30 Small Wedding Ideas for an Intimate Affair

How to have 10 percent of the guest list, but keep 100 percent of the celebration

Updated 09/25/19

Photo by Jenny Fu

Overwhelmed by the thought of gathering 200 of your “nearest and dearest” together for your wedding day? Eloping may have crossed your mind, but that’s not the only way to avoid the crowd. Instead, have all the fixings of a wedding, but on a much smaller scale. We’re talking 10 guests, 20 max (your actual nearest and dearest) and all of the things that will make your wedding feel like, you know, your wedding: invitations, dinner, a white dress, cake, and any other detail important to you two. Shrinking the event down to a cozy, intimate size guarantees you’ll love where your money goes and have tons of memories with every single guest. But there’s more to it than a 90 percent decrease in your guest list. There are planning changes to make, details to consider, and (hooray!) a proportionally larger budget to work with. We’ve asked a few of our favorite planners to break down everything you need to know about throwing a small wedding.

Keep the Guest List Short

Wedding guests seated for dinner
Photo by Henry + Mac

A small wedding is only small if the guest list is as small as possible.

Not sure how to cut it down? Use this handy (and ruthless!) trick from Jove Meyer of Jove Meyer Events. “Look through your text messages and calls, and only invite those you’ve spoken with in the last three months,” Meyer says. “We speak to those who matter most—it’s that simple.”

Still having a hard time paring it down? Aleah and Nick Valley of Valley & Company Events recommend asking yourselves two questions: “Would you take this person out for a several hundred-dollar (or several thousand-dollar!) dinner? And would you have this person and their guest into your home for an intimate dinner or as a weekend house guest? Thinking about how close your relationships are will help ensure you are truly comfortable with those you surround yourselves with on your wedding day.”

Of course, other people want to know you’ve tied the knot. “Make a list of those who will want to know the big news, and send out a wedding announcement after the fact,” suggests Luke Wilson of Luke Wilson Events.

Go for an Alternative Venue

Illuminated tablescape with acrylic chairs
Photo by Amber Gress Photography

Fewer people on the guest list means the world is your oyster when it comes to choosing a nontraditional venue.

“Of course, restaurants are at the top of the list. They’re unique spaces that have everything you need in one place,” Meyer says. “Just make sure you love everything (the style, the menu, and the existing décor) as [being able to] change it is less likely.” He also recommends hotel suites—many of which have beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces—as well as galleries, gardens, wine bars, and nightclubs.

“Family homes can pose many challenges for events with a large guest list, but work well with a smaller group,” Wilson says. “I love the sentiment of having an intimate affair in a place that is meaningful to the couple.”

Tiffany Rivera of Simply Breathe Events also suggests looking into beautiful private homes (that aren’t your own), which give you the flexibility to move between spaces and make your wedding day really cost-efficient.

Or Rethink Traditional Options

Outdoor illuminated seating area
Courtesy of Charleston Magazine

If you’re still in love with the idea of a space that’s more of an expected wedding venue (think a hotel ballroom, gorgeous museum, or the dining room at your country club), flip it on its head.

“The challenge with a traditional venue is making sure it feels full with a dozen or so guests—and not like 100 people didn’t show up,” Rivera notes.

This is where design comes in. “Making a large space feel intimate can be so fun, as you have the opportunity to get really creative with seating and table layouts, as well as adding things like a lounge or creative bars and food stations,” Meyer says. “Consider an extra-large round table for 20 to fill more space, or mix up how the venue is usually used by having the ceremony where others might have dinner and vice versa. With a smaller group, you can think outside the box about where you host each part of the celebration.”

When you’re looking at venues, keep the size of your celebration in mind. “Privacy is of the utmost importance, especially with a small guest list,” Aleah Valley says. “Before you book anything, make sure the venue won’t have another wedding piggybacking yours. You really want to feel like you have the place to yourselves.”

Traditional venues are full of unexpected spaces that are perfect for smaller celebrations. “Consider areas that are often overlooked, like the library of a large historic estate,” says Francie Dorman of 42 North.

Know What You Need

Pomegranate and Fig Cake
Photo by Henry + Mac

Every wedding, no matter the size, will need food, a bar, staff, rentals, some décor, and entertainment, so keep those basics in mind as you’re making plans.

