If you’re not familiar with it, this guideline, which was once popular in certain parts of the country, suggests that a wedding guest should give a gift that costs at least the same amount as the couple is spending per person on catering for the reception.
This is problematic for a few reasons. For one, it implies attending a wedding is somehow transactional (I give you a Kitchenaid mixer in exchange for a few vodka sodas and a pan-seared chicken breast). It doesn’t take into account the different finances and gift budgets of the guests. And it presumes a guest would even know, or be able to figure out, what the couple was spending on wedding food and booze.
Etiquette expert and wedding planner Xochitl Gonzalez once offered an apt analogy highlighting the ridiculousness of the “rule.” “When you are invited to a dinner party, do you estimate the cost of groceries and alcohol and time spent cooking before you figure out what to spend on a bottle of wine? Of course not!” she told HuffPost. “You pick up a bottle of wine you think everyone will enjoy and that you can afford.”
Plus, should you really have to spend more just because a couple has chosen to host an extravagant celebration?
“A wedding is not a fundraiser, and no guest should ever feel obligated to give at a certain level, including the cost of a plate at the reception,” etiquette expert Thomas P. Farley, aka Mister Manners, told HuffPost. “That guideline is a fallacy it’s time to dispel. There is nothing in the realm of etiquette that dictates that you add zeroes to your gift just because the couple has thrown a lavish reception.”
But without such guidance, guests often struggle with how much to spend on a wedding present, whether they’re choosing something off the registry, contributing to the couple’s Honeyfund account or giving cold hard cash.
“A wedding is not a fundraiser, and no guest should ever feel obligated to give at a certain level, including the cost of a plate at the reception.”
We’re not here to tell you what to spend (you can check out these figures from Shutterfly if you want a general idea). Instead, we asked wedding and etiquette experts to share the factors to consider when coming up with an amount that makes sense for you.
1. What’s your personal budget or current financial situation?
First and foremost, you should never spend more than you can afford on a wedding gift. If money is tight, adjust your gift budget accordingly. The couple is (hopefully!) more concerned about your presence than your present.
“If you’re not in a comfortable financial space, then it doesn’t matter what anyone suggests regarding how much to spend,” said planner Summer McLane of My Simply Perfect Events. “There is no need to overextend yourself financially in order to keep up with social norms.”
If you have several weddings to attend in a short span of time, particularly if you’re acting as a bridesmaid or groomsman in any of them, be sure to take that into account as well. You don’t want to rack up major credit card debt just to be there.
And if you’re really in a tough spot financially — like a grad student on a shoestring budget — you have a few options: Give what you’re able to give, chip in a smaller amount towards one of the pricier items on the couple’s registry or just write the couple a heartfelt card expressing your congratulations. You can also get creative and do something thoughtful that won’t break the bank.
“If you are on a tight budget, a simple card is absolutely acceptable,” said etiquette expert Elaine Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol. “Otherwise you can, perhaps, download some photos from their social media page and give them one photo in a nice frame or create a photo booklet from an online resource.”
2. How close are you with the couple?
The closer you are with a bride or groom, the more you may want to spend on their gift. That probably means giving a bit more to a longtime best friend or close family member, and perhaps a bit less to a co-worker or distant cousin.
“If you have known the couple for a long time and or are very close to them, it makes sense that you would lean into a larger gift,” planner Jove Meyer of Jove Meyer Events said. “If you have known them for a shorter period of time, I think you could get away with a lower-priced gift.”
3. How far are you traveling for the wedding?
Between flights and hotels and other assorted expenses, attending a destination wedding can get pricey. Some etiquette experts say it’s OK to skip the gift for a destination wedding if your budget needs to, but it’s better to give something if you can.
“A gift is not expected, but I suggest getting one anyhow,” Meyer said. “And since it’s not expected, you could spend less and be thoughtful. Having traveled and bought hotel and airfare is a lot, and the couple knows that.”
Others, including Farley, believe you should give a gift, regardless of how far you’re traveling to be there.
“Incurring travel expenses to get to a wedding is not a ‘get out of giving a gift’ card,” he said. “Your decision to spend money to travel to the big event should be made independently of the considerations above.”
4. Are you bringing a plus-one?
“The more people invited [with you], the more you should spend on the gift,” Meyer said.
5. Have you given gifts for other wedding-related celebrations, like an engagement party or bridal shower?
Experts recommend using the 60-20-20 rule to allocate your gift budget if you’re attending multiple events leading up to one wedding, such as the engagement party or bridal shower. That means 60% of your budget goes toward the wedding gift, 20% goes toward the shower gift and 20% goes toward the engagement gift, though that last one is optional.
6. Are you RSVPing “no” to the wedding?
If you’re close with the couple and you can’t make it to their nuptials, it’s considerate to send a gift anyway ― although some experts say you don’t need to. If you’re not in a financial position to buy a present, sending a heartfelt card will do.
If you are going to send a gift, it’s OK to spend a little less than you might if you were actually attending.
A word on giving cash vs. buying off the registry
Different cultures and generations have diverging opinions about whether giving cash as a wedding gift is appropriate. These days, it’s becoming more and more common, and many etiquette experts agree it’s totally acceptable — especially in a time when many couples live together prior to getting married. They may already have all the Dutch ovens and champagne flutes they need.
“Weddings are expensive and couples will always appreciate cash,” McLane said. “Honestly, do the couple a favor and skip the obligatory wedding registry and slide them some money.”
When giving cash, be sure to put it inside a handwritten card (and consider sending it before the wedding so it doesn’t get misplaced in the big day chaos). If you’re writing a check, be careful about how you fill it out so that the couple doesn’t run into trouble cashing it if they haven’t changed their last names yet or don’t plan to.
And if you’d prefer not to give money for whatever reason, items on the couple’s registry are always a sure bet because you know it’s stuff they want or need.
“Just get to the registry early,” Farley said, “so you can give something meaningful, which will remind them of you every time they use it, such as an espresso machine, as opposed to having to gather the remaining scraps on the registry — a spatula, one tumbler, a doormat and a pillowcase — to assemble a meaningful monetary amount.”