10 Wedding Gift Etiquette Rules Everyone Should Follow, According to Experts
Invited to a wedding? Don't let gift-giving etiquette stress you out. Our experts offer up top tips on how to give the perfect wedding gift.
I’ve been invited to a ton of weddings, and shopping for the perfect wedding gift for the happy couple is actually something I enjoy—I love to scroll through registries to learn the couple’s tastes and needs. But one wedding I was recently invited to gave me pause. The bride was a former co-worker, and while we were close 10 years ago, these days our communication is limited to following each other on social media and sending holiday cards. Adding to my uncertainty about how to RSVP was that the wedding was across the country. Ultimately, I decided not to attend. But I had no idea what the correct wedding gift etiquette is in this situation. Do you need to send a wedding gift if you don’t attend? If so, how much should you spend, especially when the couple isn’t among your closest friends or family? I was at a loss—but I wanted to make sure I was following proper etiquette.
“Gift giving can be tricky, especially when it comes to weddings,” agrees Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. To take the stress out of finding the perfect present—or not—follow these expert-approved rules.
1. Consider your relationship to the couple
Gift giving takes thought and care, says Nikki Sawhney, director and founder of the New England School of Protocol. “Be mindful of what and who the gift is for,” she says. “Wedding gifts are given based on your relationship with the bride and groom.” If you are close to the couple, you might want to get them something more personal, such as monogrammed towels or bedding, adds Whitmore.
2. If a couple has a registry, use it
A couple takes the time to pick out exactly what they want from a store to help take the guesswork out of wedding gift confusion for their guests, says Sawhney. Is the registry picked over? Send the couple a gift card to the same store, since they obviously like it. Popular registries include department stores and housewares and home decor retailers, as well as home-improvement stores.
3. Spend what you can afford
While a recent Bankrate.com survey found that most guests plan to spend an average of $180 per wedding present, you should always gift what falls comfortably within your budget. “Who says you have to spend big? Don’t get hung up on dollar amount,” says Whitmore. The golden rule of gift giving still applies to weddings—it’s the thought that counts. Case in point: One of my most cherished gifts from my wedding is a handmade quilt from my aunt. It didn’t cost a lot, but my husband and I still snuggle under it on our sofa and always think of her.
4. Budget for other wedding-related events
Are you invited to an engagement party, bridal shower and the wedding? Create a budget and prioritize the gift based on what you think is most important, says Sawhney. “The 20-20-60 rule suggests that you spend 20% of your budget on the engagement gift, 20% on the bridal shower and 60% on the wedding gift,” she says.
5. Remember other related expenses
According to the same Bankrate.com survey, wedding attendance costs are adding up: In 2023, guests plan to spend an average of $611 per wedding, including the gift, travel-related expenses and attire. If you are in the bridal party and have already reached your gift-giving threshold because you contributed toward other expenses, such as hosting a bachelorette party or buying a bridesmaid dress or groomsmen suit, then you can give a small token gift for the ceremony. “You don’t have to break the bank or take out a loan to buy the bride and groom a gift,” says Sawhney. If you find your budget is close to being tapped out, it can be helpful to set real expectations up front with the bride and groom in an honest, polite and respectful manner.
6. Send a wedding gift ahead of time
While you should bring a shower gift to the actual shower, it’s easier for the couple if you send a wedding gift to their home. Think you’ve got up to a year to send a gift? “While that was the rule for years, it’s now considered proper etiquette to send a wedding gift before the wedding or within three months of the couple getting married,” says Whitmore. Why the change? The world moves faster than ever now, and online shopping and overnight or two-day shipping are now fairly standard. Plus, you don’t want to risk running into the couple six months after the wedding and they wonder why you never acknowledged their wedding, she explains. Make sure you have it gift-wrapped and include a card—and a gift receipt if possible. “Don’t rush through it or just scribble your name on the card. Take your time and put in some care and effort,” says Sawhney. Not sure what to say? Take inspiration from these lovely wedding wishes.
7. Consider the couple’s lifestyle
If the couple doesn’t have a registry, finding the perfect gift make take a bit of detective work. If you don’t know them well, ask their friends or family what they might like, or scroll through their social media feeds. Does the couple love to travel? Perhaps a gift card to their favorite hotel, airline or luggage company might be appreciated. Are they homebodies? Bedding or home decor might be perfect for them. Are they foodies? A gift card to their favorite restaurant or bottle of wine might be a treat.
8. Fund the honeymoon
That said, many brides and grooms today also have a dedicated website where you can find out more detailed information about their wedding, including gift options. “Often, the couple will list a preference on receiving cash or contributing to a fund that will help pay for their honeymoon or a down payment on a home,” Sawhney says. Some couples even suggest a contribution to a charity of their choice in lieu of a gift.
9. Send something even if you don’t go
“If you cannot attend a wedding, it is not a requirement that you send a gift,” says Sawhney, “however, it is a nice gesture, especially if you are close to the couple.” Choose a token gift of nominal value from their registry or for their new home. “Pretty photo frames to show off their wedding photos are always a good option,” says Whitmore. At the very least, send a card of heartfelt congratulations. As for my own dilemma, I sent my far-away friend a gift card to Williams-Sonoma (where she had registered). I placed it in a pretty wedding-themed box and mailed it off with a clear conscience and joy that my old pal found love.
10. Cash is still king
“Many couples today prefer cash,” says Sawhney. While it’s common to bring a card with cash or a check to the wedding, consider popping it in the mail ahead of the wedding day. “A box of envelopes full of cash at the reception can be a disaster waiting if it gets misplaced,” warns Whitmore. Prefer to write a check? If you’re not sure who to make it out to, it’s best to use just one name so it’s easier to cash. (Tip: Use the bride’s maiden name, because it can take a few weeks for any name changes to become official.) Then write a memo on the check and be sure to address both people on the card and envelope. With your gift safely sent ahead of the big day, you’ll be able to focus on what really counts at the wedding—celebrating with the happy couple.
About the experts
- Jacqueline Whitmore is an international etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. A member of the Association of Image Consultants International (AICI), as well as the Protocol Diplomacy International Protocol Officer’s Association (PDI-POA), Whitmore is also the bestselling author of Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work and Poised for Success.
- Nikki Sawhney is the founder and director of the New England School of Protocol. Sawhney is a graduate of the American School of Protocol in Atlanta, where she earned a certification in corporate, business and children’s etiquette. She has also trained under William Hanson, a British etiquette expert and tutor for the international protocol and hospitality consultancy firm The English Manner.
- Bankrate.com: “Survey: Americans can expect to spend over $600 to attend a wedding in 2023”