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An Etiquette Expert Explains How To Politely Decline A Wedding Invitation

Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
Work has been tedious and the day was unusually hot. You arrive home in a sticky mess, dreaming of a refreshing shower. Except the door won’t open, because there's another fat envelope on the floor, jamming it shut. It’s not a whacking great electricity bill, but it might as well be. You can tell from the expensive finish of the paper that this is a wedding invitation. And it's the fifth you’ve received this year.

Weddings are supposed to be joyful celebrations. They’re a day when you can wear puffy clothes, go overboard on eye makeup, and drink upwards of five glasses of champagne before 3pm. But when every other weekend is spent schlepping from one end of the country to the other for one, or even jetting to the southern Mediterranean in a short enough spell of time to conserve your annual leave, well, the novelty can wear off.

According to research from Nationwide, weddings costs the average attendee £377. In Northern Ireland, the average spend for a guest (including the hen do and the main event), is even higher, at £476. Yes, being invited to a wedding feels exclusive, and yes, it’s tempting to avoid any drama and just RSVP in the affirmative, but what if you simply can't afford it?
Lucy, 29, decided enough was enough when eight of her weekends in a row were booked up last summer. “Four of the weddings I was super-stoked to go to. The rest were schoolfriends I literally hadn’t spoken to for about a decade and the odd cousin.” She was going out of a sense of duty and politeness.

Because many of the same people were going to be at the weddings, she also had to buy new dresses to each and gifts for the happy couple. “It coincided with me deciding to change my job and I had a period where I wasn’t earning. I decided to turn down all the family ones, just telling them that I couldn’t afford to attend. They were forgiving, and I sent a small present which was received well.”

However, it doesn’t always end there. One woman I talked to (who is still embarrassed about the incident three years later) was invited to Ibiza by a new boyfriend a week before her friend's wedding. Head over heels in love, she called in sick to the wedding, feigning some kind of gruesome stomach bug, and booked a flight to Ibiza. Her friend saw some of the pictures on Instagram, and didn’t speak for two years.
Confused about the best code of conduct when rejecting a wedding invitation, I sought expert advice. Debrett’s represents the height of authority when it comes to etiquette, and they confirm the most common reason for turning down a wedding invitation is cost. “Between travel, accommodation and childcare, not to mention a new outfit, attending a wedding can be an expensive proposition.”

A spokesperson for Debrett’s advised: “It’s better to decline politely than to attend out of obligation while worrying about the expense. Traditionally, a formal RSVP to a wedding invitation doesn’t require that you give a reason, and you can be equally circumspect if responding informally, while making it clear how sorry you’ll be to miss out on the day. Bear in mind, though, that according to tradition, those invited to a wedding should still give the couple a gift even if they’re unable to attend.”

Not wanting to go to a wedding can be about more than cost. Again, Debrett’s advises being tactful if there’s something at the wedding which could result in a problem. “There may be diplomatic reasons to consider: if the best man is your ex, for example, or you’re on particularly fractious terms with one of the bridesmaids, it may be wisest to stay away. The couple will no doubt be grateful for your tact rather than resentful of your absence.”

Jamie, 27, couldn’t face going to another wedding and didn’t have a good excuse not to attend. “She was a friend. I’d been really close to her at high school. I’d already spent about £500 on her hen party because she decided to have one abroad. It was about my free time too – she’d decided to get married on Friday to save money, but it meant taking a day’s leave. I only get 22 days off a year, so I just couldn’t face it. I sent her a private message and just said I was having a tough time, financially, and would she let me take her out for a meal?"

Jamie took her friend out for a meal, gave her a gift, and apologised in person. “I told her to share loads of pictures, and she understood where I was coming from. I reckon it’s better not being there, than showing up and being resentful.”

From a bride’s point of view, turning down a wedding invite is far better than just not showing up. The amount of time and money that goes into a wedding shouldn’t be taken for granted just because you’re feeling tired and don't want to show. RSVP in the negative so there’s no empty seat – that should save awkwardness and save the wedding couple £30.

After Helen, 55, got married a few years ago, she was left disappointed by a friend who simply didn’t show up. “One of my oldest friends simply forgot to come to our wedding. We had arranged a bed for the night with friends so the costs were not excessive. Needless to say we haven't spoken since. We had been friends for over 30 years at the time.”

As with everything in life, a little bit of courtesy goes a long way. Make your excuse in plenty of time, try to keep it honest, and, if the worst case scenario happens and you have to cancel on the day, make sure your letter is accompanied by the biggest bouquet of flowers possible, and an excessive gift.