Welcome to Wedding Guest Wednesday, an occasional feature in which Solo-ish explores the joys and woes of attending other people’s weddings. Because it’s not all about the happy couple — it’s a big day for guests as well.
Out of all the wedding traditions, deciding how much to spend on the gift appears to be the biggest source of confusion for guests.
According to a recent survey from the Knot, 47 percent of Americans reported needing help figuring out wedding gift etiquette. In an informal survey of my Facebook connections, responses ranged from spending as little as $40 (especially if travel was involved) to $300. The most common amount mentioned was $100, which is in line with the national average, according to surveys from the Knot and American Express.
This all-over-the-map gifting is standard among millennials. According to a recent study from Bankrate.com, people ages 18 to 29 were both the most likely to go the inexpensive route — one in four spent less than $50 on a gift for a close friend or family member — and most likely to splurge and spend more than $200 on a gift for a close friend or family member.
I spoke to wedding etiquette experts, financial planners, serial wedding guests and even a friendship expert and found six guidelines to buy by:
There is no established amount a guest is expected to spend on the happy couple. Rather, each guest should decide how much to spend based on their own budget, not the budget of the couple getting married. A wedding guest’s gift budget will likely fluctuate throughout their lifetime: Smaller gifts in their 20s, then perhaps more once they’re in their 30s and 40s. The size of a gift might also vary if you’re attending with a guest rather than solo.
Your attendance is more important than what you give. According to a survey from the Knot, the average cost of hosting a wedding reached $35,329 in 2016. The average guest spent $888 to attend a wedding — $118 of that going to gifts. For someone in the bridal party, those averages climb to $1,154 and $177, respectively. Similarly, a recent survey from American Express says the average millennial guest spends $893 to attend a wedding, $928 to be a bridesmaid or groomsman, while members of other generations spend less.
Really, experts say, being there is actually the biggest gift — and that’s not just a cheesy cliche. “Most of us feel more poverty in time than money,” says friendship expert Shasta Nelson, author of “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.” Nelson, who is in her 40s, says that now that most of her friends have kids, she sees people feeling more stressed about not being able to make it to a wedding than they do about not being able to send a big gift. “If this person has mattered to you, it’s worth the sacrifice to be there,” Nelson says. “That’s the space where there’s a lot more conflict that I’ve heard about.”
And if a couple says no gifts? Please, take them at their word. Jen Doll, freelance writer and author of “Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest,” says she follows that guidance — or she’ll make the bride something personal to commemorate their friendship.
The notion of “paying for your plate” doesn’t apply anymore. This idea, which is somewhat old-fashioned, came out of a generous thought: That weddings are expensive to throw, so the guests should give back. But Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post, says this rule is long dead. Besides, as a guest, you shouldn’t know how much the hosts paid for the wedding!
Rather, Post notes, by throwing a wedding, the host is saying: I’m having this monumental moment in my life. Please come celebrate with me. “The guests are going to want to say thank you for that party; that thank you can be in words,” Post says. The gift is not your thank you for being invited. “The gift is your way of saying: ‘Congratulations. You’re special to me.’ ”
Even for a very modest wedding, guests don’t have to limit themselves to what the hosts might have paid for their plates, says Post, co-president of the Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. “If you throw a potluck wedding, that doesn’t mean you’re relegated to a woodcarving gift,” Post adds. “Someone could still buy you a sterling silver tea set.”
Doll adds, “I think we get confused because we want to do the right thing. But the right thing is not commoditized.”
Set a range for what you will give — which can vary based on how close you are with each couple. Not all relationships are created equal, so not all gifts will be the same size, either. Friendship expert Nelson suggests asking yourself: “What would be the upper end of what you would spend for someone you really really loved” and then what would you spend on “someone you hardly know?” Her range for wedding gifts is $25 to $100, and the financial planners I spoke with also suggested organizing your gifting in this way. Also, look at how much you’ll be spending on weddings throughout the year, and then come up with a price point or a range that fits within your budget.
If buying off the registry, buy early. Andrew Damcevski, a single, 25-year-old financial planner in Cincinnati, suggests that cost-conscious guests buy their gifts when they get the “save the date” so they can find something on the registry in their price point rather than waiting until right before the big day, when there might not be anything left in your budget or “anything you’re not excited about,” Damcevski says. Single guests might also combine forces with other guests to buy something larger as a group. On my Facebook wall, friends mentioned buying luggage sets together and also looking for Cyber Monday deals or using their Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons to help bring the costs down.
But you don’t have to buy off the registry. Post “almost never” shops on the registry, preferring to give sentimental gifts over impersonal tea towels or an espresso maker. For her, that often means giving the couple a simple yet classic picture frame that’s engravable with their wedding date — whether they’ve registered for that or not. Or she’ll give to a Honeyfund, which allows guests to help couples pay for their honeymoon, but prefers when the couple sets it up so that it’s “buyer’s choice.” “You always want to make sure that your gift registry or Honeyfund allows for guests to give varying amounts. I get so annoyed when it’s like: ‘We get to do this gift thing now and we’re going to need items.’ … It spirals out of control.”
It’s also a good idea to go off-registry when everything on it is out of your price range. “It really depends on the couple,” Doll says. “If they’re 22 years old and they really need to set up a house, then they really need pots and pans.” But just because someone decided they want Hermes plates, Doll isn’t going to go along with it — she’s going to stick to her budget.