“It’s also a great idea to hire a wedding planner, even if it’s only for day-of coordination,” Rivera says. “You’ll want someone there to facilitate the flow of the day so you can enjoy it instead of worrying about whether alcohol is running low.”

Speaking of flow, having a timeline for your wedding is also something you can’t forget. “So much thought goes into the details of a wedding, whether large or small, and a good timeline provides a framework that helps tell your story,” Valley says. She also emphasizes the importance of service. “It’s a top priority for any wedding, and with an intimate celebration, the service should be over-the-top excellent.”

Skip What Isn’t Important

Tabelscape with greenery
Photo by Red October Photography

As you’re determining the details, decide what is important to you and your partner and skip the things that don’t matter.

“Many couples opt to forgo some of the traditional dancing at a small wedding,” Valley says. “Know your crowd and replace it with an activity everyone will enjoy, or keep it in the timeline if your loved ones love to dance.”

Of course, if you do love dancing, keep the band’s size in mind. “If your band has an equal number of players to your final guest count, it will feel really overpowering. Instead, hire a smaller group of musicians so you can have the formality of special dances without a crowd on stage,” Wilson advises.

You can easily nix some of the add-ons that couples try to squeeze into their budgets. “There’s no need for a photo booth, printed ceremony programs, or wedding favors,” says Britt Cole, also of 42 North. “You will be spending much more one-on-one time with each guest, so some of those extras aren’t worth the cost.”

Heck, you might even skip the formal invitations. “Call each of your guests personally to invite them to your wedding, or send handwritten letters,” Meyer suggests.

Splurge Wisely

Pouring rose
Photo by Valley & Company

Your budget will go further with fewer guests, so use those extra funds to really enhance the evening.

“I would splurge on live music,” Rivera says. “Hire a quartet or pianist to play throughout the night.”

A fantastic photographer is also a great investment. “With fewer people at the table, your guests will really relax, creating an intimate atmosphere,” Dorman explains. “Hire a trusted photographer who will capture the laughter, the tears, and the clinking glasses, since those are the moments you’ll treasure most.”

And of course, there’s the menu. “Upgrade dinner to an indulgent seven-course meal, complete with expert pairings of fine wines and spirits,” Valley says. Meyer adds, “With a small group, you can really personalize every detail of the menu.”

Most importantly, use any extra money in your budget to enhance the details that matter most to you, creating an immersive experience you and your guests will treasure.

Keep Design in Mind

Pomegranate table decor
Photo by Henry + Mac

Fewer tables and a smaller space means the only limit to your design is your imagination.

“You can make each item really detailed,” Meyer says. “Remember to design the space, not just the tables—consider lights, plants, fabrics, and anything else that will create an ambience.”

If there are small details you’d love to include, an intimate wedding is the perfect chance. “Incorporate family heirlooms like vintage china and silver, or hand-embroidered napkins,” Cole says.

No matter what you’re designing, keep these rules from Valley in mind: “Make sure your guests have enough elbow room at their place settings, easy access to the essentials (water, wine, flatware, and conversation), and the centerpieces don’t prevent them from seeing their dining partners.”

Think about ways to keep your guests interacting with one another too. “Guests will be sitting to catch up instead of cutting a rug, so create a lounge area where everyone can relax after dinner,” Wilson says.

Wedding Designers’ Favorite Details for Small Weddings

Table setting
Photo by Henry + Mac

“Go hyper-custom,” Meyer says. “Set each place with handwritten menus, create an insane escort card display, or use individual flower petals as place cards.”

“Cover the table in an abundance of low, ultra-lush flowers and candles,” Valley suggests. “And don’t forget deluxe linens, which can really anchor a table."

“Top each place setting with a tiny bouquet and a hand-calligraphed place card,” Nick Valley adds.

“Give your guests a memorable experience with personalized touches that complement the meal, like live music during dinner or personalized notes from the couple at their seat,” Dorman says.

“Leave room on the table for conversation,” Cole suggests. “Lift the flowers up and install an overhead arrangement of florals, moss, and soft lighting.”

“Instead of multiple tables, seat everyone at a long estate table or at a U-shaped setup,” Wilson suggests. “This will make everyone feel like family.”

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