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Traditionally invitations are sent out around 6-weeks before the wedding date, although it is often the case these days to send them much earlier to allow people to organise themselves and their schedules, particularly if family and friends are travelling from abroad or you are holding your ceremony in an exotic location.
Having a reply by date can help a lot with your planning and preparation and helps to give everyone a clear deadline to work towards. You'll also know when to give a 'gentle reminder' or nudge people along for a response. It is good practice to include a reply by date on your day and evening invitations, which we do by default, and it is now increasingly common to include an RSVP card when sending out your invitations. Your RSVP can be in the form of a postcard, these are easy to reply and send in the post (and no additional envelope required), or as a card with envelope...often the choice if you have other information to include, such as menu choices, hotel room booking etc.