Tips for Making Your Guest List

Grappling with guest list anxiety? We'll help you beat it and plan the perfect list with these essential tips.
Bride and groom classic ceremony exit
Photo by Rachel Red Photography

Drafting and cutting your guest list might not be quite as fun as tasting cake flavors, but follow these top tips and it'll go much more smoothly than you think.

Decide how you'll divvy up the list—before accepting financial help.

We won't tiptoe around the truth: Making a guest list can get messy, especially if one or both sets of parents are involved in the planning or contributing financially. That's why you should be clear about your expectations before you accept help from them. Even if you're paying for the wedding yourselves, it's a good idea to get the families together and talk about the guest list so there are no surprises. Once you've started putting down deposits with someone else's money, you're in a bind, whereas before you start spending, you can still negotiate or choose to decline.
Tip: Traditionally the couple gets half the guest list, and each set of parents gets a quarter of the guest list. So if you're planning to invite 200 people, you'd get 100 guests, your parents would get 50 and your fiancé's parents would also get 50. The most drama-free approach is to split the list evenly three ways.

Design your dream list.

When you start building your list, jot down the names of everyone you could ever imagine attending your wedding, from old camp friends to that funny third cousin you met once at a family reunion. Just for this part, take your budget and venue out of the equation. You'll have to do some trimming later on, but for now, think big.
Tip: If you're tempted to invite even more people on a whim later on, go back to this list as a reality check. If they were never on your dream list, are they really crucial now?

Be realistic about the number of guests to avoid stress later on.

Crunching the numbers isn't the most glamorous part of wedding planning, but there is a figure you really can't avoid: your guest list count. Your budget and the venue size are the main factors that should play into this decision. Each guest adds to the number of plates your caterer will prepare, favors, chair rentals and how much cake you'll need to pay for. Choose a number that's larger than your venue's capacity and you'll be holding your breath every time you open an RSVP. It's much better to keep your number on the conservative side. If there's room in the budget or you end up having more space than you thought you would, add later on.
Tip: Make it easy on yourself and use The Knot Budget Calculator to play around with the numbers and see how much you can save or spend by subtracting or adding from your guest list.

Make some cutting rules (and actually follow them).

It's time to return to reality and start trimming that dream list until you reach your real number. The easiest way to cut the list is to come up with rules and actually stick to them. We promise it'll be easier in the long run and you'll avoid potential drama down the line. What do we mean by "rules"? Here are a few common ones:

Rule 1: If neither of you has spoken to or met them or heard their name before, don't invite them.
Rule 2: Not crazy about having children at your party? Don't feel bad about having an adults-only wedding.
Rule 3: If neither of you has spoken to them in three years and they're not related to you, don't invite them.
Rule 4: If there's anyone who's on the list because you feel guilty about leaving them off (maybe because you were invited to their wedding or they're friends with lots of people who are invited), don't invite them.

Tip: We've heard just about every guest list horror story, and through experience, we know the only way to make this process go smoothly is to be as fair as possible when you're making edits. It'll be difficult at first, but for each person you take off your in-laws' or parents' list, take one off your own as well.

Make an A-list and a B-list.

Shhh...we'll keep this little secret between us. Having two lists is how you'll be able to invite the most people without raising your budget or having to find a larger venue. Here's how it works: Your A-list consists of the must-have invites you couldn't imagine not having at your wedding, like your family and close friends. They'll receive your first round of invitations. Your B-list is made up of guests you still really want to be there, so don't put just anyone on it. If you start getting RSVPs and it turns out you have enough "regrets," then you'll start sending invites to your B-list (in order of importance).
Tip: If you send your B-list invites too close to the wedding (within a week or two), you might as well tell those guests they're second best. Do it without being obvious. Send your A-list invites three months before, which will give you time to send invites to your B-list six to eight weeks before your wedding. Don't forget to print a second set of reply cards with a later RSVP date (sending RSVPs with a date that has passed is a dead giveaway that the recipients were on your B-list).

Get organized using a system that's collaborative.

There are a lot of different ways you can go about making your guest list, but the best way is to use a system that's collaborative, so anyone with input can make edits in real time and see the most up-to-date version. Use The Knot Wedding Guest List Manager, where you can easily convert your list into a seating chart and track your RSVPs. It's also useful to have everyone's contact info all in one place, so later on you have a list for holiday cards, anniversary party invitations and other occasions beyond the wedding.
Tip: Don't delete any names; instead, use several tabs, color-code them or make a separate document for names you're unsure about. You might discover that you do have extra space, but if you erase the names completely, you'll have no idea who you might want to invite.

Include names on the response cards.

Yours wouldn't be the first wedding where a guest crams two (or three or four) names onto one line, even though the invitation was made out to one person. The way to avoid this problem is to print the guests' names onto the RSVP card. Do this, and there's almost no way anyone can force an invite on you.
Tip: If for some reason you still get an extra write-in, it could just be that the guest doesn't know the protocol. So don't take their faux pas personally. Instead, politely call and tell them the deal: You'd love to have everyone, but budget and space mean it's just not possible.

Don't let the parents (the in-laws and yours) wear you down.

Boundaries: Set them and stick to them. When it comes down to it, this is your wedding. If budget is the issue, then the solution could be as simple as having whoever wants more guests chip in extra to pay for the overflow. In many cases, the venue caps the guest list. That means if your mom insists on inviting her entire spin class, either you or your fiance's family will have to forfeit some of your guests. First, try to compromise. Why not invite just one and put the rest on the B-list? If that doesn't work, don't waver. It won't be easy, but bend now and you're going to end up with even more requests down the line.
Tip: Have any hard conversations face to face. You want to make sure you're sending the right signals, and when there are emotions involved, you want your point of view to be heard and understood.

Avoid last-minute add-ons.

Whether or not you spread the word yourself, you're probably going to get one or two awkward comments along the lines of, "I can't wait to come to your wedding!" from someone you're not so sure about inviting. In the moment, it can seem like an easy out to respond, "Me too!" But do this and you'll either end up having to add them to the list or having an even more uncomfortable conversation that's basically akin to disinviting them. The best thing you can do is steer clear of wedding specifics while you're still in the early planning stages.
Tip: Prepare yourself for potentially awkward conversations by coming up with a polite but firm response that can't be misinterpreted. Something along the lines of, "Of course we'd love to invite everyone, but unfortunately, with the venue space and our budget, we aren't able to." Then take the conversation in a totally different direction.