If you’re… friends, but not BFFs
This category is the biggest catch-all, and it’s probably the one that will most often apply to a thanks-but-no-thanks reply to a wedding invitation. With coworkers, college friends, high-school buds you haven’t seen in years and childhood pals all entering “marriage age” around the same time as you, it’s no wonder your mailbox seems to sprout a new invitation every few weeks right now (plus, you’re wildly popular. Obviously.)
But the invitation isn’t a binding contract to attend, and it’s possible that – gasp! – you might have even been a second or third-round invitee to the event. So if you’re holding yet another invite in your hand, trying to figure out if this means ramen for the rest of the month, and you’d really rather decline? Here’s how to tell your friends you won’t make it to their special day.
And before you let the guilt monster get the better of you, remember that you’ll likely see the couple for all of five minutes, if that, at their wedding.
This seems like a given, and while RSVP-ing quickly is common courtesy for all types of wedding invites, it’s even more important if you’ll be checking the “Regretfully declines” box. Whether you’re a first-round invitee or a third-round guest, the sooner your friends know you won’t be making it, the easier it’ll be for them to manage their headcount and update their seating charts.
Send a gift
Since you won’t be able to make it to this admittedly big-deal life event, the best practice is to send a gift anyways. I know, it sounds like a much less budget-friendly option than simply replying on time with a “no thanks” but it’ll soften the blow, acknowledge their special day and still cost less than a new outfit, that cash bar, and a wedding gift.
You can likely aim for about half of what you would have spent on a gift as a guest, and if they have a registry, that’s your safest bet at this point.
If you’re… close friends
Here’s where things get tricky: You absolutely adore the couple, and you desperately would love to attend, but you just straight up cannot afford it in time for their big day. This isn’t a situation where you’re choosing other weddings to attend, or where you could make it work with a bit of effort – this is when you really, legitimately don’t have the money and are really bummed you won’t be able to make it.
Plus, you’re probably nervous as heck to tell your friends you won’t be there.
So first step, take a deep breath. Done? OK. Here’s what to do next.
Instead of popping that RSVP card back in the mail, take the time to send a personal message – or better yet, just pick up the phone and give them a call like it’s 1998. Yes, it’s likely that you never really talk on the phone, but you’ve got some disappointing news for them, and I bet you they’ll appreciate hearing it from you in person.
Be upfront about why
When your friends inevitably inquire about why you have to miss their special day, don’t be afraid to dish the real reason: Cost. Whether their event involves a cross-country plane ticket or unpaid time off work, if they’re really that close to you, you can tell them that money is why you need to bow out of their celebrations. It’ll also save you their attempts to “fix” the reason you can’t make it because if the only real fix is money, it’s better they know that upfront.
They’re planning a wedding – if they don’t understand that things are expensive, they haven’t had to put a deposit on anything yet.
Suggest alternative celebrations
To soften the blow, and to make sure your friends know that your absence has nothing to do with how much you want to be there and celebrate their union, set up an alternate celebration that you can afford. Maybe it’s a special dinner the next time you’re in their town, or an all-out party when they come to visit you, but whatever it is, make sure you follow through on the plans if you offer them.
Plus, what’s more intimate and special: A drive-by hello at their wedding, or a special dinner for just a few close friends at your place? I’m just saying.
Send a gift
Lastly, if you won’t see them for a very long time and an alternative in-person celebration is out of the question, make sure to send a gift at the same level you would have brought to the in-person celebrations.
More: How to ask for money instead of wedding gifts (tactfully)
If you’re… family (but not immediate family)
Your cousin you haven’t seen in a few years extends an invite to their out-of-town wedding, and your budget can’t quite swing it? Here’s how to deal.
Are you sensing a theme here? RSVP quickly any time you can’t make it to a wedding. It’s rare that any other event is quite so dependent on headcounts for everything from snacks to dinners to desserts, and if you can’t make it, I guarantee you that your hosts will use that information to either invite someone else or scale down their budget accordingly.
Call them, or the hosts
Since it’s family, a phone call in addition to your RSVP card is warranted, either to the people whose wedding it is or to the hosts. Since you probably know them both, use your judgement as to who would be best to notify – like if it’s your cousin’s wedding, but you know your aunt is bankrolling the event and you’re closer to her? That might be the first call to make.
Send a gift
You’ll probably see this couple at family gatherings for the foreseeable future, so you’ll want to make sure your absence at the event isn’t seen as a total snub – so pop open their registry and pick something out that won’t break the bank. Send it, along with a nice card, and you’re covered.
What about immediate family?
If you’re wondering where the section is for immediate family, I left it out because if it’s a sibling, a parent or a grandparent tying the knot, you probably can’t bow out. Sorry friends, but your strategy here is a bit different: Talk to your family about what you can afford. It’s entirely possible that someone, be it a parent or a grandparent, can help make sure you’re able to attend this family event.
It’s a little awkward, but start with something like “Hey mom, can we talk about my jerk older brother asking us to fly to Hawaii for his wedding, and the amount of student debt I still pay every month?” (I’m joking. Mostly. Talk to your family in a way that makes sense based on your relationships.)
And hey, if you’re thinking that your entire clan really is cool with you missing the event? Head back to the family and the close-friends sections, and choose the one that works best for your unique situation.
The bottom line: it’s an invitation, not an obligation
Maybe this is going to make me seem cold and heartless, but at the end of the day, it’s an invitation to a party.
Yes, an important one to celebrate a giant life milestone, but if you can’t make it for any reason, that’s OK – and while you can be as gracious in your refusal to attend as you want, a good host will accept your reasoning and be equally gracious back.
Take my word for it as someone who’s planning a wedding herself. If you need to RSVP no thanks to me, and you handle it well? There will be zero hard feelings. Maybe it’s a millennial thing (I feel like all of our grandparents would take it really personally if someone missed their wedding?) but the sense I get is that anyone our age would let it go as long as it was well-handled, too.