How much should I spend on a wedding gift?

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Weddings are wonderful celebrations.  When people reflect on their life, they often can recall many, many details about their own wedding.  These days tend to be filled with mix of magical moments and the inevitable minor catastrophe that arises when trying to coordinate a variety of activities with a large number of people across several hours.  Of course, each and every spectacular detail of a wedding must be meticulously planned by the couple.  The guests are able to simply show up and enjoy it all.  Except of course for one common question:  How much should I spend on a wedding gift?

The old rules longer apply

“How much should I spend on a wedding gift?” is a question that has plagued etiquette mongers for generations.  At some point, a few decades ago, someone came up with a rather elegant answer.  Why not get the couple a gift that covers the cost of your attendance at this spectacular event?  The logic here is rather compelling.  Weddings are known to be costly affairs to pull off.  So, it does make intuitive sense that it would be nice if the guests would contribute to the cause.

In practice though, this creates a few issues.  First off, while the average wedding is reported to cost something on the order of $35,000 these days, there really is no telling what any particular wedding will cost.  Some extravagant celebrations run into the several hundred thousand dollar range.  Others are more low key and might cost less than $1,000.  It’s really not practical for wedding guests to take a crack at estimating the cost, and then divide that cost by the number of people in attendance to come up with a gift value.  Even if this could be done, would you really want to spend more on a gift for your distant cousin that threw the wedding reception of the century than you would on your sibling who had a low key dinner with immediate family to celebrate?

How close are you to these people, really?

If you want to know how much to spend, one of the first factors to consider is how close are you to the couple getting married?  Is one of the people getting married an immediate family member or a friend that you only talk with a couple times a year these days?  Are you in the wedding?  The bar is a bit higher if you are the maid of honor or the best man than if you are just a regular wedding guest.

How much can you afford to spend on a wedding gift?

This is perhaps the most important factor of all.  It might be that your closest friend in the world is getting married but you are in a bit of a tough spot financially.  Perhaps you are between jobs or you just had twins and you are trying to stretch every dollar.  In this case, try and go for something inexpensive and sentimental.  You might frame a copy of their invitation or have the invitation sliced up and put into a Christmas ornament.  Or, perhaps you can get them a pillow with their wedding date on it.  One thing is for sure, no one should expect you to give an extravagant gift when you are only scraping by.  On the other hand, if you find yourself flush with cash at the time of the wedding, feel free to share the wealth with a little bit of extra generosity.

Man thinking "how much should I spend on a wedding gift?" with empty pockets

Sometimes reciprocation is best and other times not so much

If you have been married yourself, you might try and recall what these people gave you on your wedding day so that you can reciprocate.  While this might a good barometer if your wedding was recent and you and the wedding couple have relatively similar means and lifestyles, it’s less relevant if you got married ten years ago in your early twenties while this couple is getting married in their thirties.

Ok, this is all great but how much should I spend on a wedding gift?  Show me the numbers!

On average, people give wedding gifts that cost somewhere between $100 and $150.  Having said that, it’s perfectly fine to go down to $25 for someone that you are not particularly close to or if that is simply all you can afford at the moment.  On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for close relatives, particularly those that are a bit older and more affluent to give gifts of $750-$1000 or more.  One thing that bears remembering is that while some people give cash or checks as a gift, others give objects.  If you select a thoughtful gift that happens to cost $25, it’s not as though the couple is going to know exactly what it costs anyway.  They are much more likely to simply appreciate the thoughtful gift.

But everything on the wedding registry is so expensive

Ok, so you decide to log onto the couple’s wedding registry and you are shocked to find that everything is extremely expensive.  As you scroll through, you see a $1,500 grill a $1,200 television and a number of other similarly priced items.  At last, when you see an item that costs only $125, it turns out to be a salt shaker paired with a pepper grinder.  While $125 is in the range that you want to spend, it makes you uncomfortable to spend so much money on something so simple.

At moments like this, it is worth remembering two important facts.  First, wedding registries are often aspirational.  The young couple is dreaming of their life together and naturally picking out the best of everything.  Second, it’s perfectly fine to get something off registry for the couple.  In fact, this is a great way to surprise them with something unexpected.  One word of advice is that when you go off registry, you should be careful not to get an item that is listed on the registry.  For example, if they couple registered for a $1,500 grill, don’t go and buy them one off registry for $300 because you really don’t want them to wind up owning two brand new grills.  If you are going off registry, here are a few wedding gift ideas.

Hope these musings help as you think through the age old question of “how much should I spend on a wedding gift?”  Enjoy the celebration.