Getting an invitation to a wedding is usually cause for joy. A friend or family member has found the love of their life, and they're inviting you to share in the celebration.
But if you can't make it to a wedding, can you also skip sending a gift? We consulted wedding and etiquette experts to answer that query, as well as other questions surrounding this touchy topic.
How Much Should You Spend on Wedding Gifts?
Everything comes down to how close you are to the couple. A 2016 survey by FiveThirtyEight pinpointed the average amount people spend on wedding gifts, depending on relationship:
- $50 for a friend
- $71 for extended family
- $82 for a close friend
- $147 for immediate family
Those numbers can go even higher. A more recent survey by Bankrate says 30% of people spend $200 or more on family or close friends, and 46% spend $100 or more for distant relatives or casual acquaintances. So if you're set on giving a gift, it's a good idea to start saving as soon as you get the invite.
Do You Still Have to Spend If You Don't Attend?
Expert opinion on the topic is mixed. The Emily Post Institute, the go-to source for etiquette advice, suggests the invitation itself carries "an unspoken obligation to give a gift, regardless of whether or not a guest can attend." But wedding-goers don't always agree, as only 42% of FiveThirtyEight's survey respondents said you were obligated to send a gift if you didn't attend.
These contradictory opinions don't offer much help if you're staring at a wedding invitation. "Some rules of etiquette are not set in stone, so it can be difficult to judge what is the best to do particularly when it comes to wedding gifts," says Julia Esteve, owner and founder of The Etiquette & Protocol Consultancy.
Wedding Gifts Are About Relationships
As you might have guessed, gift-giving is all about your relationship to the bride and groom; the more distant your relationship, the less your obligation. As the Emily Post Institute advises, "Let your affection for the bride and groom and your budget be your guide." This applies whether you're attending a wedding or not. If you're invited to the wedding of a casual acquaintance or distant relative, skipping the gift isn't a social faux pas.
But bear in mind that you're probably being invited to a wedding because the couple wants to share their joy with you — they're likely to be friends or family. "You have been invited as a guest to their event because you mean something to the couple," says Jenny Garringer, professional wedding planner and co-owner of Pink with Envy Event Planning Services. For people you're close to, sending a gift is the right thing to do.
If you're still at a loss, try thinking of wedding gifts in the same way you might think of birthday presents. You probably spend more time and money on the perfect present for a sibling than you would for a co-worker. The same general idea holds true for weddings. Even Esteve, who says you aren't obligated to send a gift if you don't attend, says the rules are different for close relations: "If you really can't attend, that a gift should really be sent and it would be expected."
Alternatively, if you're invited to a wedding for a casual acquaintance — say, a co-worker you occasionally run into in the break room — that's a different story. While any gifts are sure to be appreciated, it's acceptable to spend less (or nothing at all). Even if you decide to skip the gift, you should return the RSVP card and your congratulations. Esteve suggests a short, handwritten note tucked in with the RSVP card.
What Kind of Gift Should You Send?
If you've decided you to send a gift, there's no need to get creative (unless you really want to). Most couples these days will have a gift registry that tells you exactly what they want. If the items on the registry are too big for your budget, a gift card for whatever store the couple is registered at works, too.
That's right: A gift card is a perfectly acceptable wedding present. Unlike other gift-giving events, there's no stigma attached to giving cash or gift cards. From the wedding to the honeymoon to setting up a new household, getting married can be pricey! Gifting cash helps offset any expenses the new couple has, while a gift card can help them pick up anything left on their registry.
As for how much to spend, that goes back to the relationship you have with the couple. Garringer advises spending as much as you would if you attended the wedding — which would mean around $100 for a close friend or $150 and up for an immediate family member. For more distant relations, a smaller gift is acceptable (or, as we mentioned earlier, a simple "Congratulations!" will do).
When Should You Send Your Gift?
Regardless of whether you're attending, it's polite to send your gift before the wedding (or very soon after). Going back to the birthday present example, sending a belated gift is often seen as thoughtless. So if you want to send a gift, send it right away.
What If You Can't Afford a Gift?
Despite the price ranges we listed above, think about what you can afford to spend rather than what you feel you're expected to spend. If you're in a tight spot financially, the unspoken etiquette of wedding gifts should take a back seat to practicality.
Couples sending out wedding invitations are thinking about who they want to be with on their big day — not doing the math on how many gifts they can get. Your friends and family will understand if you're struggling to pay off student loans or are in between jobs. We agree with Brides magazine, which advises gift-givers to do "what you and your budget feel is best at this moment."
If you want to send a present but are strapped for cash, ignoring the couple's gift registry can be a good idea. A personalized gift, whether it's from store shelves or a handmade keepsake, can be worth more than its cash value. Just remember that a wedding probably isn't the time to break out the "ball and chain" joke gifts.