How Much Should You Spend on a Wedding Gift?

by Megan Reynolds

I am an excellent wedding guest. If you invite me to your blessed union, I will put on something nice, wear more makeup than normal and cry at the ceremony, regardless of how well I know you. I will dance when implored to do so, I will tip well at the open bar, and I will tell you how beautiful you look in your dress. I will use the hashtag you made for your event on all my Instagram photos. I will wear a fake mustache and grin wildly in a photo booth. If asked to make a toast, or say a word, or participate in a line dance that I have no prior knowledge of, I am game. I will look at your wedding registry when I get the invite and be seized with panic. I love attending weddings because celebrating the miracle of two people loving one another enough to legally link their finances and their lives together is a joyous occasion. But, I am very, very bad at wedding presents.

The notion of a registry makes sense. As tradition dictates — and probably to avoid your well-intentioned relatives picking up the phone and asking your mother where you’re registered and if you haven’t, when in the hell are you going to get on that — the registry is a nice, simple way for people to get you something that you’d actually want. I get it. Though I would never do like Carrie Bradshaw did and register to “marry myself,” I would honestly love it if I had a Amazon wish list from which it was publicly acceptable for people to purchase me presents. Aside from the joy of sharing your life with someone that you ostensibly love, from what I can tell, marriage also means throwing away the three pint glasses you stole from a bar in New Orleans and replacing all of your flatware and glassware with tastefully thin CB2 water glasses that would probably shatter if you set them down in the sink wrong. This is reward enough for legally hitching your wagon to someone in an institution that feels outdated, but is a good tax break. I support the requests. But, I never know what’s right.

Are there formulas about how much and when to buy the gifts? I’m sure in a dusty etiquette book lies a clear and succinct chart of how much to spend and what to buy. I have never seen this chart and I am sure if I did, I would be aghast at how off course my etiquette veers. Some say it’s a year. For someone who leaves a nice set of steak knives for the happy couple in their Amazon cart for two months, then forgets to actually buy them, you’d think this would be fantastic. I assure you, it is not. Even though general etiquette says that you have a year, If I buy the couple something off their registry, or at least adjacent to what was on their now-decimated and shuttered registry six months after the fact, something about that seems inconsiderate. You were together enough to put on a fancy outfit and wear shoes that hurt and drink the many whiskeys from the open bar, so you should certainly be able to pull it together and buy a present off the registry before all that’s left is the $300 Kitchenaid and the $400 Dyson.

The anatomy of a modern registry is simple: Big ticket items in each category blanketed by smaller, more affordable things, so every person in attendance can feel like they did the right thing without griping too much about how much money they’re spending. The reach presents (the Cusinart, the Vitamix, the Frette sheet sets) are to be snapped up by relatives with deeper pockets and connections. Surrounding these items, which you will most likely never purchase, are the smaller things. It will feel cheap to buy, say, a set of cereal bowls, but those cereal bowls are frankly nicer than anything you have in your home right now, and they cost, with shipping, $80. That’s a fine present. It’s what they asked for. Do that and be on your way.

I have been told by various sources that the amount of money you spend on the gift should be comparable to the amount you think the couple is spending on your presence. This, to me, seems outrageous, but perhaps I am being uncouth. I bumbled through early weddings that I attended spending an amount that I felt comfortable with. A $60 salad bowl here, a $50 kitchen towel and spatula there: These are things that are all within my means, but still feel cheap. When friends reveal that they bought the slate cheese serving platter and the attendant cheese knife, I realize that whatever I bought probably isn’t enough. It feels trashy to show up at the wedding knowing full well that you skimped on the gift.

When does one learn these things? Is there a conversation that I missed out on, a solemn parent-child talk in which they sit you down on the couch, drag out a tattered Emily Post and read out loud the chapters on how to be an adult in social settings? It was only after my stepmother watched my sister and I reach arms and forks across the table while talking to each other with our mouths full that I learned that you pass plates to the left. My father spent that majority of his time trying to keep his children alive and dressed. Etiquette fell by the wayside, but I don’t think I suffered because of it.

I have only gone off-registry once. My best friend from childhood got married a few years ago. At her shower, I broke the code and gave her the wedding present I had picked out a week before: a rust orange Le Creuset honeypot. It was not on her registry, but it was thoughtful, nice and somehow more personal than buying a bath sheet and espresso cups and having them sent to her apartment. I felt wrong about it, but went with my gut. She loved it.

This story is part of our Wedding Season series.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

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