I’m at that stage of life where everyone around me is getting married. Save the date cards for nuptials scheduled for more than a year in advance plop into my mailbox, each of them somehow managing to piss me off and thrill me with excitement at the same time.
Sorry, no offence to anyone who has sent me one of those cards. I’m thrilled for you, truly I am. And trust me I’ll have a jolly great time celebrating with you on the day. But there are certain things about weddings more broadly – not YOUR wedding, but weddings in general – that stress me the fuck out.
One of which is the gifting conundrum.
Back in the day wedding gifts were household items the couple would need to start their life together. Toasters, kettles, juicers, blenders… you get the picture. And often the couple would register somewhere, list down things they needed, and guests would log in and choose what to get. Nifty, if not a little bit procedural for something that’s meant to be a gift.
Now though, we’re marrying later and living with our significant other for longer before tying the knot. Understandably, people already have their kitchen appliances sorted, so please, they beg, don’t get me another fucking Nutri Ninja. Fair enough.
Instead, it’s become customary to gift cash, generally towards a honeymoon or just the couple’s future life together. Some invites state there’ll be a wishing well for cash gifts, others dance around the subject with a not-so-subtle hint wrapped up in a poem. But cringey Google-adapted poetry aside, I suppose if you were gifting a toaster already, gifting the cash instead is just easier for everyone, right?
Cash gifting is a perfectly reasonable workaround. But, anyone that’s attended a wedding this side of the millennium will know that cash gifting expectations can, in some cases, get more than a little out of hand. Being a wedding guest has become a financially political minefield, not to mention an absolute bank breaker.
We find ourselves thinking… how much is enough? You don’t want to look cheap, but equally you don’t want to compromise yourself. How much is everyone else giving? Should I ask? Some etiquette even states you should gift the couple the amount per head they’ve paid to have you attend. Yeesh! That’s a smidge more than the Nutri Ninja!
How much money is expected for wedding gifts?
So, as a confused and financially stretched wedding guest myself, I thought I’d take to my Instagram followers. Instead of asking what the question often seems to be: how much do you give? I went bold. I decided to ask those who have had weddings, how much did they actually want, and did their wedding guests meet their expectations in their gifting behaviour?
Now while many remind me that polling my Instagram audience isn’t exactly IPSOS quality data, we did rake in close to 1,000 responses from people who had had recent weddings, and close to 1,600 responses from the questions I put out to attendees.
In what will come as a pleasant surprise to panicked and financially stressed wedding guests across the world, only 13% of respondents said that their guests’ gifts came in below their expectations.
47% said they received more in cash gifts than they expected, while 40% said it was ‘about right’.
Okay, so give or take a few that perhaps felt too mean to admit their expectations weren’t met, a decent almost-half of you already-wed folk got more than you expected!
Good news, guests. You’re probably gifting more than you need to.
Do I have to give a gift if I’ve travelled for the wedding?
Another welcome relief for wedding guests is that the overwhelming response was that if any of the following apply, you’re not expected to give a cash gift:
- If the wedding is a destination wedding
- If you personally have had to travel far to the wedding (e.g. a flight)
- If you have had to pay for accommodation overnight to attend the wedding
What many did state, though, was if not giving a cash gift, a card with well wishes is appreciated. I find this interesting to know, actually, as I’ve always sort of wondered if an empty card is an absolute no no.
Particularly as a frequent international guest at my friends’ weddings, planning my entire year around the big day has meant I’ve generally not given cash gifts. I’m pleased to know an empty card is still welcomed.
What wasn’t mentioned was gifting etiquette if the guests need to pay for drinks at the wedding. Perhaps this is a newer thing, since weddings have *generally* been an open bar all inclusive type situation, costing the guests nothing. From the overall tone of responses, I’d deduce that if guests are paying for any aspect of the wedding, e.g. drinks, this would be reflected in the size of the cash gift.
How much do wedding couples actually want as a gift?
Now, back to how much to actually give. We know a lot of married folks got more than they expected, which is a good start.
Let’s get into some of the responses from how much people expected of their guests.
