Is a little piece of paper really that important? Do you dare spend thousands (yes, thousands) of dollars on invites that you could just print at home? The answer is probably yes: regardless of your budget, the invitations are the first glimpse your invitees have of your event. They set guests' expectations from the instant the mailbox opens.

You can choose from ready-made invitations at bulk retailers (the least expensive option besides home-printing), all the way up to unique cards custom-designed by a graphic designer (which can soar to $25 a card). Ready-made cards are an easy way to get designer labels at a low cost, if you don't mind not being able to customize them. If you know what you want to write, but not how to phrase it, many printers are happy to provide that service as well. Always insist on reading a proof of the text before printing.

For most organized events, printed invitations are the standard. However, for very informal events, you can get away with sending email invitations. The degree of formality is reflected in your choice; a handwritten invitation with a big smiley face isn't appropriate for a black-tie wedding (but you knew that already). For formal occasions, you may also hire a professional calligrapher to letter your envelopes as a special touch.

Invitations are one of the few wedding investments that aren't scary to buy online, but always remember to research customer reviews, ask friends for recommendations, and choose someone you can trust. On the other hand, there is much less guesswork in hiring a printer you can visit in person. First, you can make an appointment with a live person to guide you through your options and recommend styles for the look you want to achieve. Second, local printers are much more accessible if you need to contact them to change anything.

There are four main types of printing. Engraving physically presses the letters into the paper, visible from both sides. It also uses higher quality inks, which is especially important for metallic colors, and it can be used on dark paper stock. Letterpress is similar in cost and appearance to engraving, but limits opaque colors. Thermography uses heat-activated resins to raise letters from the paper's surface. It is more limited than engraving or letterpress, but it is the least expensive option for raised letters. Lithography prints flat letters like a "normal" printer, but excels at reproducing complex images and multiple colors. Its cost is comparable to thermogaphy.

Card stock comes in many forms, and your choice affects your price as well as how your event is perceived. You can print on linen (most expensive), parchment, vellum, cotton, and heavy card stock (least expensive). Some papers include novelties like embedded flower seeds so the invitations can be planted afterward.

You may be thinking about making your own invitations. DIY invites are tempting, but often result in greater expense and effort than you originally envision. You'll need to buy all of the raw materials: envelopes, cards, reply cards, return labels, stamps, direction cards, and envelopes for the reply cards, as well as calligraphy pens or other decorative touches. Some stores offer "DIY kits" with the materials you'll need, but it's still up to you to make them look good. The DIY route is best used for more informal affairs where your invitees won't be scandalized if an imperfection slips through.

You'll need to send party invitations six to eight weeks before your event, or three weeks for an informal gathering. Wedding invitations are generally sent two or three months beforehand; leave more time if your event will require heavy advance planning, such as travel on a major holiday or a destination wedding in Jamaica. If you send invites too early, however, you risk them being misplaced and forgotten. Also, keep in mind that the process of printing and assembling invitations generally takes about six to eight weeks.

How many invitations do you need? When ordering blank ones, it's best to add at least 10% to your estimate. That way you'll have enough to cover spelling or formatting mistakes, as well as inviting extra guests. You don't want to have to chase down matching invitations at the last minute, and bulk orders are less expensive than individual ones.

Invitations convey a lot of information in a little package, so choose your wording carefully. You'll want to include the event date, time, location, and your contact information, as well as a short description (is it a surprise party? A potluck?) and requests such as dress codes or adults-only. Don't forget to include a "reply by" date so you'll know how many guests to expect. The formality of your invitations will match the formality of your event. Evening events generally have more muted colors and fewer playful accents than afternoon ones.

Invitations cost money. (Unless you're emailing, but then you'll be walking your grandparents through the electronic RSVP.) Plan to spend at least $1.50 per invite for low-end, DIY kits, and up to $30 per invite for deluxe printed cards. Factors that affect price include brand, paper type, rush jobs, number of folds, number of colors, weight, and printing style. If you're inviting a lot of guests, remember to budget for postage too.

Some of the cost is up to you. Flourishes like custom design, calligraphic lettering, wax seals, ribbons, foil-lined envelopes, and stamped RSVP envelopes are more expensive, but convey a greater sense of sophistication and hospitality.

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Katie P. | Report Abuse

We were going to save money and do online invites, but I have to say I'd rather send out nice paper ones. It's just classier.

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