The Brutally Honest Wedding Gift Guide

Weddings are about love and family and togetherness, yes. But they’re also about cash and status and there’s no sense pretending they’re not.

We all want to believe that the perfect wedding gift is whatever you can afford. We all want to believe that we won’t be judged on the amount of our gift. And for the most part, that’s true.

But it’s nice to know what everyone else is planning on doling out to the bride and groom this summer, just for comparison’s sake. Because honestly, if you’re that one guest who only ponies up $50 while everyone else is in the $100+ range, the bride and groom are going to notice.

With that in mind, I asked my circle of marriage-aged friends for some pointers on what’s appropriate. Now, this is admittedly a small and limited sample size. It’s comprised almost exclusively of people from the Northeast and the West Coast, where cash is king when it comes to wedding gifts. In my circles, the Macy’s registry is something you only do for your bridal shower and your great aunts.

One caveat to all of this: I’ve been told the rules are different in the South and the Midwest. But I’ve also been told that cash bars are common in the South and the Midwest, so clearly if you’re invited to a wedding in a flyover state, you should probably just skip it anyway.

Okay, on to the research. The most interesting thing I found was that married people were more forgiving than single ones. The marrieds were way more understanding than I thought they’d be. We’ve all heard horror stories and urban legends of couples emailing wedding guests to ask why they didn’t contribute more as a gift, but this seems like a really rare occurrence.

In fact, most of the married people I talked to understood that most people don’t have wads of cash laying around to fling at anyone throwing a wedding. Some of my single friends seemed to think less than $200 per guest (that’s $400 for a couple) was unheard of, but married friends were cool with $75 per person ($150 per couple).

There’s also been a “per-plate” rule floating around over the past few years. The idea is: as a wedding guest, you should be covering the cost of your plate, and then some. It sounds practical, but there are a few issues with this rule. For one thing, how are you supposed to know how much someone else’s wedding costs? You obviously wouldn’t be rude enough to ask them — so is it a whisper down the lane scenario where you hope the mother-in-law starts to spread the word that this is a $125-per-plate affair?

Plus, as a recently married male friend pointed out, why should your guests be responsible for paying for your wedding? They didn’t choose the 12-foot realistic ice sculpture of you two making out in Central Park. They didn’t insist that you get your initials laser-cut into every single napkin. At a time when wedding costs are ballooning out of control because of pointless extras like these, no engaged couple should be taking on exorbitant extra expenses based on the hope that guests will cover the costs.

“As the host, it’s cheesy to expect your guests to pay for themselves,” the recent groom said. “As an attendee, I want my gift to be a gift, not a dollar amount chosen to offset the cost of the party. And if people are expected to ‘cover their plate’ do they get to choose whether or not you spring for the ice sculpture and raw bar? Do they have a say in whether you hire a band or a DJ?”

A newly married bride agreed.

“I know people throwing $250-per-plate, elaborate weddings,” she said. “So myself and a date should give $500? That’s a ton of money! You shouldn’t be throwing a wedding to make back the money you spent.”

The per-plate rule seems logical, but it’s mercenary. It might have been a good system back in the day when a couple actually used the proceeds of their wedding to buy a house, but those days are long gone. Now, weddings are so expensive that you’re lucky if you break even. Either that, or your parents will be paying — so why should your guests cover their plates anyway, if you’re just making 100% profit?

Things get murkier when you throw destination weddings in the mix. Some people would say the exorbitant cost of attending a destination wedding is a gift in and of itself. Others told me they’d still give about $100 per person. On this count, I can’t help you — there’s really no hard and fast rule. Some are of the “my presence is a present” school of thought, while some couples are still expecting you to cough up cash in addition to plane fare, hotel costs, etc. Just like with regular weddings, if you really want to be safe, it’s better to over-give than under-give. If your wallet’s not feeling a major pinch, then sadly, you’re probably not doing it right.

One friend of mine actually took out a loan to pay for all the weddings she was in last year. She’s been to over 20 weddings in the last five years and has never given less than $100 to the bride and groom. Kind of makes you feel bad for complaining about your own wedding guest money woes, right?

So the verdict based on my analysis is this: if you’re going to a wedding where a cash gift is acceptable this summer and you want to fit in with the status quo, don’t give less than $125 per guest. $100 per guest is the bare minimum. If you really want to show that you’re a baller, $200 per guest should suffice.

By the way, you should probably write the check out to just one member of the couple. It might sound awkward, but chances are the newlyweds haven’t had a chance to merge bank accounts yet. Plus, you might not know whether the bride even wants to change her name. That makes for a pretty weird situation when you make the check out to “Mr. and Mrs. Kanye West” and she’s decided she isn’t even taking the dude’s name.

If the $125-per-person donation hurts, don’t worry: most brides and grooms told me that they kept track of their friends’ gifts to them with the express purpose of paying it back and then some when that friend eventually gets married. As long as you’re not a #foreveralone, you’ll get it back plus interest someday.

Until then, it’s soup for lunch until wedding season ends. But hey, at least you’ll get free booze the day of to ease the pain of your financial sacrifice!


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