What’s the Secret Formula for Choosing a Wedding Gift?

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I’m sure there are etiquette websites that delve into this question. But being that Emily Post has been dead since 1960, and as far as I’m concerned, no one has taken her place, this leaves me with a dilemma. What’s the secret formula for choosing a wedding gift?

Mr. Groovy and I are in our 50s. It’s not like we’re invited to weddings every single year. For those of you in your 20s, I really feel for you because the whole wedding thing has gotten out of hand. And heaven forbid you’re in the wedding party and the bride and groom have chosen a destination wedding.  I’m all for supporting love, but just how far should you go?

Mr. Groovy and I have developed our own rule of thumb, but we have no clue if it’s the norm. For close friends and non-immediate family, we write a check for $400. For nieces and nephews, we’ve been giving $1,000. I know many of you may think $1,000 is way too high. But since we have no children of our own, it makes us happy to give a nice chunk of change to our nieces and nephews when they can use it most. And on a more selfish note, we hope one of them will step up to help with our affairs when we’re old and feeble. A little bribery is not beneath us.

But I find myself totally confused about the proper response to announcements and invitations. First there’s the engagement announcement. Then comes the bridal shower invitation. And, finally, the wedding invitation. What if there’s no engagement party to attend? Are you still supposed to send an engagement gift? What if you have no plans to go to the wedding? What if you live out of town? What if you live out of town and plan to travel for the wedding, but you also receive an invitation to the shower and have no intention of making two trips? Are you expected to send a gift for the shower too?

And what kind of etiquette should the friends or family of the bride throwing the pre-wedding festivities follow? Should they check in with someone who lives out of town before mailing out a party invitation? Should they refrain from sending an invitation if they learn the guest is unable to attend?

My brother and his wife receive many more wedding invitations than Mr. Groovy and I do. They have a close community of friends with children the same age as theirs, who include them in life’s celebrations. When I ask my brother, “What are you supposed to give as a wedding gift?” he says he has absolutely no clue. Like us, he and his wife have established some guidelines. But no one seems to know what is correct. Or what is even expected.

A popular guideline used to be for a wedding attendee to cover his or her own expense. So if the venue cost $100 a person, you’d give at least that. Is that still a rule of thumb?

What about actual gifts? You know—presents, not cash. Is giving a personal, meaningful item considered cheap or tacky these days?

So tell me—have you figured this out? What do you give when a friend or family member gets married? Does anyone still believe, “It’s the thought that count’s”? Or is that just plain naïve?

I’d like to hear your opinion.

***And if you’ve figured out the secret formula for what to wear to a wedding, please share that too. Is black OK? Would white be upstaging the bride? Can a man get away with wearing just a sport jacket? Any fashionistas out there?

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28 Comments

  1. Someone else has said it, but the Emily Post Institute is still run by Emily’s family and they take their job very seriously. They also have a great podcast, called Awesome Etiquette.

    These numbers are, to me, pretty high, so I think you’re squarely in generous territory. Maybe it’s a function of coming from a poorer community, the South/Midwest, and so far only having had/attended broke college kid weddings, but I can’t imagine spending more than $50-$75 on a wedding gift right now, unless, say, my best friend were getting married or the like. Then I might spend $100 plus expenses for being in the wedding, etc. I can see us being that generous with nieces in nephews in coming years, though.

    I think the rule is, frankly, that you do give -one- gift (more are not necessary, but I’m sure are welcome!), but I think the Emily Post Institute would say that you buy what you can and feel good about. They’re not inviting you for the gift!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ms. Steward. I may have to re-think mine. As a thank you note for a wedding we went to recently, we received a post card. OK, I’m fine with saving money on stamps and envelopes. But it was totally printed and without one spot of hand-written ink. Not even a signature. I don’t think the Emily Post Institute would like that at all. I certainly didn’t. (I came across the Institute on line but didn’t look at the website very closely. Thanks for mentioning that.)

  2. We are of the “cover your plate” camp as well. Typically that works out to $100 per person, so we aim to be around $200 as a couple – more for our closest friends and family but generally no more than $300, which is mid-range for where we live. We have 7 weddings this year, two of which either my husband or I will be standing in, so it’s getting costly! Being able to give $1000 someday as gifts to my close friends and family is a goal of mine though – it means a lot to be able to do that, and I really respect that you’ve made that a priority too : )

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Thanks, Kate. We reserve the $1,000 for nieces and nephews. We’ve got five and the second wedding is coming up. Since we don’t have children, whatever’s left when we’re out of here will go to our five nieces and nephews anyway. It makes us feel good to give them a leg up on their wedding day.

      Seven weddings? That’s a lot. Are any of them destination weddings? That seems to be a big thing.

