If you're attending a wedding this summer, there's probably one question weighing on your mind: What should you give the happy couple?
Figuring out how much to spend, what type of gift to give, and even when to deliver a gift is tricky, particularly if your generosity exceeds your budget.
To help you sort through all those thorny gift-giving conundrums, we asked wedding etiquette experts to weigh in with their best advice.
How much should I give as a wedding gift?
“There is no rule. Give whatever you feel is appropriate for your budget and your relationship with the couple,” says Nancy R. Mitchell, a protocol and etiquette consultant. “There is this misconception that people are supposed to give a gift that equals the cost of their meal at the wedding, but it is tacky to look at a gift that way.”
On average, according to a 2013 survey by American Express, people spend $179 on a close family member's gift, $119 on a close friend's, $114 on a relative's, $79 on a friend's, and $66 on a coworker's.
Wedding etiquette expert Lizzie Post adds that if your budget is on the lower end, say under $25, it may be better to give a physical gift rather than cash.
Is it ok to go off the registry?
Yes. "If items listed on the registry aren’t within your price range, or if you want to give the couple something else you know they would enjoy, that's fine,” says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman.
Just be sure to keep the couple and your relationship in mind. “Think creatively if you can’t spend a lot of money,” Mitchell says. “I know people who have given the gift of their services or skills to the couple. People get so bogged down with a dollar amount, but it’s the thought that counts most."
If you’re uncomfortable thinking outside the box (or don’t know the couple well enough), but everything left on the registry is too pricey, consider giving a gift card to the store where the registry is listed, Gottsman suggests. Or you could go with Post’s standby: an engraved picture frame. “Really small and simple things can be really valuable when specified to that day and couple,” she says.
Is it rude to give cash when the couple is registered?
“I don’t think anyone is going to turn down cash,” says Post. “And at the end of the day, if they have cash left over, then they can go get the wedding registry items they didn’t receive.” About half of couples agree with Post, saying that the gift they'd most like to receive is cash, according to another Amex survey released in April.
If you have to travel to get to the wedding, should that impact how much you spend on the present?
“You should never feel bad if travel costs impact your gift budget," says Mitchell. “If you’re spending money to be there on their day, that is a huge contribution already. It is more important that you give within your means.”
Should you mail the couple the gift or give it to them at the event?
Best practice is to send the gift ahead of time or directly after the wedding, Mitchell says. “Never take the gift to wedding. It becomes too much of a burden on family members to protect the gifts and too easy for gifts to disappear, especially in a public place. Then the family must transport them and cards fall off. It creates a lot more work.”
If you’re part of the wedding party, how much should you give for the gift?
“Given that if you’re part of the wedding, you’re already spending quite a deal of money on the event, from clothing to showers, as well as tons of time and effort,” says Gottsman. “Go in with the other bridesmaids and give one nice big gift as a group." The couple typically does not expect to receive individual gifts, she points out.
If the couple is asking for monetary donations to a honeymoon fund or home downpayment, but you’d rather give a gift, is that ok?
"It is up to you to make that decision," Gottsman says. "The couple is just making a suggestion. If you would prefer to give a gift or feel uncomfortable contributing to these types of expenses, you don't have to." If you find such a request offensive, don't mention it or feel like you have to explain why you've opted for a different gift.
If the couple says 'no gifts please,' but you want to give something, should you?
“It is most appropriate to respect the couple’s wishes,” says Post. “If you bring a gift to the wedding, you could make the couple and guests who didn’t bring gifts feel uncomfortable.”
She suggests that if you really want to treat the couple to something, give them your gift after the honeymoon, when you can privately celebrate together, say at a dinner out.
If you’re a plus-one, are you supposed to bring a gift?
“You allow the person who was invited to take care of that,” says Gottsman. “You can ask the invited person if they would like you to go in on the gift, if you feel very close to her or him.”
If the couple gave you a gift or check at your wedding that you know you can’t reciprocate, what do you do?
“Gifts are not reciprocal. You do what you can. You just have to hope that the couple understands this and won’t take offense if the gift isn’t what they were expecting,” says Post.
Focus instead on giving a thoughtful gift that will pack a big emotional value, says Gottsman.
Do I have to send a gift if I don’t attend the wedding?
“If you receive a wedding invite, you’re usually expected to send a gift, but a gift is never a requirement,” says Mitchell.
Gottsman advises you to use your judgment. “If you value your relationship and will see the couple again, you do want to send them something. What you give, of course, depends on your situation and relationship with the couple. Just be sure to send the gift before the wedding or very soon after, within a month of it passing.”