Creating a wedding guest list is at the top of many wedding planning checklists. It seems logical to come up with a guest list in the early stages of planning because the number of wedding guests will generally determine a lot of other things, like venue size.
The number of guests will also have a HUGE impact on your wedding costs/budget.
The more guests in attendance, the more you’ll pay for food and beverage, tables, chairs, wedding favors, etc.
The wedding guest list is truly an important part of the planning process.
That’s why so many wedding planning experts recommend creating a guest list early on.
And I agree … sort of.
Here’s what I think: it’s more important to first come up with the headcount, not the guest list. Let me explain the difference before I go any further…
The Difference Between the Wedding Guestlist and Headcount
The headcount is the NUMBER of people that you plan to invite to your wedding. So, when you’re coming up with the headcount, your final product will be a number.
The guest list, on the other hand, is WHOM you plan to invite to your wedding. When you’re coming up with the guest list, your final product will be a list of names.
Effectively, these are two very different things. And for that reason, I think it’s important to decide on these two items separately.
Can you guess which decision should come first? 😉 If you guessed headcount – you’re correct!
What Happens When You Come Up with the Guestlist First
If you start with the guest list, you’ll get carried away drafting a long list of everyone you’d like to invite to your wedding – without really knowing if you can even afford to invite them all! Then, after reviewing your budget, reality hits and you might need to cross people off of your guest list. Ouch.
So now you need to make some tough decisions: Who gets to stay on the list? Who needs to go?
At this point, you might consider spending more money than you budgeted so that you can afford to invite everyone on your initial list. Or maybe you come up with other compromises to make it work. Either way, it’s a tough call. But there’s a way to avoid this scenario altogether.
Instead, Come Up with the Headcount First
Coming up with the headcount is a very matter-of-fact type of decision. You’re not listing people’s names, you’re just working with numbers, so it’s much less personal and you’re able to approach the decision more methodically.
By starting with the headcount first, you’re not bogged down with the emotional pressure and sheer guilt associated with creating your guest list (that part comes later!).
Like I mentioned above, your budget and your headcount are strongly linked. So when you’re coming up with your headcount, you’re really just reviewing your budget and determining how many people you can afford to invite to be able to stay within budget. That’s it! See? It’s sooo much easier to think of it in terms of numbers!
Let Your Budget Determine Your Headcount
There’s an easy way to take the guesswork out of determining your headcount: let your budget guide you. There are a number of expenses that will depend heavily on your headcount, including food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, dessert, venue size, tables, chairs, wedding favors, etc. But, in general, the major expense is food and beverage.
That said, use your food and beverage budget to figure out your headcount. Here’s how:
Review your budget, consider your price-per-person, and then use those numbers to figure out your headcount. Let me walk you through it step-by-step.
Step 1: Review Your Budget
In general, about 30% of your total wedding budget should be allotted to food and beverage. Let’s say your total wedding budget is $30,000 – 30% of that is $9,000. This means you have a total of $9,000 to spend on food and beverage (this should include service, tax, tip, etc.).
Step 2: Come Up with a Price-Per-Person
Come up with a price-per-person between $10/person (for a casual meal) to $100/person (for a fancier meal) – or higher depending on your tastes!
The price-per-person will give you the various menu and drink options – so how do you know what kind of food and drink options are available to you at each of these prices?
An easy way to figure this out is to think about what you can get at a restaurant for that price-per-person. While this isn’t 100% accurate, just go with it for now – just to guesstimate what kind of menu you’ll be able to afford.
For example, if your price-per-person is only $10, think about what kind of meal you can afford for $10. In my area, $10 can get me a fast food meal (and no alcoholic beverage). So for a wedding, $10/person might get you something like a burger bar (and likely, no alcoholic drinks).
Play with different price points. Come up with different price-per-person scenarios to get a feel for different options.
For example, you can consider $30/person – which can get me a simple sit-down meal and a beer. At $80/person, I can probably get a more elaborate meal, or bigger portions, or higher quality ingredients and/or maybe a nice glass of wine.
Remember, this is a SUPER rough way to figure out what kinds of food and drink menus you’ll be able to afford. You’ll get a better idea of the true costs when you start gathering estimates (we’ll get to that below).
Step 3: Come Up With the Headcount
Finally! This is the part where you get to figure out your headcount! Use your budget and your price-per-person to come up with different possible scenarios for your headcount – and choose the one that satisfies both you and your partner 🙂 You can run the numbers as many times as you’d like! Play with it.
Let’s play with some numbers using the example I referenced above: $30,000 total wedding budget, 30% of which is allotted for food and beverage, giving us a total of $9,000 for food and beverage. So here are a few examples of possible headcounts for this budget:
In the table above, you probably noticed something: the higher the guest count, the lower the price per person.
So what it really comes down to is a toss-up between these two scenarios:
- MANY guests + LOWER-PRICED food & beverage
- FEWER guests + HIGHER-PRICED food & beverage
Figure out what you prefer between those two options, and let that guide your decision. And it’s ok if you can’t come up with a specific number for your headcount right now – you can narrow it down to a range and refine it later.
And don’t forget … you will need to agree on the headcount with your partner!
When Disagreements Arise – Compromise!
When we were planning our wedding, Luis and I had a major disagreement about the headcount. I wanted a much smaller wedding for 60-80 guests, but he wanted a much bigger wedding with 300-400 guests. Big difference!
We did some preliminary research for prices and we found that for 400 guests, we’d be able to provide a simple taco bar and no open bar. But Luis preferred the higher-priced menu options and we both preferred to host an open bar – so we compromised.
We agreed to have a much smaller headcount so that we could afford a better menu and host an open bar. Our final headcount was somewhere between our two original proposals – we ended up having 150 guests.
And that’s how you come to a compromise – play with the numbers!
Make adjustments until you come up with an agreement.
If you and your partner have completely different opinions about how many guests to invite, you might need to go through a few rounds of adjustments.
Start Gathering Estimates to Explore the Real Costs
Here’s the thing: you won’t truly know how many guests you can afford until you start shopping for food and beverage. So if you’d like to see REAL numbers, get a couple of catering estimates to get a better idea of what you can afford within your budget in your area.
Plus, you’ll get a better idea about what kinds of menus are within your budget – and who knows, you might consider increasing or decreasing your headcount based on the menu options.
Done! You’re Ready for the Next Step!
Once you have a solid headcount range – you’ll be able to figure out what kind of venue you’ll need in terms of SIZE and capacity! AND you’ll be able to get a more accurate estimate from your caterer. That said, now you can start researching venues and caterers – collect estimates and refine your headcount further.
I’ve made this really easy for you – click below to download FREE email templates to start shopping for venues and caterers (and other wedding vendors)!