Everything You Need to Know About Wedding Gift Etiquette

From how much to spend to when you should buy.

bride and groom


Congratulations! You've been invited to a wedding, which means you are seen as a valued part of that couple's life. It is a huge honor and a compliment. But it also means it's time to buy a wedding gift—a potentially daunting task. Many people don’t know how much to spend or whether or not to stick to the registry. If you are traveling for the wedding and spending money on airfare and hotels, is ok to spend less or skip the gift altogether? Even if you know exactly what you want to get them, when should you send it? Is there such a thing as too early or too late?

Virtual weddings have made this even more complicated. Do you get a couple the same gift whether or not you are attending a wedding in person? And what happens if there is a virtual and an in-person affair? Does that mean two gifts? To answer these questions and more we turned to etiquette expert Elaine Swann. With her advice, you’ll be wishing the happy couple well with the perfect wedding gift.

Meet the Expert

Elaine Swann is one of the country's leading lifestyle and etiquette experts.

How Much to Spend on a Wedding Gift

Swann has a simple rule: the amount you spend on a wedding gift varies based on your relationship with the couple. “I always like to look at it like an onion,” she said. “The closer to the core, the more you would spend on the couple.” If you don’t know the couple well (maybe you are a co-worker or a friend of the couple's parents) there is no need to spend more than $25. If you know the couple well, if you are a friend who sees them all the time or a close cousin, it's normal to spend as much as $200 on your present.

There are situations when it is okay to skip the wedding gift and therefore spend no money. If it is a destination wedding, especially somewhere expensive or a place that requires flights and hotels, there is no need to get the couple a present. Also, if you are part of the wedding party (you’ve probably already spent money on the dress, the bachelorette party, and the bridal shower) there is no need to buy a wedding gift. Budget constraints are also a perfectly valid reason to not get a gift. “It is important for people to realize that a gift is not mandatory,” said Swann. “It is certainly appreciated and expected, but not mandatory.” 

When to Buy and Send a Wedding Gift

“My recommendation, if you do not send the gift right when you receive the invite, you should send it as close to the wedding day as possible,” said Swann. "Your goal is to make sure the gift arrives prior to the wedding day.” Don't forget to leave time for unexpected shipping delays. While it's better to have your gift arrive sooner rather than later if you leave it to the last minute, don't fret. The couple will still be happy to get your gift even if it arrives after their big day.

Some people still bring gifts to the actual wedding, but that practice is quickly going out of fashion. “Because of the popularity of online shopping more people are having gifts shipped directly to the couple,” said Swann. She said if you want to bring a gift to the actual wedding check with the wedding party first to make sure there is a gift table set up for that. You don't want your present to have the unintended consequence of stressing out the couple on their big day!

How to Buy a Gift Not on the Couple’s Registry

In theory, you can purchase a gift that’s not on the registry at any time. There is no rule that you have to buy a gift the couple has selected for themselves. But there are times to stray from the registry that are better than others. If you know the couple well and are familiar with their tastes and preferences, feel free to pick out something for them. This is particularly true if you see something special that reminds you of them or if you are having something unique made. Another time to go off the registry is if all the gifts listed are outside your budget or they are all taken by other guests.

If you don't know the couple well (or at all), it's always safer to stick to the registry. Also, if you don't have a particular present in mind, don't just buy something random off the registry (like glassware or a cooking bowl.) “Make sure you select something meaningful to the couple,” said Swann. If your gift doesn't have significance to it, pick something off the registry instead.

How to Buy a Wedding Gift for a Virtual Wedding 

Swann said to treat virtual weddings the same as in-person affairs. Whatever you plan to give as a gift for an in-person wedding, give the same present for a Zoom wedding. “The gift is not about offsetting the cost of having the wedding,” said Swann. “The gift is a tangible gesture to congratulate the couple and provide them with gifts they need in order to start their new lives together. Whether they have a virtual wedding or an in-person one, the couple will still be sharing their lives together. The gift is a gesture towards that union.”

If the couple is having a virtual wedding now but plans to have an in-person wedding later, it's better to go ahead and get them a gift now (who knows what might happen in the future!) Also, you want to help them start their lives together, and that union begins at the virtual wedding. You can always get them something small at the later date to mark the occasion.

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