.
Once you have taken some time to reflect and come up with a preliminary list, it's time to come together with your fiance to make the official guest list. This is where all that wedding planning stuff really mimics real life. You get to define, as a team, who your people are and what it means to be a member of your community. You get to decide how you will spend time with them, honor them, and ask of them in return. It's a difficult, but engaging and fun step!
In order to get on the same page, consider making a few criteria with your significant other when considering who makes the final cut. Here are some of my favorites:
Our people support our marriage. We trust them to hold us accountable, uplift our family, and support us.
We can call on our people when times are tough.
Our people speak to us at least one of us regularly (for example, at least 3/6/12 times a year).
Spending time with our people is generally positive, happy, and encouraging (even if they drive us crazy sometimes).
Our people make us better people.
Start making a preliminary guest list, and don't be afraid to take some time to sit on it and make several revisions. If it makes it easier, consider making a few different lists so you can see your options laid out clearly. Just remember, more isn't more.
Now, what about drama and family dynamics? Of course I won't leave you hanging here. It can be difficult to invite this uncle but not that one, for example, and then your guest list easily swells past your ideal number.
There are totally legit reasons to invite someone to your wedding that doesn't fit neatly into the above categories. If your parents play a major role in the heart behind your celebration, for example, it's 100% reasonable to allow them to invite their siblings or best friends as a generous gesture. If your brother's best friend helps with his mobility so he can have a good time, of course you would invite them! Consider adding people with the following caveats:
Would it cause more drama to invite them or not invite them?
Would this person's presence negatively impact your day or the dynamic of the group?
Would not receiving an invitation permanently alter your relationship with them or just cause a temporary frustration?
Just remember, your wedding is for whoever YOU decide it is for. Be bold. Your wedding guest list is an essential component to creating a thoughtful wedding with intention, so take it seriously. This is what distinguishes your celebration from just any other wedding to a keystone event that kickstarts a lifetime of wedded bliss.
Advice from a Kansas City Wedding Planner
I know how overwhelming the beginning of wedding planning can be, and creating your guest list is often one of the first steps. At the end of the day, you just want the people there who are going to love you and celebrate your relationship - not only on the wedding day but during your marriage. I know I've said this before, but when you think about your wedding day, consider what you really want first. Let go of what your family and friends think you "should do", stop paying attention to every conversation in wedding Facebook groups, and give yourself the space to approach your wedding planning with the thoughtfulness it deserves.
If you are looking for a wedding planner ready to cut through the wedding industry BS with you, I would love to connect. I plan small weddings for the offbeat and gloriously in love because I truly believe the greatest strength of humanity is our ability to collaborate, communicate, and come together. Our celebrations sit at the center of all our most joyful memories. If you're feeling overwhelmed, just know that most of my couples come to me tired, frustrated, and questioning every decision they make. You are not alone here, and I would love to help. You can learn more about our intimate wedding planning services here or reach out to me directly here.