Ah, the guest list. According to your recently married friends, it's breeding ground for teary showdowns with your fiancé and shouting matches with Mom. (Thank goodness Dad is neutral.) Why is this must-do task plagued with such drama and tension? Because, in most cases, your budget doesn't match your wish list, which means you can't invite everyone. Or one of your parents insists you include relatives you never see or don't like. Or maybe you want to have a small wedding (50 people, tops) and your fiancé has dreams of reconnecting with his bunk mates from summer camp. Just take things one step at a time—we'll tell you how—and put together a list that everyone can happily live with. No argument there.
If you haven't done so already, figure out the general size of the wedding you want. Are you dreaming of the biggest party imaginable? Or do you picture a more intimate event, the two of you spending quality time with each and every guest? Next, consider your budget for the reception, from flowers to petit fours. Most couples plan the guest list around these two all-important numbers, and quickly realize when they're at odds. If, for example, you've got $10,000 budgeted for the reception, and 250 people on your wish list, you'll be spending more than a few sleepless nights scheming how to host everyone for $40 a head.
Deciding on the type of setting you prefer will affect the length of your guest list. If you've got your eye on a favorite local restaurant or your decidedly non-palatial childhood home, 300 guests might end up sitting in each others' laps, not to mention breaching fire regulations. On the other hand, if you're considering a cavernous space—a ballroom in a grand mansion or a museum atrium—you'll want a large enough group so the place will feel full, not barren.
Which step should come first? Each factor affects the other, so you'll have to consider lots of things simultaneously. (Welcome to the world of multitasking!) Once you've come to a decision, locate your inner diplomat and you're good to go.
Divide and Conquer
To reduce confusion and tension down the road, clarify the extent of your family's involvement in the guest-list process early on. Typically, each family invites half the guests, but if one family is paying for the lion's share of the wedding, or if you two are bearing much of the financial burden, consider a different formula. If you've been away from home for many years, chances are you've got lots of friends of your own to invite, in which case you may feel more comfortable dividing the list into thirds: one third for each family and one third for the two of you.
Of course, there's arithmetic—and then there's real life, which doesn't always provide a neat solution. A two-way or even three-way split may not be fair if you have enough relatives to fill a multiplex and his can fit in a cubicle. (On the other hand, he may want to invite each and every fraternity brother.) The person with the huge family obligation should take a long, hard look at the list. Will your parents really be offended if you omit some relatives, especially those you haven't seen in years?
Should you and your fiancé reach an impasse, grab some alone time and jot down your must-have guests. Compare lists, crunch the numbers and see how many slots are left to fill. Divide the difference or come up with a ratio (like 60/40) that suits your needs. Talk the situation through and negotiate. This is, after all, the beginning of a lifetime of problem-solving together.
Children: Yes or No?
You may love kids but just don't want them at your wedding. If that's the case, address the outer and inner envelopes of your invitation to the parents only. Printing "no children" anywhere in your correspondence is impolite. Having a blanket no-children policy may not be practical, so here's another solution: Set an age limit—say, only children 12 or older are invited. Or restrict your list to the children of immediate family members and/or children of members of the wedding party. If you anticipate resentment, try broaching the subject with family and friends to whom you're closest; explain your concerns about cost and space, and ask them to spread the word. If out-of-towners choose to bring their kids, offer to hire a babysitter to watch them during the wedding. Provide a goody bag with toys, puzzles and games so the kids won't feel excluded from the fun.
Another conundrum is whether to invite out-of-towners you feel certain won't attend. Will they think an invitation is a thinly veiled request for a wedding gift? If you don't invite them, will they feel they've been snubbed? In many cases, a wedding announcement instead of an invitation will suffice. But in the case of really close friends, even if they live far away, send an invitation—and don't be caught off-guard if they decide to make the trek.
Trimming your guest list won't be excruciating if you set clear-cut limits: e.g., no second cousins, no coworkers, no dates—you get the picture. But the only way restrictions by category can work is if you stick to your decision, no matter what. Make any exceptions, and you engender the bad feelings you were hoping to avoid in the first place.
Another way to pare the list is to be honest about your friendships—like the pal you haven't spoken to in more than two years. Chances are you're not the only ones who are feeling social pressure: Your parents or his may try to use your wedding to reciprocate for the weddings they've attended. If the two of you are paying, or if it's an encore betrothal, you should feel significantly less guilty about not accommodating every parental whim.
Once you've congratulated yourself on surviving what may be the most grueling test in the wedding-planning process, enter your invitees' names in alphabetical order in both your computer file and nonelectronic wedding planner. (It's always wise to have a backup list on paper—just make sure to keep both versions up to date.) Include each person's mailing address, telephone number(s) and e-mail address, plus his or her relationship to the bride or groom. Make columns that include space for the name of a single guest's date, if you know it, the RSVPs, a brief description of any engagement, shower and wedding gifts, and the date that thank-you notes for each were mailed.
Once you've succeeded in making your guest list, you can turn your attention to another nail-biter: choosing the bridesmaids' dresses. But that's another story.