Everything You Need to Know About Wedding Gift Etiquette and Customs

From how much to spend to when to make your purchase, we're breaking down exactly what big day attendees should know when buying presents.

Acrylic Wedding Gift Box with Cards on White Table with White and Green Floral Arrangement Behind It

Photo by Tony Wodarck Photography

Congratulations! You've been invited to a wedding, which means you are seen as a valued part of that couple's life. Receiving a wedding invitation is a huge honor and a compliment, but it also means that it's time for you to buy the happy couple a wedding gift—something that many people see as a potentially daunting task. The reason? It can be hard to know how much to spend or whether or not you need to stick to the registry. Even if you know exactly what you want to get them, when should you send it? Is there such a thing as giving a gift too early or too late?

To answer these questions and more we asked Elaine Swann, a bonafide etiquette expert, to weigh in on the wedding gift etiquette and customs all guests need to know. With her advice, you’ll be wishing the happy couple well with the perfect (and most appropriate) present.

Meet the Expert

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

How Much Should a Guest Spend on a Wedding Gift?

Simply put, there is no set number that guests need to stick to when purchasing a wedding gift. You should do what feels right for your budget and personal situation. Swann has a simple rule she also suggests abiding by: The amount you spend on a wedding gift should vary 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 extravagantly. 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 per person on your present.

Is It Ever Appropriate Not to Give a Wedding Gift?

If you're attending a wedding, you should always give a gift; the amount you spend, though, is flexible. Personal budget constraints are a perfectly valid reason to not get an over-the-top wedding present, but you should still give something as an attendee. Spend what you can based on your financial situation and always give or send the couple a note wishing them well.

Should You Give a Physical Wedding Gift or Money?

Customs vary from region to region, so what's appropriate to some may not feel appropriate to others. In the Northeast, for example, physical gifts are given at the wedding shower but family and friends most often give the couple money on their big day. While it's perfectly appropriate to give physical gifts or money at any point, you may want to think about what's considered the norm in the couple's home state before making your final decision.

When Should You Buy and Send a Wedding Gift Versus Bring It to the Wedding?

“My recommendation, if you do not send the gift right when you receive the invite, [is that] you should send it as close to the wedding day as possible,” Swann suggests. "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,” says Swann. If you want to bring a gift to the actual wedding, check with the wedding party first to make sure there will be a 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.

If you're planning to give a financial gift, bringing a card with a check or cash to the wedding itself is perfectly appropriate.

Is It Appropriate to Buy a Gift That's 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.

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