How to decide what to spend on a wedding gift, according to experts

The 5 most popular wedding gifts of 2019

The Knot found the most popular wedding gifts of 2019 and we discovered which ones are actually worth it.

Melissa Rorech, Reviewed

  • I’d heard that you should spend a similar amount to what the marrying couple is paying for your plate. That’s not right.
  • Location, relationship and budget can help you determine what to spend on a wedding gift.
  • An appropriate spend amount on a wedding gift can vary.

I’ve entered the season in my life when wedding invitations are beginning to occasionally appear in my mailbox. 

This is exciting for many reasons. I’m happy for my friends and family members taking this next stepI’m looking forward to attending fun events and getting dressed up — and the list goes on.

But one part of weddings that can be challenging is dealing with the expenses that come with attending (not to mention planning a wedding of your own) and having to adjust your budget.

For instance: the wedding gift. I’ve heard that you should spend the same amount on a gift that the couple is spending on your plate at dinner, but I wasn’t sure if that etiquette tip is myth or fact. (Spoiler: it’s not a realistic expectation).

And I’m not the only one trying to figure it all out. In conversation with my friend Kelly, a bride-to-be from Boston, whose wedding invitation is currently hanging on my fridge, she told me she doesn’t usually know what to spend either. “It’s so awkward,” she said.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by The Knot, in 2019, before the pandemic, the average wedding gift spend was $120. But that sum shifted based on a guest’s relationship with the “to-be-weds.”

But even with surveys, determining the right amount to spend can be quite hard — especially since the meaning of “appropriate” can vary.

“An appropriate range for a wedding gift can be quite wide, from $50 to $500 and beyond,” Sara Margulis, CEO and co-founder of honeymoon registry site Honeyfund, told USA TODAY, noting that the average gift on Honeyfund runs between $125 and $150.

While experts weren’t able to give an exact answer, they offered a series of factors to consider when deciding what to shell out.

“The amount spent on a wedding gift can vary based on several factors including the giver’s financial situation, how close they are to the couple, and where they live,” Margulis said, noting that the act of giving a gift at all is completely at the discretion of the giver.

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Your relationship with the couple matters

Marcy Blum, an event planner with 30 years of experience, Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach and Elaine Swann, lifestyle and etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol all said your relationship with the marrying couple matters when deciding what to spend.

“What is your relationship with the couple?” Whitmore said. “How long have you known one another? Is this your boss’s daughter or is this your best friend from grade school? There’s a big difference.”

Swann said she refers to the thought process around your relationship with the recipient as the “onion” method. Near the onion’s middle are guests closer to the marrying couple — say a family member or close friend. Then as you get farther from the middle, you have coworkers and acquaintances who are not obliged to spend quite as much. 

You “spend a little less and less and less as the relationship itself is not as close,” Swann said.

The equation factors in location

Blum said location can help you to determine what to gift the marrying couple.

“It definitely depends on the region where the couple live as well as what their registry reflects,” Blum said. 

HoneyFund’s Margulis agreed. 

“Cost of living varies state by state, so average wedding gifts will be pricier in New York and California for example, and less expensive in states like Nebraska and Ohio,” she said.

But Swann told USA TODAY your relationship with the couple trumps location.

“If I live in the Midwest and I go to a New York wedding do I spend more?” Swann said. “No, because it really has to do more with the couple.”

What about a destination wedding?

A destination wedding can put additional cost on the shoulders of an attending guest. There are plane, train or bus tickets, hotel rooms and more. 

Sometimes, when you attend a destination wedding, your gift to the marrying couple is your presence, Swann said. 

Whitmore agreed but still recommends a small gift.

Margulis said that if you are deciding whether you can afford to attend a destination wedding you should consider if you have space in your budget for a present.

“In no way is the decision to buy a gift related to whether or not you’ll spend money to travel to the wedding,” she said. “However, many wedding guests decide their funds are better spent on a wedding gift than the cost of traveling to a destination wedding — and therefore forgo the trip.”

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Is it better to select from the registry or gift money?

Whitmore said that couples put together a gift registry because they want or need specific things. So, “when in doubt, purchase something from the registry.” But she’s not against cash gifts either.

And Blum said the registry can actually serve as a good financial guide.

“Assuming they have a registry, there are usually lots of inexpensive items, middle items,” Blum said

Margulis said you can never go wrong with cash. The Honeyfund founder added that if nothing on the couple’s material registry speaks to you, then “go for green.”

What if you’re in the wedding party?

Swann said being a part of the wedding party gives you leeway to buy a less expensive gift or none at all.  

“If you’re in the wedding party there are some instances in which you have spent a lot of money and on so many different gifts, for example maybe the bridal shower, and bachelorette party and your dress and your shoes and your jewelry,” she said, adding that all those costs can be considered part of your gift.

But Margulis disagreed. She said being in the wedding does not “automatically excuse” you from purchasing a gift. 

Instead, she said to once again consider your budget, your relationship with the couple and what holds meaning for you.

No matter what, stick to your budget

Regardless of protocol or expectation, you have to see what works best for your budget.

The reason is “so that we don’t overspend and start to develop underlying animosity for the couple,” Swann said.

So does plate cost have anything to do with it?

While I’d heard that you should spend a similar amount to what the couple might have spent on your plate at the wedding reception, my understanding was off base.

“It is never based on how much the couple has spent per plate on the reception, contrary to some commonly held gifting etiquette,” Margulis said.

Swann said that idea is “actually a fable.” And anyway, it would be hard to base a gift on that cost.

“We really don’t know what the cost of the plate is,” she explained.

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