A Guest’s Guide to Wedding Etiquette

by SheKnows
Jun 5, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Allison Kahler/STYLECASTER

Wedding guests break the rules all the time — and, honestly, it's easy to do. Choosing an appropriate dress or outfit, spending enough on the wedding gift, bringing a guest or not: They're all valid concerns, and with all the summer and fall weddings coming up on our calendars, we're tired of guessing. So, we reached out to a few experts who gave us the black-and-white deets of wedding guest etiquette.

Without further ado, I present to you the do's and don'ts of attending a wedding.

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Don't bring a guest if you weren't given a plus-one

You'd be surprised how many people actually bring a guest when they weren't given a plus-one — 33 percent to be exact. And that number increases to 45 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 24 according to a survey conducted by Brilliant Earth in November 2017. Men were also 1.7 times more likely than women to say they'd bring an uninvited significant other. Who knew?

"The biggest wedding guest faux pas a person can make is bringing someone who wasn't invited," Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette and modern manners expert and the founder of Access to Culture, tells SheKnows. "The general wedding etiquette rule of thumb is that if the invite does not extend a plus-one, it was for a good reason (budget, venue size, etc.), and you are attending the nuptials solo."

It's truly that easy: Check the invite and the envelope. If you don't clearly see that you have a plus-one, don't bring one! And that includes children too. "If the invitation only comes addressed to you and your partner, then your children are not invited," says Sarah White, owner and lead planner of The I Do List.

If you feel a mistake was made, however, don't hesitate to reach out to the bride and groom. "Stress that you don't want to bring anyone and skew the plans, you just weren't sure from the invitation and wanted to clarify." In short, just be nice and considerate about it.

If you do end up flying solo, use it as an opportunity to meet new people.

"You should be able to survive one night of meeting and dancing with new people even if you know absolutely no one but the couple at the wedding," says Washington, D.C., wedding planner Meghan Brumbley of DC Engaged. "It will be far more awkward for your date who wasn't even invited to be there with only you to talk to."

Don't skip on the gift

This is an obvious one: Always get the bride and groom a gift. But what you might not have known? You should mail it to them ahead of time — don't bring it with you to the wedding.

"Wedding gifts should be mailed to the bride (and/or her parents) in advance, not brought to the actual wedding," etiquette consultant Jodi RR Smith tells us. "Gifts are easily misplaced during the festivities and can be damaged in transport. Even a check should be mailed to ensure the bridal couple receives it. And whenever possible, put the card for the gift inside the package or wrapping for easy identification."

Here comes the hard part, though: Choosing the gift and spending the appropriate amount of money on it. That means not spending too much or too little.

First off, always choose off the registry before you go off script. "Selecting a gift off the registry is preferred to cash, honeymoon support and gift cards," Schweitzer says. "If you would like to give a more personal gift, pair it with something from their registry for a combination gift they will undoubtedly adore."

Keep in mind, though, that you do not need to empty your savings account to afford what the bride and groom may have on the registry. "Plan ahead so you can save enough, express your affection for the couple with a beautiful gift and enjoy their wedding celebration without breaking the bank," Schweitzer suggests.

But how much should you spend? This is where it gets tricky.

Schweitzer says it all depends on your relationship with the soon-to-be-spouses. "On average, research reveals how much is spent on gifts based on the relationships." She breaks it down as the following:

  • Family member: $127
  • Friend: $99
  • Boss/supervisor: $115 
  • Colleague/coworker: $63

However, Brumbley says the gift should be of an equivalent value to your "plate" as a guest — or, how much it costs for them to invite you. Now, you'll likely have no idea what this number is, and you wouldn't dare ask the bride and groom. But Brumbley says for the average wedding, this is about $150 to $200 per person.

"Hopefully, if you are being invited to the wedding, you should have some idea as to whether the couple is someone who will be spending a lot on you and if you need to step it up," she says.

According to the aforementioned Brilliant Earth study, men and women spend differently on wedding gifts too: Women reported $50 as an appropriate budget, while men favored $100. Interesting, right? Further, 13 percent of women and 17 percent of men thought $200 or more is the appropriate amount to spend on a wedding gift.

More: 10 Printable Wedding Checklists for the Organized Bride

Do dress appropriately

Before you go shopping for a dress to wear to the wedding, check the invitation: It should give you an indication of the dress code — be it casual, formal or cocktail. If it doesn't state, White says to always opt for cocktail attire, which includes "a knee-length, nice dress for women and suits with a tie and jacket for men."

As far as colors go, never wear white or cream to a wedding. You know this. But, you can wear black or red, "especially if it fits with the wedding invitation," Brumbley says. "Use the color palette of the invitation as a cue as to what colors to aim for. If the invitation is using bright bold colors, then it is most certainly OK to wear bright, bold colors. If the colors are more muted, stick with pastels in your own attire."

As far as shoes go, consider the wedding venue. Will you be in a grassy setting or on the beach? Choose carefully and think comfortably if you can. "When it comes to shoes, no one will look down on you for wearing sky-high heels, but keep in mind you will have to be in these shoes all day," Brumbley says.

Don't take pictures during the ceremony

You might feel tempted to do it, especially if you see others reaching for their cell phones to snap a pic or two, but do not take pictures during the ceremony.

"Leaning into the aisle, holding your phone in the air or walking around to get a better angle disrupts not only the professional photographer the couple has hired, but also the ceremony itself for the couple and every other guest there," White says.

However, Smith says you can take pictures at the beginning and at the end of the ceremony. Just leave the hired photographer to do his or her job during the ceremony.

Lastly — and this is a biggie — "no posting until after the couple posts to social media," Smith warns.

Don't leave before they cut the cake

If you're heading to a wedding, you should really stay for the entire event, but it's understandable everyone has their own schedules and might have to leave early for one reason or another. If you absolutely must leave early, though, Smith says to wait until the wedding cake cutting has begun.

"Before you leave, be sure to wish the wedding couple well," Smith adds. "Congratulate the families of the bride and groom, and thank the wedding hosts (i.e., whoever paid for the wedding!)."

Do have a great time

You're at a wedding, after all! And if you're lucky, a wedding with an open bar. So eat, drink (but not too much!) and dance your butt off.

"Always dance at a wedding," Brumbley says. "This is so huge and really your biggest role as a guest. You are there to celebrate the couple, and the best way to do that is to make the dance floor a fun place to be by getting your boogie on!"

That said, don't be shy, either. Get out there and mingle.

"Get ready to make new friends!" Brumbley says. "Come prepared to ask questions and get interested in their lives. People love talking about themselves and asking someone questions is the easiest way to keep the conversation going."

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