Can't Afford A Wedding Gift? Etiquette Experts Explain What To Do.

If you're stressed about how much to spend on the couple's present, read this.
It's possible to give something meaningful and memorable without breaking the bank.
Westend61 via Getty Images
It's possible to give something meaningful and memorable without breaking the bank.

Wedding expenses can add up quickly — not just for the couple tying the knot but also for the guests in attendance.

According to a 2019 survey from The Knot, guests spend an average of $430 to attend a wedding. But that number fluctuates depending on the location and the guest’s relationship to the couple. When the wedding took place in the guest’s hometown, the average spend was $185, the survey found. But when the wedding required air travel, the number shot up to $1,440.

So what should you do when you want to attend a friend or relative’s wedding but just can’t afford a nice gift on top of all the other expenses? We asked etiquette experts to share their thoughts.

Don’t feel pressured to spend more than you’re comfortable with.

It’s easy to get hung up on what you think you “should” spend on a wedding gift because of something you heard from your aunt or a price range you saw online. But if money is tight, don’t overextend yourself trying to keep up with social norms.

“If you have gone through great expense to go to a destination wedding or even travel across town, taking off work, securing a babysitter, buying an outfit or are renting a tuxedo, and your budget is struggling, it’s important to do only what your finances allow, comfortably,” etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas, told HuffPost.

That means you can absolutely ignore the so-called “cover-your-plate rule,” which says that wedding guests should give a gift that costs at least as much as the couple is spending per head for food and alcohol at the reception.

“Your gift budget is not a reflection of the couple’s budget,” etiquette expert Jodi RR Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, told HuffPost. “Your gift need never be equivalent to the ‘cost per meal’ or any other such notion. Your gift is reflective of your finances.”

Remember that “invitations are not invoices, and weddings are not fundraisers,” Smith added. Your presence is, indeed, a present.

“The couple has invited you to witness their ceremony and participate in their celebration,” she said. “Your attendance is part of your gift.”

Think outside the box if money is tight.

Maybe you’d love to give the couple a big check or a fancy kitchen appliance from their registry, but you simply can’t afford to right now. That’s OK! There are less costly ways to show the couple how much you care. A heartfelt card is absolutely an acceptable gift. Gottsman suggested pairing a handwritten note with an offer to make a gift of your expertise in some way.

“If you are a gardener, tell them you will help them plant their first vegetable garden and include some seeds in a beautiful bag or deliver a planter of herbs,” she said. “Or a basket of bread, if you’re a baker. While it’s not an ordinary gift, it’s a gesture of love and kindness.”

“Invitations are not invoices, and weddings are not fundraisers.”

- Jodi RR Smith, etiquette expert

You shouldn’t skip a wedding you want to attend solely because you can’t afford what you deem to be a “nice enough” gift. Sure, a tight budget adds some constraints, but it also forces you to get creative. Take a moment to think about your relationship to the couple and try to come up with something thoughtful and meaningful, Smith said.

“For example, you met your friend in Girl Scouts, where the two of you sold more cookies than anyone else in the troop. So you give brand new cookie sheets along with beautifully handwritten cards of your favorite cookie recipes,” Smith suggested.

“Or you search the local thrift and vintage shops for crystal Champagne flutes and pen a personalised toast to the couple,” she added. “Or, since you met at college, you make a donation — in the amount you can afford — in the couple’s honour to fund scholarships.”

Another idea? Grab some photos from the couple’s social media and give them a nice framed picture or create a photo booklet, as etiquette expert Elaine Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol, has suggested.

Also, some wedding registries allow you to chip in a small amount toward one of the more expensive items. So that might be an option, too.

If you’re skipping the wedding for financial reasons, you don’t need to send a traditional gift.

Traditional wedding etiquette says that you’re supposed to send the couple a gift even if you RSVP “no” to the event. But if you are skipping the wedding for financial reasons, it’s OK to forgo the gift and send a card offering your congratulations instead, Gottsman said. She also suggested giving a small gift that is within your budget, especially if you’re close to the couple.

“When there is a registry, most often there is something on the list that you can comfortably afford,” Gottsman said. “If not, send a card and make plans to meet for lunch, where you can treat, if possible. It’s really not necessary to explain your circumstances. If you are not close enough friends, you don’t even need to send a gift.”

Smith recommends sending something — even just a small token of your affection — if you are unable to attend.

“If this is someone you care about and who liked you enough to include you in the guest list, you should like them enough in return to send a token of your esteem,” she said. “A gift, truly any thoughtful gift, is the appropriate gesture.”