-P.S. I have two categories here--
a. for a longer engagement (at least 3 months) with a sit-down-meal, full reception, possible destination wedding with all the works
b. for a shorter, more-budget-wise ceremony and reception/open house.
a. A must, especially if you are having a destination wedding; guests need time to save up for the travel costs involved and to get the extended time off work. Most of the people will probably not have any idea that you're getting married until they receive the Save-the-Date, so give plenty of notice for all. Send out a nice card or postcard with the names, dates, and location of the wedding. You'll want to send these out about 3 months before your invitations will be sent out (so about 6 months before you're wedding), or give double the time for a destination wedding (about a year notice).
b. For shorter engagements and a more quiet celebration, Save-the-Dates are not necessary, but are nice. I really like having the option of emailing the Save-the-Date to your guests. This cuts down on designing, printing, and postage costs, as well as time for them to be created and shipped. If you do want to send out Save-the-Dates on this shortened time table, email or send them out about 2-3 months before your invites.
2. Invitations and Announcements
a. The Biggie. There are so many different options for your wedding invitation, it's easy to get overwhelmed with all of the choices. Most are simply a piece of paper with the bride and groom's names, the wedding location, time, and a few other things, but I've seen some invitations that are entire pamphlets, fold-outs, and even bound books. The sky is the limit and let your imagination roam! Some guests like to see photos of the happy couple, while others tend to go for a more traditional feel. It's up to you, but you'll absolutely NEED to send these, if you want guests, that is. Send invitations out about 3-4 months before the wedding so guests can make arrangements to be there.
b. For smaller parties, it might not be an option to invite everyone and their dog to celebrate. In this case, some brides like to inform people of their wedding without actually inviting them to wine and dine. If you fall into this category, an announcement is more what you need (along with invitations). When you send out invitations, about 1-2 months before the date, you'll also send out the announcements to those loved ones that will not be invited. For those getting announcements, Save-the-Dates are not sent.
*Temple Weddings-- for you LDS gals out there, you will definitely need to include a separate invitation for guest of the ceremony, even if it is just a little business-card-sized paper. Because of the limited seating and other qualifications to attend a temple wedding, guests need to definitely know if they are invited to the ceremony, along with the location and arrival time, as this will be different than the reception location and time.
Inclusions to the Invitation
a. You'll need these. The last thing you want is to have a caterer plan a meal for 200 people and have 400 show up, or visa versa. Send these simple cards out with your invitations to ensure that you plan for as few or as many people as will actually come to your wedding. RSVP cards are a lot cheaper than empty settings at the table.
b. You probably won't need these. Unless you have a location that has limited occupancy, you can probably get away with the simple word-of-mouth RSVP or just simple guesswork.
4. Reception Cards
I consider these pretty optional. If your wedding ceremony is at a different location or time than the reception will be, and you can't fit all of the information on the initial invitation, it might be nice to include a reception card. While they are an added expense to an expensive day, you might want to consider purchasing them if some guest are included to the ceremony but not the reception. If everyone is invited to everything, then I'd recommend tring to fit all the information on the invite and ditching the extra cost.
5. Insert Cards
These are pretty much whatever you want them to be-- maps, directions, info about parking, accommodations, local sight-seeing, a website address, and anything else you can think of. Some people even choose to have a small insert card tell guests where they are registered for gifts, but others consider this a wedding no-no (it's up to you).
For the Ceremony and Celebration
Let's say that you have a very structured agenda and you want everyone to know that you'll be greeting guests for an hour before you cut the cake, but you want everyone to stick around for the cake-cutting. That would be the perfect time for a program. It's to help the guests feel like guests, and to know what's going on. The same goes for ceremonies that may be unfamiliar to some guests, like an inter-religious/ inter-cultural marriage. Sometimes it's nice to be able to do a little explaining about why you chose to include certain elements into your reception, without going around with a megaphone.
If you're having a sit-down meal, then yes. If you're having a catered buffet, then yes. If you're having a home-made buffet for an open-house style reception, then you can if you want. If you're debating whether to have one or not, it's better to do it, then to have everyone asking you, "What's this?" during your special day. There are lots of options too. You don't have to do the traditional menu that sits on each plate, you could choose to have a big poster with everything listed or little flags in each dish.
8. Table Numbers and Place Cards
For very large crowds and an organized feel, table numbers or place cards are nice. They create a sense of order in something that may very well turn chaotic. Also, it helps to eliminate those awkward one-empty-chair-here-and-another-empty-chair-over-there things that sometimes happen if guests are allowed to choose their own seats. Make sure that whatever you do decide on, the numbers or name cards are easy to see and read.
There are so many ideas floating around out there for every one of these stationary options. If you're looking for ideas, follow my wedding boards on Pinterest for great ideas no matter what your taste.
These are just a few of my wedding designs. You can see lots more, along with photos of my finalized projects on my website.