Wedding Guest Lists

Massachusetts Wedding - Guest Lists


Maureen Woodman, a Massachusetts wedding planner, explains all about wedding guest lists.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Maureen Woodman, a wedding planner for on and off-site catered events at The Essex Room in Essex, Massachusetts. Today, we’re talking about “Wedding Guest Lists.” Welcome, Maureen.

Maureen Woodman: Hi, John. Thanks for having me today.

John Maher: Sure. So Maureen, what are the factors in determining how many guests I can have in my wedding?

Maureen Woodman: I think we have two things here. We have to find a venue and see how many they can hold. And then, we have to open up our bank account and see what we can afford.

John Maher: Right.

Maureen Woodman: So, I think it’s a double-edged sword. Then, you have the number. So, let’s say, the number is 150. Okay. We can hold 150 at the venue. And the venue told me it’s going to be $100 a person. So, I have $15,000. And then, I’ve got to sit back, and I’ve got to go at it. I’ve got to go at it with the money and with the size.

John Maher: Does it make the most sense then to really pick your budget first and figure out what you can afford to spend and then start looking for venues that fit that budget?

Maureen Woodman: I think that’s the first advice I give to someone when they call in for an appointment, I’ll say to them, “What is your date? How many people are you having?” Those are the first two questions I ask before I even set an appointment.

I’m trying to find out from them if they have any idea of what they’re doing because if they say to me, “I don’t know,” then I’ll say to them, “Why don’t you sit down with your groom and your parents and his parents and try to come up with what you think is the amount of people that you’re going to have.”

The reason is, when you sit with me and have your appointment, I’m going to be able to help you with your budget. But if you come in and say, “I don’t know how many people I’m going to have”, we’re never going to get you to a point of budget.

John Maher: Right. Without that, you just can’t even know whether or not your venue is the right place for them at all.

Maureen Woodman: Not my venue or anyone else’s.

John Maher: Right, right. So, how do I plan a guest list? As you take that first step of your advice and you’re sitting down. You have the bride and groom together. Maybe, you have the parents and you’re working on this. How do you plan that guest list?

And then, after you plan that guest list, how do you really stick to that, not have it start getting out of hand where you say, “Oh, well, if we invite that person, then we have to invite this person.” And all of a sudden you maybe had an intention only to have a small, 100-person wedding. And all of a sudden, you have a list of 250 people. How do you avoid that?

Maureen Woodman: You have to do a few things. Again, old school, you would have — say, you had 200 people coming to your wedding. It used to be that the parents of the bride, because they were paying, would control the entire guest list.

So they would start with their list. They had 80 people, let’s say. So now, we have 120 people left. They would then offer probably 60 people to the groom’s family because usually, it was not an equal split. It wasn’t 100 for you and 100 for me.

Then, they would allow the daughter to have the 40 friends in there. Twenty are her friends and 20 his. That’s how they would build. But in this day and age, where multiple people are paying for the wedding, I think it comes down to, “Okay. How many do you need to have? How many do I need to have? How many do your mother and father need to have? How many friends do we want there?”

Then, you make this list. You put it into piles. And on that list, you have your priority list – who has to come – your brothers, your sisters, your aunts, your uncles…

John Maher: Right, the absolute essentials.

Maureen Woodman: Absolute essentials – your best friends, the bridal party. You have to include the bridal party. Then, you have to decide whether or not you’re going to let the bridal party bring a date, if it’s not a spouse.

If you’re a very young wedding, most likely your bridal party is not married yet. So, you have to say, “Am I going to let them just bring anyone?” Back in the day, unless you had an engaged person – they would go on the list. But if somebody was just dating somebody, they did not make the list. It was only if you were engaged that you would bring that significant other.

Now, you get yourself to the point. You’re at 150 again. These are people that are qualified. My mother’s covered. His mother’s covered. His dad’s covered. Our friends are in there. The wedding party is in there. And now, you have to sit there and say, “Okay. This is it. This is it.” Then, I would make what I call “the waiting list,” the almost-made-it people. And there are usually about 10 of them. They always seem like, “Gosh! Should I invite them? I can’t invite them. What should I do?”

John Maher: Right, that cousin or this friend or something like that.

Maureen Woodman: And if those people are really important to you, what I would do is I would say to them, “Look, John. I want you at my wedding. I know this is totally uncomfortable. But if my Aunt Susie, from Idaho doesn’t come, I would really like to have you go in her place. But I have to invite Aunt Susie because she is my father’s sister. And there’s no way out of it. Chances are she won’t come.

But if she does, I can only fit this many people. But I want you to know, you are in my holding pattern.” Can I possibly do that without hurting your feelings? You’d be amazed, especially anyone who’s planned a wedding themselves, how easy this can be done. But you’d also be amazed how uncomfortable this is for somebody to have.

John Maher: That’s a tough conversation to have.

Maureen Woodman: But at least for you, you’re staying in this 150-budget or this $15,000 money pool that you have created with your fiancée, your parents, your stepparents, your in-laws, whoever is going to be involved in the money. And that’s how you stay to it.

There is no gray area that you can just invite every Tom, Dick, and Harry and let the thing go out of control, or you are going to wake up the day after your wedding and say, “Oh, my gosh! What did we do? It wasn’t right.”

