Engagement Party Planning Basics

Whether you're the hosts or guests of honor, read our engagement party primer for everything you need to know.
Engaged couple
Photo by iStock

What It's For

People will want to congratulate you on your engagement, and let's be real: A party's a lot more fun than a phone call! It's also a great time to introduce key people from your lives who are going to be seeing a lot of each other (and possibly helping plan your wedding together) over the next year or so. "It's really the first time before the wedding when you have different groups of friends and generations really getting to know each other in a much more intimate way," says celebrity wedding planner Jung Lee of Fete NY.

Who Hosts

Traditionally, the bride's parents host the first official celebration. Then, the groom's parents can throw their own party, or maybe both sets of parents will come together to cohost an event. But these days, more couples are throwing the engagement party themselves (but just keep in mind that if you're doing the inviting, it's your responsibility to foot the bill too). Friends can also host (and may even volunteer to), but before you ask, be conscious of the financial implications.

When to Have It

The engagement party should fall within a few months of the proposal, right in the sweet spot between carefree, just-engaged life and the start of serious wedding planning. You'll want to give guests about a month's notice, so about 9 to 11 months before the wedding is the ideal time frame.

Whose Turf to Have It On

Say you live in New York, but most of your family and friends live in Chicago: You may decide to have your party in your hometown (and enlist someone local to help you plan), host it in your current locale or even throw two parties. Just beware of tiring out your guests and bridal party with too many invitations before the wedding day is even close. Also, when picking the party location, consider where you plan to have your wedding—you may not want to ask guests to travel twice. “More of my clients are having multiple engagement celebrations because their friends and family are spread all around the country, but everybody wants to honor them," Lee says.

Where to Have It

Depending on how many people you want to invite, you can make an engagement party work almost anywhere—it's really up to the hosts. To choose the venue, think about the atmosphere you want: If you like the idea of having everyone in the same room, you might want to rent out a private room at a restaurant, country club or a bar. For something more low-key, a house, backyard or beach club might be a better choice.

Whom to Invite

It used to be that you weren't supposed to invite anyone to the engagement party whom you weren't inviting to your wedding, case closed. But now that so many couples live and/or host their nuptials far away from their families and friends, and the formality of engagement parties is evolving, expectations have changed and engagement parties now often include people who aren't invited to the wedding. If your friends want to plan an informal bar party and just email the invites a few weeks before, it's totally fine to include people you aren't sure will end up making the wedding guest list (coworkers, newer friends, college roommates). And if your parents' good friends want to host a cocktail party at their home in your honor, let your parents invite mutual friends and business associates you might not have room for at your wedding.

If, on the other hand, either you two or your parents are hosting, the old rule sticks. When the wedding hosts send the engagement party invitation, it's considered part of the official wedding parties and guests assume they're invited to the wedding too. To avoid a sticky situation later, start working on your wedding guest list now. Then trim the engagement party list down to your wedding party, immediate family and closest friends.

How to Invite

Feel free to keep the invitations simple. You can even make them yourselves or send out an email. If you've chosen your invitation designer already, see if they'll give you a special rate. Don't worry if you haven't settled on a color palette or don't have a wedding date in mind yet—your engagement party invitations don't have to match the rest of your stationery. Also, make sure you have your wedding registry done before the engagement party invitations are sent out in case guests want to bring you a gift.

What to Serve

There's no need to plan a five-course meal with a four-hour open bar. Anything from passed appetizers or tasting menu stations to a family-style buffet or casual cookout will work. Or get creative and serve up dishes that share something about you. "I had a bride and groom known for having Sunday Mexican dinners, so of course they brought it back with margaritas, mini fish tacos and great guacamole—it just made sense and was a genuine touch," Lee says. As for dessert, serve it if you'd like, but it doesn't have to be cake. Consider gourmet ice cream sandwiches, assorted baked goods or seasonal treats like candy apples or cotton candy.

How to Set the Scene

While of course it's fine for the décor and details to reflect your wedding colors and theme, like your invites, don't feel like you have to rush to choose them just so your engagement party can match. The real trick here is that you don't want to upstage the wedding. So if you're envisioning a casual beach wedding with simple décor, a fancy cocktail party at a swanky hotel with over-the-top centerpieces might make that beach bash feel like a bit of a letdown. Consider choosing a style and theme that are completely different from your wedding day to mix things up. So if you're planning a formal ballroom wedding, go for a laid-back beach theme for your engagement party, with vibrant tropical colors and an outdoor setting. Just a few small arrangements from your local florist can perk up any space (and it's a great way to try out a potential florist for the wedding). Even if you want to keep the engagement party low-key, a theme and coordinating color palette are an easy way to tie things together.

What to Wear

Your wardrobe will depend on the setting of the party. Aside from the obvious (don't wear a long, beaded evening gown to a casual backyard bash), keep it simple enough that you don't outdo your wedding day look, but special enough that you'll stand out. A sundress will work for an outdoor affair, or for a fancier fete, a cocktail dress is a safe bet. And what should your freshly minted francé wear? While he doesn't have to wear a suit and tie (and certainly not a tux)—unless the venue calls for it—he should get as dressed up as you do. And if you have a specific dress code for your guests, make a note of it on the invitation.