When you first start planning your wedding, it may be overwhelming to know where to begin. After you set your budget, the wedding guest list is a great step, as it tends to set the tone for the rest of your plans.

Building your wedding guest list is one of the most time consuming and important parts of prepping for your big day. Choosing who shares your special day with you and your fiancé can be a stressful process. To help, we’ve created a step-by-step guide for creating the perfect wedding guest list.

By the end of this post, our goal is for you to have all the information you need to complete your wedding guest list.

Step 1 – Start With the Budget

After the shock and excitement of getting engaged, it’s time to start planning.

The first thing to do is to determine your wedding budget. The budget will determine EVERYTHING else about the wedding planning process.

The amount of say that someone has in your wedding is often determined by how much of the wedding they pay for. For instance, if your parents want to invite 60 of their closest friends but aren’t contributing to the budget, it is ok for you to tell them “no.”

According to The Knot’s Real Wedding Study (conducted by their parent-company, XO Group Inc.) in 2017 only 10% of couples paid for the wedding by themselves. (my husband and I were a part of this unfortunate few…)

If you’re in this group, take this next bit of advice from someone who’s been there — DO NOT go into debt paying for your wedding. Be realistic about your budget and stick to it.

If you are one of the 90% of couples that have assistance paying for their wedding, it’s a good idea to start by creating a list of everyone involved in your wedding budget, then asking them for the amount they plan to contribute.

Step 1: Add up the amount of money contributed from all parties to get your total wedding budget.

Step 2 – Figure Out a Preliminary Headcount

Once you have your budget, you can begin working on your headcount.

Headcount is often determined by one of two factors:

  • venue capacity
  • food budget

If your venue has a maximum guest capacity, use that number as your preliminary headcount.

If not, or you want a more budget conscious number, you need to figure out the number of people you can afford to feed within your reception budget.

Begin with the amount of money you budgeted for food at your reception and divide it by the price per guest.

Headcount = Food Budget / Price per Guest

For example: If the food budget at your reception is $10,000 and it costs $100 per guest to eat, the equation looks like this:

Headcount = $10,000 / $100

Headcount = 100

So, you can afford 100 guests at your reception.

*Note – if you do not know the price per person for food yet, that is OK!

Some venues force you to use a specific caterer or even provide catering in-house. If that’s the case, use the average price per head (which the venue should be able to provide).

If you’re choosing your own caterer, you’ll have to decide what type of meal you want to provide, but you can decide that when you start selecting vendors. According to Wedding Wire, the average price per guest is $41 for a plated meal and $28 for a buffet.

If you’re just looking for a place to start, you can use the average of the two, which is $35 per guest.

Step 2: Use the headcount equation to calculate your preliminary headcount.

Step 3 – Create a Mutual “WISH” List for Guests

Sit down with your fiancé and create a list of every person you could ever want or hope to have at your wedding.

This is contradictory to what a lot of wedding planning blogs will tell you, but hear me out…

If you start here and narrow the list down, you’ll know that the people remaining on your final list are there for a very specific reason. You’ll also know that nobody got left out without a cause.

Next, if your parents (or anyone else) are helping pay for the wedding, consider asking them for input on the guest list. Have this conversation early in the wedding planning process so everyone is on the same page.

One suggestion is to have your parents make three lists of guests:

  1. the “Must Haves,”
  2. the “Nice to Haves”
  3. the “Honorable Mentions”

This way, everyone gets the proper amount of input to the guest list, but there’s not a ton of back and forth or hurt feelings when people on the “Honorable Mention” list get left off due to budget constraints.

You’ll hear this repeated a lot on this blog, but there is no perfect wedding guest list size that fits all weddings. There is only the right size for your wedding, and that is completely up to you and your fiancé to determine.

Step 3: Create your wish list with your fiancé.

Step 4 – Decide on Your Number of Invitees

The number of people you invite is going to differ from the number of guests that actually show up to your wedding.

When figuring out the total number of invitees your can have on your wedding guest list consider this, “Are you getting married in your hometown or are you having a destination wedding?”

According to The Spruce, destination weddings (or weddings with a large number of out-of-town guests) have about a 55% attendance rate. That is, if you invite 100 people, you can expect about 55 people to attend.

Conversely, if you are getting married at home, the attendance rate for in-town guests is around 85%.

The attendance rate is important to take into consideration when choosing the number of “Save the Dates” and invitations to send out.

To figure out how many people to invite, you need to start with the number of guests that fit your budget (your preliminary headcount from step 2) and divide that number by the Average Attendance Rate (AAR).

# of Invitees = Preliminary Headcount / AAR

For a destination wedding, use an AAR of .55 (55%).

For an at-home wedding, the AAR is .85 (85%).

So for example, if your preliminary headcount from step 2 was 150 guests, and you’re planning an at-home wedding, the equation would look like this:

# of Invitees = 150 / .85

# of Invitees = 176

So, you could invite about 176 people to your wedding and would likely end up at or under your headcount.

Once you have your number of invitees, you can start to narrow down the “WISH” list (from step 3) into your final guest list.

Step 4: Calculate your total number of invitees.

Step 5 – Narrow Your Wish List Into Your Final Wedding Guest List

You’re almost there!

Go through your wish list and categorize each guest as a “must” invite or a “want to” invite.

It’s best if you and your fiancé each complete this step by yourselves first. At this point in the planning process, you’d be surprised at how close your final lists will be.

And after you’ve both gone through your lists, you’ll really only need to decide on the small number of guests that you differ on.

Time to incorporate the list from your parents or future in-laws.

Remember that list you had them make in step 2? This is where you use it.

Just go down this list starting with the “Must Haves,” then move to the “Nice to Haves,” and finish off your list with “Honorable Mentions,” adding as you go, until you’ve reached your max number of invitees.

At this point, we’ve found that most couples are really close to their final number, but if you’re still far off from your max number of invitees, it may be time to make some decisions that can remove chunks of people from the guest list.

Questions to consider when completing this step:

  • Are you going to have children at your wedding?
  • Are you keeping it family only or opening it up to both friends and family?
  • Are you including plus ones?
    • Limiting plus ones to family only?
    • Only allowing plus ones for those of your friends and family who’ve been together a long time?
  • Are you including coworkers?

Continue to narrow down your guest list until you’ve reached the number of invitees you calculated in step 4.

If you still need some help narrowing down your wedding guest list, we’ve included a flowchart to help you sort through anyone you are still on the fence about.

Step 5: Finalize your wedding guest list!

Congratulations!

You can now check “Create Wedding Guest List” off of your wedding planning checklist.

Whether your wedding guest list ended up at 50 or 450 guests, feel confident in the fact that it’s the perfect size for you.  Every single person on that final list is crucial to your special day celebration and you can feel confident that they will bring you joy on your big day!