      On a related but different subject, we’ve set up some guidelines for college graduation gifts. Only one of the five nieces and nephews has not completed college. But I’ve mentioned to Mr. Groovy that when he gets an apartment of his own we should give him a cash gift. He may never choose to finish college but I’d still like to help him out too.

  3. Emily

    This is something I, as a 20 something, really struggle with.

    I am still paying off grad school and live with my boyfriend who went back to school. We are happy and comfortable, but we focus a lot on our finances, and really don’t spend money we don’t NEED to.

    For example, we are going to a wedding shortly that is upscale, fully funded by the brides parents. Plates are atleast 100 a piece. Bride and groom make easily 200,000 dollars a year, and just bought a 2,500 square foot house. They added all kinds of stuff on registries. Stuff, stuff, stuff.

    So I’m now pressured to buy STUFF, clutter, unitaskers, things that will collect dust, all to break my budget and adhere to social norms we’ve constricted. I can’t stand consumerism or these unbelievably expensive weddings. It’s really frustrating. Ugh.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I really empathize with you Emily. If we were in a different situation and receiving many invitations, we would choose not to attend.

      We booked flights for an upcoming family wedding and I was also invited to the shower, which I had no plans to travel for. Although I wasn’t obligated to send a gift, I felt obligated just the same.

  4. Alicia

    I had never heard of this expectation that you essentially pay for your meal at a wedding. Until I began reading PF blogs I had never heard of giving more than one gift, either bring a gift to the shower or one to the wedding. When my husband and I got married we invited the people we wanted to share our day with. Whether they brought a gift or not important. It was more important that people had a good time. The best gift I can remember was a friend of the family, who was 80, telling me it was the most enjoyable wedding he had attended. Then a nephew said he wanted his wedding to be like ours. Those were truly gifts.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      The cover-your-meal concept has been around for ages. I even recall my parents thinking that way (40-50 years ago) but it could be more specific to the northeast? What great gifts you received from your then 80-yr-old friend and your nephew! Sounds like the type of wedding others will be talking about for a long time (like Mr. Groovy’s memory of the wedding at the VFW hall he went to. He mentioned it in his current post. He’s told me about it at least a dozen times.) Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. Italian-American extended family tradition is my lens: it was always perceived as a necessity to at least cover the cost of your plate. However, when we got married we never expected anyone to even try. Weddings are outrageous now. Even starter meal plans without any fancy upgrades. I think the days of anyone making money or breaking even on weddings are long gone. I will tell you that a surprising number of people who attended our wedding did not give gifts of any kind or even cards. That was hurtful.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      You’re right about the costs being outrageous, even for basic meal plans.

      I totally agree that no gift or card of any kind is hurtful. What rock do those folks live under?

  6. As you know, I spent many hours crocheting a blanket for a wedding gift for my sister. Of course, there were many expenses involved with being matron of honor and having my kids in the bridal party. We chipped in towards her bachelorette party, I purchased her card box for her (with a coupon, of course), and I helped her with a variety of wedding preparations.

    As far as attending other weddings? I may be out of line here, but why should we have to pay tons of money because the bride and groom want a super-fancy party? We give what we can, usually aiming to cover our cost. Fortunately, we haven’t been invited to any destination weddings – not sure we would attend. I also usually give a journal – with instructions on using it as an anniversary journal (every year you write about what’s new and what you did to celebrate).

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Yes, the blanket you crocheted was beautiful! For us at this point most weddings are destination since our close friends and family live in different areas. Among young people I’ve been hearing a lot about destination weddings outside the U.S. That’s rough.

      I love the journal idea. I may have to steal it. Thanks for commenting, Harmony.

  7. Emily Post’s estate or publisher keeps publishing and updating her books for the modern era.

    I just get whatever is on their registry but that won’t put me in financial strain.

    Sorry but if people don’t get that right now I’m in college and living on $24,000 then I don’t know what would make them understand.

    I think for the most part people are understanding if I don’t purchase the vitamix blender from their registry.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Most people who are given a Vitamix via their gift registry use it a few times and then store it away. I find people tend to choose gifts along the lines of the lives they hope to be leading, but don’t. I think your friends understand your position and if they don’t, oh well that’s their problem. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree looking for clear cut guidelines. But it just doesn’t seem to get more simpler.

  8. Yowza!

    Fortunately, my lady friends are more of the bra-burning/women’s liberation type of girls, so – if they even get married at all – it will most likely be well into their 30s (and I’m planning to be a lot more financially stable during that decade ).

    Cost of the venue seems perfect to me, and I’d never wear white (upstaging the bride) or black (too somber) – I typically wear pastels to weddings.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I thought I was a bra-burning women’s libber but it turned out I wasn’t. BUT I didn’t get married until my 40s…I like your idea of wearing pastels to weddings. It’s a safe but pretty choice!