Firstly I must note that a lot of people really played it fast and loose with the term ‘expect’. A lot of responses had a similar flavour of ‘I didn’t expect anything but the cost per head would’ve been nice/$100 per head would’ve been nice’.
In my book that’s an expectation, but perhaps from that we can deduce that while there may be a number in mind that the couple would like to see tumble out of your card, it’s not so much an ‘expectation’ that it’s a deal breaker if you don’t.
Paying for yourself as a wedding gift
While some didn’t identify their feelings as expectations, a handful did subscribe to this notion of paying for yourself, and giving thought to the per head cost of the wedding you’re attending. The logic being, if you’re invited to attend a wedding, you’re getting fed and guzzling (often free) booze, so you should pay for such a privilege.
There is something about this that makes me feel a bit weird, but if that’s tradition for your family can see why it might fly. Or if that’s the ritual you’ve gotten into with a group of friends who are all getting married within the same handful of years and you’re bouncing from wedding to wedding, all equipped with wedding knowledge and equally happy to pay for yourself, then fine.
There are a few reasons I have an issue with this more broadly, though. I’ll come onto why later when I unpack why we really need to rethink wedding gifting etiquette, but largely because I really question why it’s up to guests to pay for what a couple wanted at their wedding – particularly if those wedding guests may not necessarily, by choice or otherwise, even want their own wedding.
How much per person is enough for a wedding gift?
Those that didn’t suggest the guests play a guessing game as to how much their attendance cost, the most common response was $100 per person. I’d assume based on my audience location that’s in Australian dollars, which would equate to about £58 in GBP, or USD$70.
The next most common response was around $200-$300 per couple or $100 – $150 for singles, and a few said $150-200 per head, again in AUD. Despite this being the higher end, a decent chunk of recently married folks did also say $50 per person was their expectation, too.
What became clear in many cases is that context was important. As I mentioned, many said that if they’d travelled they’d give nothing, or give less, depending on the expense of said travel.
Others explained that gifts varied by how close you are to the guests, which might provide helpful insight if you’re wondering whether you really have to fork out two hundred big ones for Julia from HR. Good news: she’s probably not expecting you to.
The bottom line: best mates – A$100 pp seems a strong starting point, going slightly higher or lower depending on context, wedding style and personal understanding. Those you’re less close to, A$50 – $100 pp should mean you can still sleep at night.
Changing the cash wedding gift narrative
To be honest, doing this – ahem – research has really got me thinking that the narrative around cash gifts at weddings really needs an update, particularly now we’re breaking out of traditional norms and saying ‘screw it’ to life timelines.
The feedback I got from doing this research was an absolutely overwhelming desperation for CLARITY. Marrying couples – your wedding guests are in a frenzy over what to give, what they can afford, and whether their gift will piss you off.
Even this article comes from a place of ‘are we meeting their expectations’?
What many fairly stated was that “it’s a gift. It’s up to the gift giver.”
I couldn’t agree more – and I really think this is where we need to start when it comes to unpicking this tangled mess of wedding gift giving. When did it all become so procedural?
The problem with paying for yourself at weddings
What I really cannot shake is this: why are weddings the only event where the concept of paying for yourself is even considered, and why is it up to guests to pay for the things the marrying couple chose? Would you ever rock up to a birthday and think ooooh nice gaff, I’d better slip them a fifty for this?
Equally, if you’re not having a wedding yourself, why is it fair that you traipse around wedding after wedding, giving upward of $100 each time? Wouldn’t that be like giving someone a birthday gift every year and never ever getting one in return?
Well, naturally, I asked some of these hard hitters.
When I posed the question “do you give less if you know you won’t have a wedding yourself?”, 48% said yes. In fairness, I opened the gates for those people to fess up, by admitting that I absolutely have this mindset.
My boyfriend and I decided long ago we wouldn’t be doing the wedding thing, and I hate to say it, but it does make me a little bit salty about giving money to people that’ll never be asked to do the same for us. FORGIVE ME FOR I HAVE SINNED BY HAVING ACTUAL HUMAN FEELINGS ABOUT THIS. I know it’s not very becoming to think of it like this, but if I’m the only person to ever have thought this, then stick a fork in me for I am done.
