An invitation to a wedding—or a dozen—means outfits to buy, trips to book, and (whether you attend the festivities or not), gifts to purchase. Today's wedding landscape of four-day destination affairs, over-the-top elopements followed by a no-expense-spared dance party in the couple's hometown, and new takes on the most classic and sophisticated of events have today's guests wondering what one's expected to spend on a wedding gift, if cash is acceptable, if bringing a plus-one means the gift needs to be extra special, and more. Here, BAZAAR Bride's breakdown of all things gift etiquette, from our experience and the experts who've seen it all.
How much should you spend?
That all depends on whether the gift is off the registry, an experience, or cash. Upon consulting the experts, a wedding gift should range from $100 to $750 or more—but most agree that $350-$500 is the sweet spot.
"It used to be that you'd spend approximately what you expected your meal to cost," explains celebrity and luxury event planner Marcy Blum—"but I think that's over." That adage stemmed from a time where weddings were far more formulaic, and centered around one main dinner reception. Now, couples are creating experiences for their guests that include multi-event weekends, interactive entertainment, far-flung destinations, welcome bags, favors, and more—and those gestures merit a token larger than the cost of a catered meal.
"At minimum, a gift should be at least $100 if you are purchasing something off their registry," explains Hugh Howser of H Three Events. "That's the lowest ticket price of a high-end item on an average registry. Most registries now pool money for you, and so if you can't spend much more, at least contribute to something larger."
"If you're a very close friend of the couple, it would be typical that you would spend more on that person; same would apply if you were invited with a guest," explains Lynn Easton of Easton Events.
"Destination weddings don't change the rules," adds Easton. While some might insist that a wedding that costs guests more to attend lets them off the hook from sending a standard to generous gift, that's not the case. In fact, couples planning more formal, extravagant, experiential events are a pair you might consider spending a bit more on.
"Base what you spend on the formality of the wedding. If it’s a destination wedding in Europe or a black-tie affair at a museum, I’d suggest spending a bit more. The couple has clearly considered the guest experience, and those cues come from the invitation, the dress code, the location...Infer from the formality how 'formal' your gift should be. A backyard BBQ or a garden party in the daytime doesn’t mean you should give a lackluster gift, but doesn’t require you to go all out," advises luxury wedding planner Lyndsey Hamilton.
And when in doubt, check the registry. "It's a good gauge of what the couple expects to receive," Hamilton says. "But, if you’re planning to give cash—up the ante a bit."
Can you give cash or a check?
"Among our brides, [a cash gift] is not the right way to go," Easton admits. And Howser agrees: "I would never tell someone to gift cash, it's so impersonal. This is a wedding, not a charity gala."
It seems buying off the couple's registry is by far the more cost-effective way to go; "You can give a $200 Le Creuset piece from the registry, but if you're going to gift cash, it should be a larger amount to feel impactful," Easton says.
Easton, Blum, and Hamilton all agree that the starting amount for a cash gift is around $500. The packaging also matters; "If you do give cash, it’s got to be done in a way that’s thoughtful and has a lovely presentation to it–present it a gorgeous envelope, or maybe have the packaging calligraphed," Easton says.
On the flip side, Hamilton has had a different experience. "People do love cash…a lot of people are living together before the wedding, and so a registry feels really formal nowadays. Maybe people are registering for upgrades to their home, or fine china, but giving someone cash allows them to purchase whatever they’d like or upgrade to their honeymoon."
Blum advises that if you are giving cash for the couple to spend on their honeymoon, it's far more elegant to gift them the experience instead—be it a couple's massage at the spa, a romantic dinner at the best restaurant in town or on property, or a surprise hotel upgrade.
Can you bring a gift to a wedding?
"Even if you do give cash, you're not bringing that—or any gift for that matter—to the wedding," says Blum. In fact, bringing your gift, even if it's just a card, does the couple and the expert team they've hired a disservice given that it's their planning team that ends up being in charge of safekeeping the gifts brought to the venue, and safely delivering them to the client, which interferes with the event taking place, and the couple's plans for the evening should they then need to be responsible for transporting gifts home after their celebration. Let's be honest: There is nothing sexy, romantic, or thrilling about ending one of the best nights of your life, and then loading up the trunk of a car to lug odds and ends home.
"Nobody wants to carry a Cuisinart up a hill, or placed in the trunk of their getaway car," insists Howser. "Under no circumstances are you to bring a gift to a wedding."
If you don't attend the wedding, do you have to send a gift?
The short answer, is yes. The couple invited you with full intentions that you would be joining them to celebrate, and sending a gift is the proper thing to do.
With that in mind, “A lot of my clients aren’t asking for gifts anymore," explains Hamilton. "They’re keeping sustainability in mind, and asking for guests to donate to a charity of their choice or the couple’s, or opting out of gifts altogether. Some couples just want to celebrate and offer an amazing experience to their family and friends with nothing in return."
However, should that not be made clear on the invitation or wedding website, a gift is undoubtedly the elegant gesture, despite your inability to attend the wedding.
Do you need to buy something on the registry?
"If you know the couple well enough to find something that’s fabulous off the registry, go for it," Easton says. "For instance, if they love Portofino and you get them a gorgeous painting, that’s amazing. But don’t do any guesswork. If you are stressed about thinking of what to get, registries are gift giving made easy." The couple registered only for things they loved, wanted, or needed, and it's best to stick to their wishlist.
If you arrive at the registry too late and find that little you'd gift remains, there are a few ways to approach it. "I actually think it's fun to give a hodge podge," Blum says. But there's only one chic way to do it: You'll frequently find that single pieces of a couple's desired china pattern, glassware set, cookware packages, remain on the registry—meaning that the couple is an item short of some of their favorite things. Pick up all the scraps until they amount to $350-$500, and send a cheeky note along with the more random assortment.
"If the registry has nothing left on it, gift them a dinner at a fine dining property they love– or use the venue as a way to dictate a creative gift off-registry," Hamilton advises.
As for foolproof off-registry items that work every time, Hamilton recommends a good set of knives. "Nobody ever wants to spend the money on amazing knives for cooking. But, when you give someone great knives, you’re supposed to give them a penny for each knife for good luck. They should be packaged carefully with pennies in a satchel; explain that while this gift is traditionally bad luck, you’ve gone ahead and counteracted that. When they’re cooking quality meals at home, they’ll think of you and thank you later." Easton recommends a set of crystal flutes, coupes, or low-ball glasses—with a beautiful bottle of the glass' appropriate spirit in tow. "Who doesn’t want a beautiful glass to drink anything out of, from milk to scotch!"
Blum takes a more practical approach: a beautifully made wooden salad bowl and servingware. "Couples get more decanters than they know what to do with," she explains. "This is something they'll always need, but definitely isn't anyone's first choice to gift or register for."
How long do I have to get the couple a gift?
According to Emily Post, you have one year. "But most people getting married today have no idea who Emily Post is," Howser says. "You should technically be sending your gift to the couple, or coordinating for it to be sent at a time of their choice, before attending the wedding. If you need a bit of extra time, that's fine—but if you leave it for more than a month or two after the wedding, they'll assume you aren't sending a gift."
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