  9. Interesting to read on the habits in another country!

    As far as I know, there is no real rule in Belgium. My wife and I have an amount range for a wedding, depending on how good our relationship is with the people that get married and the part of the wedding we are invited to. It is not unusual to be invited for the dessert and dance party only.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Yes, ATL, it IS interesting to hear about habits in another country. It would be very unusual here to be invited to a dessert and dance party only. I’m not even sure I understand that. Does that mean the whole party consists of dessert and dance? Or that there’s a main meal before dessert and dance that some people are not invited to? I’ve heard of people being invited to the ceremony, only. In my experience that has applied to very old or young people who would not be able to stay up late for a party…I clearly remember a neighbor’s daughter who got married when I was a little girl. My parents were invited to the entire ceremony/party but my grandmother brought my brother and me to the temple for the ceremony and we went right home afterwards.

  10. I am on the broke-r end of the spectrum. I pick something in my range from the registry that I know they’ll get a use out of. Friends who can’t cook registering for fancy pots and pans get a book. I would not give more than one gift in a wedding process. That seems tacky to me.

    If the wedding has a themed dress code, I attempt to meet it within reason. Otherwise, I wear something seasonally appropriate and comfortable. I have worn red to a wedding & got asked to dance quite a bit.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I love that, about friends who can’t cook getting a book. I hear you about the broke-er end of the spectrum. I’d hope to be appreciated for attending no matter what the gift. Although I’ll never forget the extremely tacky behavior of a broke-er friend of Mr. G’s at our wedding. Not only did his wife not show up (which I think was his choice, even though he RSVPd for 2 and we had to pay for her “plate”) he didn’t so much as bring a greeting card! Mr. G’s still friends with the idiot since he grew up with him. What can I tell you – we all have our blind spots.

  11. I think gifting for weddings and other big occasions is a very personal decision and (unfortunately) can’t just be reduced down to a simple formula. After all, regardless of whether the wedding venue is expensive or not, that “rule” doesn’t factor in how much you can afford and how close you are to the couple. The same holds true for engagement and shower gifts. I wish I had a better answer but I do like to believe that the thought still counts, so if you can do something more personalized I think that means something.

    And while I’m no fashionista, I’d say that if it’s a traditional/religious wedding, I’d wear a suit but for a more casual/creative wedding a sports jacket is fine. My wife feels that wearing black is alright but white is still considered upstaging the bride.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I agree that how much you can afford should play a big part. And it shouldn’t keep you from attending if you can’t afford much. Your wife’s guideline about black/white and yours about traditional vs casual make a lot of sense. Thank you.

    • I completely agree about only spending what you can afford – especially with travel costs often associated with weddings.

      A friend of mine almost didn’t come to our wedding because she didn’t have the money to buy a dress, gift, etc. I told her of course no gift is needed, I’d pay for her bus ticket, and she could wear jeans (and I’d stare down anyone who challenged her)- a wedding is first and foremost about celebrating love with friends and family, not gifts.

      So many of my friends are halfway across the country (or more), meaning easily $300 for a wedding per person for airfare and hotel, if not much more (and multiply that if you’re part of the bridal party). My husband and I are lucky that we can afford something like that without much planning – but that’s a huge chunk of change for someone who’s paying off student debt. Expecting a gift on top of that from every guest? That’s tacky and cheap.

      • Mrs. Groovy

        Felicity, it was very kind of you to cover your friend’s travel. Some brides might not see past being fixated on the day being only about them.

  12. We are definitely “look at the registry and see what looks reasonable” gifters for weddings (and baby showers). Generally, registries will give you an idea of what the couple wants and needs as well as their style, so I feel like anything on there is fair game for gifting. It seems like the guests at our wedding took the same approach.

    I’ve never felt the need to give more than one gift for the wedding process unless I was actually in the wedding as well and expected to show up to various functions (which meant I was very close to at least one member of the couple.)

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I definitely like when the couple picks out items for the registry that are in different price points and in various categories. Good idea about only one gift unless you’re actually in the wedding, although it’s hard to go to a shower empty-handed. But then again those gifts don’t need to be expensive. I’m just not good with ambiguity!

  13. I thought the rule was still when giving cash to cover the cost of the venue. $100 per plate x 2= $200 gift. That’s our general rule. When someone uses a gift registry we may opt to buy something off that list in a certain price range. Close family or friends we may opt for giving more.

    We just go invited to an engagement party and there’s no gift registry. The wedding is some time next year, so we be in for another gift. So a double cash gift?

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Some of the venues in the north are closer to $200 per plate. Yikes. I like using the gift registry too for engagement and shower gifts. In your situation bringing a non-cash gift to the engagement party would be tricky without the registry. If you don’t want to do cash both times, maybe a gift card to Bed Bath and Beyond for the engagement would work? Same difference – cash/gift card.