I know it’s not about giving just to get, and I’ll absolutely give gifts without the expectation of a return. But just like birthday gifts aren’t just a give-receive transaction, continually buying someone a gift and never getting one back would piss you off. Plus, the concept of reciprocity is a key tenet of social human behaviour. We are almost programmed to participate in reciprocal behaviour, which could explain why those who have their own weddings have a higher tolerance for extensive gift giving than those who don’t.
Are wedding gift expectations causing serious guest resentment?
And in the case of weddings, I really do think that for single people or those not having weddings, that’s exactly what is happening. I think for many it causes deep anxiety, and the result of that is unnecessary resentment.
Yes, yes, okay, you get to go to the wedding and get drunk and maybe scoff down whatever you’re given in an alternating chicken – fish – chicken – fish plating sequence, but the marrying couple did choose to have a wedding and they did invite people to come.
Again, the party example. If someone throws themselves a 50th birthday, do you pay for yourself? No! You get a well-wishing gift, or give money, at an amount that you choose. No etiquette, no how-much-per-head questions. Just a gift from giver to receiver. I’d hazard a guess that wedding gifts cause a lot more financial anxiety than any other type of gift.
It’s got shades of Carrie Bradshaw’s baby shower outburst, after one too many baby gifts tipped her over the edge, leaving her registering at Manolo Blahnik to make a point to her child bearing friends that she’s sick of giving gifts at weddings and baby showers, when single and/or child-free people get nothing.
PREACH IT SISTER.
A friend of mine even shared that she often assessed her appetite for cash gift giving at weddings based on the degree to which the marrying couple had ever celebrated or supported her business.
It poses an interesting question around whether weddings and other traditional markers of success and progress (e.g. babies) are a more acceptable way to publicly ask for cash and gifts, contributions, unlike other life milestones like businesses, career changes or even divorces.
Norms aside, let’s not forget the most obvious issue – people can’t afford to adhere to these norms! People’s financial situations really need to be considered when managing expectations of cash gifts, now more than ever.
Is it different if you’re having your own wedding?
Now to be fair, I do think all of this stuff will be fairly meaningless to those of you that are in the wedding ecosystem. That is, while you may fumble over how much to put in your next wedding card, you’ve already had your own wedding, or know at some point you’ll be having your own wedding.
You might even give more knowing how much weddings cost having done it yourself, or more if you know the marrying couple are due to come back to your wedding in the near future.
In fact, 33% of respondents admitted to giving more to people that they’ve invited to their wedding. Fair fucking play. And that’s great for you. If you’re doing the dance of attending and hosting the wedding, by all means go along with your traditions.
But I do urge marrying couples to spend some time thinking about your guests and what you expect of them. With the cost of living on the rise, it’s going to be harder and harder to meet wedding guest etiquette, and for particularly for those who will never have a wedding, it’s an awful lot to expect financially, let alone emotionally.
As less and less people go down the traditional route of buy house, marry, have kids, we really need to do away with these traditions that favour only the norm, and leave everyone outside of that stretched.
But, weddings are more expensive than ever
The counter argument to all of this is of course that weddings are more expensive than ever. Some respondents argued “people would give more if they knew how much weddings cost.”
It’s true, weddings are costing more than ever. But does that mean the guests have to pick up the bill?
And look, am I suggesting wedding guests give nothing?! Of course not! I think cash gifting is a great idea, and I’m absolutely happy to give it to help my friends go on honeymoons and things like that – despite this article arguing otherwise. It’s the expectation that’s taking away the joy of gift giving.
I think what really needs to happen is some sort of meeting in the middle, and a management of expectations on where the onus falls on the cost of weddings. Perhaps more anonymity around who gave what money, to remove some of the fear around how the amount you gave reflects on you.
When expectation is taken out of the equation, wedding guests are free to gift what their heart, their values and their wallets allow, and celebrate the occasion without guilt, shame or resentment.
Personally, as a frequent wedding guest but never the bride, the times I’ve been the most comfortable to give money has been the weddings where it’s been made clear that I’m not being judged by what I do or don’t give, when expectations are removed, and where the day isn’t treated like a ticketed event that I need to purchase my attendance to.