Once you hit a certain age—say, mid to late 20s—it’s not uncommon, between June and October, to find yourself with invites to several different sets of nuptials. While there’s nothing more joyful than a celebration of love and commitment between your dearest friends, those celebrations cost. Between your outfit, your travel, and your gift, these shindigs can put some serious strain on your budget.
Wedding gifts are not mandatory—especially if you are asked to travel or participate in a destination ceremony—but they are customary and most people feel obliged to give a gift.
Reality and your finances, however, may mean that your own gifting policy must be customized to fit your relationships, budget, and creativity. This article will help you decide how much to give for a wedding gift (without looking cheap).
Respect the wishes of the happy couple
Pay attention to the invitation: Many modern couples, who marry later on when they’re more established, aren’t interested in accumulating more stuff. They’re likely to include hints in the invite like “Your presence is your present” or the blunter “No gifts, please.” Feel free to take them at their word.
While more traditional guests (i.e., The Olds) are likely to ignore the couple’s wishes and saddle them with well-meant things out of a sense of duty, you should follow the couple’s preferences.
You aren’t paying for your food and drink with your gift
Once upon a time, conventional wisdom stated that your gift should cost (roughly) the cost of your plate (and, if you’re +1-ing it, your date’s). Etiquette gurus now pretty much unanimously say this is wrong.
Your attendance at this person’s wedding is not a business transaction, where they offer you something (food, drinks, and maybe some dancing) in exchange for payment (your gift). Rather, you’re there because you’re connected—via friendship, family, or some other social tie.
How much to give for a wedding depends on your relationship to the betrothed
The amount of your gift should be about a) your budget and b) your relationship to the person getting married. Your bestie obviously merits more moolah than your third cousin, who probably deserves a bit more than the coworker you exchange pleasantries with over coffee.
That said, most etiquette experts suggest a minimum of $50 for a wedding gift.
If your slate of wedding includes people with whom you are various degrees of close, then let that guide your budgeting: Your sister gets the most, the college friend you’ve lost touch with (but remember fondly) gets a little less, and the frenemy from high school gets the least.
Plan ahead and look at the registry early
Most wedding sites suggest sticking to the registry: After all, you want to get them something they really want, and the registry is a big old list of things they want. (Convenient!)
If you wait too long to buy your gift (say, a few weeks before the wedding), then you’ll often find yourself limited to the extreme ends of the registry: The cheap stuff like dish towels and drinkware on one end, which can feel too piddling to be appropriate, and the crazy expensive things like espresso machines and stand mixers on the other—stuff that’s way out of your price range.
But the great thing about weddings is that you’ve got tons of time to prepare: Save-the-dates get sent out a year in advance, and invitations (with links to registries) go out not that much later.
It’s natural to want to put off spending money, but checking out the registry immediately is the best way to ensure you find a gift that’s within your budget and appropriate to your relationship to the bride/groom.
If you want to go big, look for others who will split the cost with you
If you’d really like to get the happy couple something really special, but can’t afford it, then reach out to other guests (who are probably struggling with a similar dilemma) and see if they’d be willing to split the costs with you.
According to the Knot, couples were most satisfied with big-ticket items that had been purchased by groups of guests. After all, the bride and groom don’t want you to go into debt in order to buy them something nice. Spreading the cost around means your friend gets something they really want (and would probably not buy themselves) and you get to stay in budget.
Buy yourself some time and send the gift after the wedding
Once upon a time, guests had a whole year after the wedding to send the newlyweds their gift. In the information age, with one-click ordering and no-hassle shipping options, that timetable has shortened: Most wedding gurus suggest no more than two months.
Still, if you’ve got three weddings in one month, then go easy on your wallet and spread out the purchases.
Many etiquette experts suggest that sending the gift later is more convenient for the bride and groom, anyway: less chance for it to get lost among the chaos of the big day.
Offer your services in lieu of a gift
Now, you don’t want to call your friend a few weeks before the wedding and ask if you help guests park for an hour instead buying them some wine glasses.
But if you’ve got a talent—for designing invitations or floral arrangements—and your friend asks you to lend your services, then don’t feel obligated to buy them a gift. You’ve made your contribution to the wedding.
What to do if you’re giving them multiple gifts on multiple occasions
If you are attending a destination wedding, and the costs of travel and lodging have consumed the greater part of your budget, it’s not always expected that you also bring a gift. If you’re not sure, the couple’s wedding website should provide a clue: If they include registry info alongside all the travel and lodging information, it is likely that they are hoping for gifts as well. If not, bring a card as a token of congratulations and prepare to have a great time.
If you were part of the wedding party, and shelled out money for a dress/tux, bachelorette/bachelor party, and helped coordinate the shower, you’ve paid your dues. If you feel a gift is expected, it’s completely acceptable to choose something on the lower end of their registry’s price range.
When faced with multiple gift purchases for one bride or groom, Vogue suggests going with the 20-20-60 approach: 20% of your budget for the engagement gift, 20% for the bridal shower gift, and 60% for the wedding itself.
Cash is totally okay
Most newlyweds want cash—some ask for it in the form of “honeymoon contributions,” but it’s also fine to just write a check. There’s even a service that does it all for you—Tendr.
Your budget comes first
While bringing a gift to a wedding is very common, you should never stretch your budget to accommodate gifts if you cannot afford it. Your friends and loved ones understand that you care for them and will be the first to recognize that your money is better spent paying down debt or paying all of your bills on time.
A wedding is a time to celebrate, and fancy gifts are just the icing on the (very expensive) cake. Focus on enjoying the event and showing your friends that you care, rather than on the cost of your present.
Weddings—and the gifts, showers, and parties that go along with them—are entangled in a complex web of social ties and obligations, making it difficult to know exactly how much or how little one is supposed to give.
That said, most brides and grooms just want to be surrounded by those they love on their big day, and as they celebrate their commitment to each other. (Basically, they are not these people.)
Give what you can, when you can.