The Wedding Series – Wedding Gift Giving Formula

“Maybe the pickle fork in her pattern is part of the dream
we all have when we get married…
until then the pickle fork is great for picking the lock
on a bathroom dor (sic)
when the kids lock themselves in.”
~ Erma Bombeck, Nevada Daily Mail, October 7, 1985  

Wedding guests have given — and brides and grooms have received — some interesting gifts over the generations. Some have been expected and some quite unexpected. There are the long-running jokes about the wedding couple receiving a half-dozen blenders or bun warmers, or that hideous vase from Great Aunt Ernestine that lives on the closet shelf except when it’s hauled out and given a place of honor when she comes to visit!

In many cases, of course, it’s okay to exchange a wedding gift provided the giver is given a courtesy advisory and a reasonable excuse for doing so  — you have duplicates, you’d like whatever it is in a color that goes with your decor, it doesn’t fit your bed or dining table, or you’ve become allergic to shellfish and would like to exchange the lobster pot for a cappuccino maker.

These gift issues are all pretty straightforward, but a recent article in The New York Times regarding the continuing confusion about how much money one should spend on a wedding gift has prompted me to clarify once again for wedding couples and their guests the correct formula for giving wedding gifts:

Correct Formula: The type and value of a wedding gift should be guided by the closeness of the relationship plus the budget of the giver. If you have a close relationship to the bride or groom or their family members and your budget will allow you will want to be generous with your gift. If you have a close relationship but a small budget, giving a modest gift is perfectly correct. If your relationship is less close, casual or even distant (people are invited to weddings for all sorts of reasons), you may give a modest gift regardless of your budget; it’s entirely up to you how much you wish to spend. The general rule of thumb regarding the minimum amount to give for those who are not close to the couple or their parents or other relative is if you are giving cash you should give no less than $50, and if you need to economize below that amount you should give a physical gift.

Incorrect Formula: The wrong way to calculate the amount to spend on a wedding gift is matching or exceeding the approximate or perceived value of the per-guest cost that the wedding couple is spending on the reception and catering. The bride and groom have decided to have the wedding they want and will spend what they wish or what they can afford to achieve this goal. This decision has no bearing on the value of wedding gifts they receive. No guest should ever be criticized for giving a gift of less value than the cost of inviting him or her to the wedding. First and foremost is the celebration itself and the desire on the part of the wedding couple to have family and friends present to mark this very major milestone in their lives. Of much lesser consequence are the gifts the couple will receive from the wedding guests as gestures of their goodwill and support; while gifts are customary they are not mandatory and are presented at the discretion of each guest. While the absence of a gift altogether will raise eyebrows, a thoughtful gift of any value will — or should — be accepted joyfully and gratefully.

The Helpful Registry

As mentioned in an early entry of The Wedding Series regarding gift registries, as most couples have them it’s thoughtful and wise on the part of the wedding couple to include a variety of items in price ranges from low to high from which guests may choose. Ensure that all items are things you really want or need and that the stores where you register are reputable and offer easy and convenient ordering and returns (in case of damage or the wrong item being sent).

It is fine to give a gift that is not on the registry. If you know the couple well you may give a meaningful gift that you know they will love. This is especially true if the guest is handy at quilting or knitting, pottery making, woodworking or other craft expertise; a hand-make gift is a treasure. Or while traveling you might come across something know the couple would turn handsprings over.

Wherever you find a wedding gift, as a guest if you don’t deliver it yourself you should ensure that the gift is sent to the same address to which you have sent your invitation reply card, and that the gift arrives before the wedding, if possible, or at the latest by the time the couple returns from their wedding, mini-moon or honeymoon.

Cash Gifts

Cash gifts historically have been a part of wedding gift giving. In some cultures cash gifts are customary more commonly than physical gifts; these include Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Cash gifts cut across all cultures to some extent, and it is certainly easier and less fuss on the guest’s part than trying to select a physical gift; and cash is always appreciated. Until recently, the typical manner of presenting a cash gift was to write a check, put it in a card and either mail it or hand it to the best man or father of the bride at the reception.

But what about the current trend of cash registries in which cash is listed as one of the gifts the couple wants? Well, let’s remember that many of the rules of etiquette are based on practicality. Cash registries are merely a practical way of presenting wedding couples with cash gifts. This might be a bit of a shock to those who are not familiar with this new custom, just as registries themselves were when they were introduced nearly a century ago.

Newlyweds often need some major item; perhaps they are saving to purchase a house, buy new bedroom furniture or renovate a kitchen. Modern registries allow the bride and groom to list such projects as well as physical gifts such as china, crystal, linens, kitchen tools and so on. This is particularly the case with older couples who might have a lot of “stuff” already, but are looking to tackle a big project at this stage of their lives. Thus, cash registries have become routine and perfectly acceptable provided they are handled in good taste.

Note that with registries that offer a cash option a credit card or PayPal fee will be incurred by the bride and groom to transfer the gift funds to their bank account; that does not occur when a gift is presented in the form of a check. Also note that I am not recommending or endorsing any site; it’s important to research any site you intend to use before signing up, and to keep good records so you can track all your registry transactions — financial and otherwise — to ensure their accuracy.

Plus One’s, No Gifts, Regrets and Reciprocation

There are other situations regarding gift giving that often cause confusion. Plus one’s, for example, are not expected to give a separate gift; they may leave that up to the invited guest to take care of. The exception is if the plus one is engaged to the guest or otherwise very close, she or he should consider offering to go in on the gift.

Another issue is the “no gift” request by the couple, which should be honored. Sending a gift or bringing a gift to the reception would be inappropriate and likely to cause embarrassment and hurt or bad feelings on the part of the wedding couple, their families and the other guests. If you are very close, you could consider making a donation in the couple’s name to their favorite charity (which, by the way, is also an option on many wedding registries), or take them to dinner and/or the theatre after the wedding and honeymoon.

If a guest cannot attend the wedding and sends regrets, it is customary for the guest to send a wedding gift regardless, especially if there is a close relationship. In this case, as well, the formula should be followed: choose a gift based on your relationship and your budget rather than assume that because the couple did not spend any money on you because you didn’t attend that you need not send a gift or you can spend less on it.

With regard to reciprocation, if the bride or groom or their parents gave you a gift worth $200 in honor of your wedding that does not mean you must reciprocate in kind if your budget does not allow or the relationship has changed. Follow the formula in this case, as well.

Group Gifts

For members of the wedding party, who are spending a bundle already; the gang from the office; or guests who know each other and are spending money on travel and lodging, a group gift is a great way for people to pool their money and provide a nice gift. Group gifts from the wedding party, especially, are quite common.

Say “Thank You” Early and Often

It cannot be emphasized enough that the wedding couple should stay on top of their handwritten thank-you notes. As I’ve stated in earlier entries, writing and sending thank-you notes as gifts are received — rather than waiting until after the wedding to write and send them all — will make the gift-givers feel happier and more appreciated and ensure that the newlyweds will not become overwhelmed with the task of tackling them all at once. It’s very easy to put off a monumental task like writing out a great number of notes that have piled up, and when a guest sends a gift in May and doesn’t receive a thank-you note until September it can cause a wonderful event to end on a sour note. Staying organized and on top of things is also part of the formula.

Until next time,


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