And also, it’s probably one of the first financial decisions that you’re going to stick with your husband. As you begin this journey in your life — even though most kids already live together and they have stuff…this is a real thing. And anyone that’s been married knows one of the things you fight the most about in your marriage is money and finances. So, this is also a little test for you to really stick with it together as a unit. As a real unit together, this is what we have decided to do.

John Maher: We came up with a plan. We came up with the budget. We stuck to it. And this is our plan for paying it off afterwards, if you have to do that, or whatever. But yes, something that you can come together to do.

Maureen Woodman: Absolutely.

John Maher: So, you’ve picked your guest list. You’ve solidified it. You’re going to stick to it. You’ve sent out your invitations. We talked in a previous podcast about sending out those invitations six to eight weeks, preferably eight weeks, ahead of the wedding.

When do you need to have those responses back? How far before your wedding date do you need to have those responses back? And then, what do you do when that date comes and there are some people that you still haven’t heard from yet?

Maureen Woodman: So again, what you’re going to do is you’re going to have the responses come three weeks before your wedding. So, your wedding is the 21st of the month, the respond cards are due the first of the month. And that gives you one full week to do a lot of things. You have to figure out who’s having fish, who’s having chicken, if you have a choice, who’s vegetarian, soy, all the allergy people. You’ve got to put them on the side.

John Maher: So, venues typically need to know your counts and what meals you want, etc., two weeks before the wedding?

Maureen Woodman: Two weeks beforehand, you’re going to either meet with your caterer, you’re going to me with…you have to have your final numbers in two weeks before. Again, you’re getting married on the 21st. So, we need to have all final numbers in on the seventh of the month, okay? So, we have that week. We have the first to the seventh.

In that timeframe, you are going to email. You are going to phone call. You are going to chase them down. You are going to do everything. You’re going to call their parents, their cousins, and get these people to tell you because come the seventh of the month, you can no longer go down on your count. Whether they come or not, you’re going to pay for them.

So, if six people don’t show up, you’re out $600. And the venue doesn’t care. Now, this is where the touchy can come in. This is where you might go back to your wish list, and pick the phone up, and call those people that you’ve — if you had the courage — had that phone call with, and say, “I have six openings. John and I would really love it if you could come. Again, you know what my situation was. I could send an invitation over to you right now. And I’d need to know if you’re going to come. But we would love to have you there.” So, that’s how you pull it all together.

John Maher: Okay. You mentioned earlier, inviting guests that are maybe single, and whether or not you invite their significant other, in a relationship or not, you said that it used to be that if they were engaged, then you pretty much had to invite their fiancée. But otherwise, it was a “maybe” sort of situation. Has that changed? What’s your current advice on that?

Maureen Woodman: Again, where so many people are living together now, the couples at a very young age, I see more and more that the bridal party is getting a date. So again, in the old day, it was kind of fun that always the bridesmaids would hope that they would end up with the ushers.

And you would sit them all together at the head table. No matter who you were with or what happened, you stayed with your partner that was in the wedding the whole night. That’s how it was. Well, it’s not like that anymore.

Now, they all want to be with their significant other. They really don’t want any part of these ushers or these bridesmaids. They do find their way and have fun. But somehow, they want to get to the point of the toast, they’re wishing that they were dancing with their boyfriend, or their fiancée, or whoever.

But I think it becomes costly if you have a wedding party of 20 people – 10 bridesmaids, 10 ushers, which is not uncommon, that you now have to pick up another 20 guests that you may not know. But hopefully, if they’re in your wedding party, you do know their significant other.

John Maher: Yes, you’re friends with them. You spend time with them.

Maureen Woodman: And it will also make for a more fun party if your bridesmaids and your ushers have someone, and they’re partaking in the dancing. Let’s face it. The bridal party can make or break the wedding.

They usually seem to be the ones that go the craziest and have the most fun. So, it is nice to do that. But as far as other people, like if you had a cousin or something that wasn’t attached to someone, or you don’t know who they are, I don’t think it’s any problem, unless they’re engaged or married that you could get away with just inviting your single cousin for the wedding. And she’d be there with her, or he would be there with his family, his mother – your aunt, and uncle, or some things. They wouldn’t be all alone.

John Maher: Right. So it wouldn’t be totally weird. The situation that comes up a lot now is maybe you have divorced parents, and your parents are either remarried, or maybe they’re in a relationship, what’s the best practice there?

Maureen Woodman: The best practice, invite them all. Don’t hurt anyone. Don’t intentionally hurt anyone. Don’t unintentionally hurt anyone because it will come back to haunt you. I say that you have to put the parents first after yourself and your groom. You have to respect your parents. Your parents knew people that they’re in a relationship with. You also have to try to protect the feeling of the other parent that may not have a significant other now – your biological parents.

So, it’s a very fine line. But I think it’s wise to invite them all and have them there. And most of the time, they all behave themselves on wedding day.

John Maher: [Laughs] Well, let’s hope so. Maureen, thanks very much for speaking with me today.

Maureen Woodman: Thanks, John. Thanks for having me.

John Maher: For more information, you can visit The Essex Room website at or call 978-768-7335.

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