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Which Comes First: the Budget or Guest List?

The beginning of wedding planning is all about excitement, nervousness, stress, frustration, dread. It’s all normal and most of us go through all them all, sometimes every 5 minutes! The most common stressors will always be about money and guests (guests also include your FAMILY, lovely, opinionated, emotionally charged family.) Even if you have no money worries, the guest list and relationships somehow, almost always, get in the way of the Cinderella dreams. So how can you navigate the money and the guests to ensure maximum tranquility on this bumpy road towards the wedding day?

There are many problems with pulling out a budget at the beginning of your wedding planning, even though it’s a crucial early step. Money is ultimately about having access to options and choices. If you have a lot of money, you get a lot of options and choices. If you’re poor, you don’t. Whether you have a lot or a little, decisions about where to spend money are rarely easy and often cut to the core of who we are, what we value and how we wish to express ourselves through our money. Add that only about 20% of couples pay for the entire day themselves and you’ve just made a public wallet and a public board of directors for the final decisions about where hard earned money is going to be spent.

Meanwhile the guest list, (like money), represents many different things to different people. Some of us grew up where everyone you ever met was expected to be part of your wedding. Some of us have tiny families and create huge networks of friends. If our parents are divorced we may have a huge, split family where our step-parents families are around but not an intimate part of our lives…until we get married and have decide whether to include or exclude them. The tangles of relationships, obligation, levels of intimacy, distance (emotional or physical) are just enough to drive a sane person mad. How can one day be so complicated??
It is very hard to “retro-fit” the money and guest list after crucial early decisions have been made. It is impossible to break fire codes if your location only fits 150 and you have 250 on the invitation list. Similarly it’s impossible to come up with more money if you’re already going into debt, when 20 more people “must” be added to the guest list. So let’s discuss some of the webs people create for themselves, accidently, that lead to wedding stress and sometimes, family breakdowns.

Wedding Planning Mistake One:

Not having a clear idea of how much things cost.


I don’t blame anyone for not knowing since most of us will only have one wedding and are rarely on the inside planning of other wedding budgets. But when you, or a parent, or someone else, decides on a dollar amount without knowing “what that money will buy”, chaos can ensue. Whether you dream of a simple wedding or elegant affair, how much money you have will drastically change your options. A simple wedding can be as expensive as a fancier wedding if you don’t peel apart the fees for location, rental fees, catering options, how many people can fit in the location and whether the “feel” of the wedding changes who the guest list might be. Your parents may wish to invite extra friends if it’s at a big outdoor park with minimal per guest costs as compared to a formal, catered event at $50 per guest. But those cheaper guests may add up to more than if you had a formal affair with fewer people and fewer rental fees.


Wedding Planning Mistake Two:

Not clarifying the guest list before any major decision is made

All the wedding checklists out there say to get a guest list at the beginning but they don’t actually suggest to firm up the guest list until just before you order invitations, a few months before your wedding. The problem? If you’ve booked a location and set a budget, you have to know who is being invited! You can’t retro fit your mothers dreams for her 3rd cousins to be part of your big day if your reception space barely holds the immediate family and wedding party.

The reality is unless you’re in the midst of wedding planning, you either don’t know or forget how every decision relates to every other decision. Your parents may love the idea of your hotel reception but have no clue that it means they can’t invite special friends because of space restrictions. Your groom may not appreciate the small wedding location means some of his best friends can’t go to the wedding because family members take the majority of the space available. Waiting until a few months before the wedding, when deposits have been made, is not the best time to have these a-ha realizations and arguments.

See our wedding checklist page for help on what relates to other things. Just because you tell your mom the reception only holds 100 people, or you’ve booked a caterer that is charging $50 per person does not mean your mom, grandma, father, or groom will automatically understand the limits on who can invite and why. You may create a storm of hurt feelings if your mom has gone 6 months telling cousins they’ll be invited and you say they can’t because there isn’t enough room (physical room or room in the budget.)
When you are proactive, not reactive, you remove a lot of wedding stress.

Wedding Mistake Number Three:

Putting a Dollar Value on Friends and Family

Guest lists are stressful by themselves and you add money to the mix and you do nothing but offend loved ones when you equate their friend with their financial value. It is not a good idea to tell your father that his best friend from college is not worthy of the $100 it will cost to give him food. Or to tell a parent they can’t invite their children because it will cost you $50 (when it will cost them more in babysitting fees.)

We call this the money trump card in our book, Take Back Your Wedding. When you try to end an argument, or make a decision that is ultimately about values and your notion of the wedding, by bringing out the money trump card, nothing good comes of it. The reality is if something is that important to you, the money will get rearranged in the budget to accommodate. Or if it’s really that important to you not to have an abusive uncle at your wedding, then it isn’t about whether someone is willing to pay for his part of the wedding expenses. It’s about deeper values and beliefs and the discussion should go to that level of intensity.

Staying at the level of who is paying and who has the power never gets to the underlying emotions. Sometimes parents feel very vulnerable because the wedding you are planning is going to offend most of their extended family. Instead of insisting you do things their way, or insisting you have to invite 30 more relatives when you are actually paying for the wedding, it is wiser to instead have these discussions early on so you appreciate they are not trying to control your wedding or dictate your budget. It will give you more data to assess your own values. Perhaps you aren’t close to these relatives but the idea of creating a lifelong family riff hardly seems worth it in the big picture. Or maybe you chose to forgo wedding favors so the budget can cover these family members when you learn your grandmother may never see her siblings since she’s in ill health and your wedding is the perfect occasion for one last family reunion. The point is not what you “should” do, but to have more discussions about the emotions of the key stakeholders (bride, groom, parents and sometimes others.)

Wedding Mistake Number Four:

Not Knowing about the Predictable "Difficult" Personalities

If you do not get a lay of the land as far as family members, their personalities, their past behavior, you may be blinding walking into pure chaos. As we mention in our wedding book and in the couple DVD, we have a family member who was known for creating huge drama at every family function. When it came time for my aunt to get married, instead of fretting for 9 months about how this relative was going to ruin her big day, a plan of action was created to avoid the drama in the first place.

One of our key principles is that people do not change just because it’s your wedding. It can be hard when you and your partner have been having fun just dating and are now entering into issues of family loyalty and drudging up ugly family history. The reality is, however, that when you get married you are joining the other persons family and it is a lot more proactive to know the dirt before it comes flying at you unexpectedly. There are countless stories couples have of one person knowing what was going to happen but “hoping” the other would change. A common one is a divorced father who is horrible with money but promises to pay for half the wedding. Plans are made accordingly and just as the adult child expected, his father bails out of paying his share. Had the groom told the bride that his father wasn’t at all reliable, she could have planned the wedding not expecting the money and avoided a lot of resentment and anger towards her father in law. The core of our book covers all of this in great depth – those tangles that invariably come up in wedding planning.