Deciding whom you invite to the wedding can seem almost as momentous as deciding whom to marry. The task should be relatively easy: You simply invite your closest family and your dearest friends. Yet deciding who falls into these categories can be a touchy matter, especially when you're trying to keep the head count to a certain number of guests.
Mood and Budget
Begin with some idea of how large a wedding you want. Have you envisioned an intimate gathering or a big, festive party? And what about the physical setting itself—small garden or grand ballroom? If you find that the setting you had in mind is too big or too small for the number of guests you have in mind, be flexible. There are many beautiful places to get married, and the most important thing is to be able to celebrate with the people you care about.
The budget is usually the most salient factor in determining the number of guests at a wedding. Since caterers charge by the head, it's logical to establish a maximum number of people at the same time you put a ceiling on expenses for the reception. If you'd like to entertain a crowd but don't have unlimited resources, consider having a buffet, which will be less expensive per person than a formal seated meal.
Creating a Preliminary List
The initial guest list is actually a compilation of several smaller lists. After listing close family members, attendants, and the officiant and his or her spouse (if they are to be included), the bride and groom should each write down a list of friends, trying to keep the lists equal in length; a collaborative list of mutual friends is next. Parents on both sides need to add their wish lists, which should include family members as well as their own friends and colleagues. If any parents are divorced and remarried, there could be as many as four sets to accommodate.
When the bride's parents are paying for the wedding, it's customary that they be allowed to invite more guests. If the groom's parents are paying, the same holds true, although in either case, if one side has a larger family, that side should be allotted more spots. If the two of you are paying for your wedding and the budget starts to become strained, it's perfectly reasonable to ask parents to make a contribution to cover the cost of their guests. If the guest list becomes a real strain on the budget, communicate to your parents that you'd like them to limit their lists to people whom you actually know.
Finalizing the Guest List
Once you have the preliminary list of names, it's time to edit it down to a number your budget can accommodate.
Those family members closest to you will naturally be invited first. Space permitting, and depending on the dynamic of your families, expand your lists to include more distant relations.
The names you're able to rattle off without thinking are clearly must-invites. Then you move into the "optionals"—those people you'd love to include if there's room: old college roommates you haven't seen in years or social acquaintances. You might consider drafting an A-list and a B-list, and for every person from the A-list who sends his or her regrets, you can respond with an invitation to someone on the B-list. Just make sure you send your B-list invitations out at least three weeks before the wedding.
If you're inviting only a couple of people from a tight group at the office, stay low-key about the plans, and ask them to be discreet as well. If you decide to bypass all work friends but don't want to hide the fact that you're getting married, the best tactic is to be as honest as possible. That goes for dealing with anyone, job-related or not. If you think someone is likely to hear about the wedding through the grapevine, better to head off any imagined slight with an explanation such as: "We're having a very small wedding," or "I'd love to invite you, but with so many family members, we're at our limit."
According to protocol, the wives and husbands of guests are automatically included and addressed on the invitations. A couple that's living together, engaged or not, is generally treated in the manner of a married couple, and both are invited. There's no rule that you have to include girlfriends and boyfriends, although if you have space, it's always an appreciated gesture. For couples who don't live together, each person should receive a separate invitation.
For guests who are single, it's nice to add "and guest" to the invitation, if possible—especially if the guest may not know anyone at the wedding or if there won't be many unattached people there. That said, weddings are expensive, so if you have to choose, you'll probably prefer to have someone special there rather than somebody's date whom you may not know at all.
Children are a wonderful addition to a wedding celebration, but sometimes space constraints or the formality of an evening ceremony make it hard to accommodate them. If you elect to exclude kids, 16 or 18 years of age are typical cutoff points. You should never print "no children" on the invitation (and strictly speaking, parents should not bring children unless their names are specified there). To be safe, get out the word through family members, or include a little note with the invitation explaining that you're trying to keep the numbers down. And once you decide to have a no-children policy (apart from the flower girl or ring bearer), stick to it. If you make an exception for your favorite cousin who happens to be 14, you'll hear plenty of grumbling from parents who will wonder why their teenagers couldn't come.
A common concern is what to do about those on the guest list who won't be able to make it to your wedding: out-of-towners who don't like to travel, friends whose work schedules spill over to weekends, etc. Generally, you should still send an invitation. Some couples worry that such a gesture reads like an overt invitation to send a gift. Most people, however, are happy to send a present and would be more offended by not being invited at all.
Of course, don't be too surprised if someone you're sure is a nay turns out to be a yea. Many couples have been shocked by the positive responses they've gotten from far-flung friends and family. People love a wedding, and they will, if possible, use it as an opportunity to travel and socialize. So don't be caught off guard: Assume that 80 percent of those you invite will indeed say they'll be there.
With this number in mind, you still don't know exactly who will and won't come even after all the responses. For one thing, there's always the possibility of a no-show because of work, travel problems, or illness. While a buffet accommodates 11th-hour changes more easily than a seated meal, a swift shuffle of chairs can always be done. If someone fails to show by the first course, the setting should be removed. If a guest shows up with an unexpected date, a chair should quickly be found. It's a good idea to appoint one person, other than the bride or her mother, to be responsible for overseeing these kinds of maneuvers.