What should I give as a wedding present ?

 

During the course of your life you will probably be invited to quite a number of weddings.  Every time that happens, you are then confronted with the question: what do I give as a present ?

The sensible answer

 

In the vast majority of cases, there is only one sensible answer.

In 3 words: cold hard cash.

Not vouchers.

Not kitchen appliances.

Not any other sort of household stuff.

Not anything that isn’t cold hard cash.

But cold hard cash is boring and unromantic !  It is, but it is also practical, and it is something that almost without exception a newly married couple needs.  There are almost always costs involved in coming together to live as one.  Even if 2 fairly well-appointed households are combined, there are still things that will be needed.  And most people would prefer to use something that they have chosen for themselves, rather than to have to use something that is not quite right, or that you don’t really like the look of. 

Oh, and what about the cost of the wedding (and the honeymoon) ?  These days many couples have to pay for the wedding themselves.  It’s a pretty big expense to be saddled with as you start married life.  

But cold harsh cash is so impersonal, and suggests that you couldn’t be bothered trying to come up with something that the couple could use.

So it’s better to give the couple something that there is only a remote chance that they need, or more importantly, will like ?  That’s more thoughtful ?

Not to my way of thinking. 

And giving a non-cash present is sometimes used as a way of concealing the cost of a present.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact points out another supposed reason to dislike cash, as in giving cash the amount of the present is quite naked.  But if the reason for concealing the cost of the present is to practice a bit of cheapskating, then arguably to give cash is the more sincere present.

I have married twice.  In both cases my spouse-to-be and I were reasonably well off, (compared to the average young couple, not compared to James Packer) because we had all been working for a while by the time we married.  Yet in both cases the one wedding present we really appreciated was cash.

With respect to the first wedding, I recount in my book how we actually tried to have a minimalist wedding.  Despite what I have just said, we were not really after any wedding presents, and we thought we had protected ourselves from the prospect of getting any by not having anything that looked in any way, shape or form like a reception.  No such luck. 

What we had been dreading was, in fact, what happened.  We received all sorts of household items, and even things like paintings, as presents.  All very nice, and all very sincerely intended.  But …

Why had we dreaded what happened ?  Well, when I married Patsy she was in her early 40s and both of her parents were dead.  She had her own household, into which she had had to incorporate a third of the household effects of her parents (she had 2 sisters).  At the time I started going out with her she had one bedroom in her house that it was impossible (literally) to walk into – Patsy used it to store furniture and household stuff that she had no immediate use for.  At that time I also had my own household that had everything that I needed to live comfortably.  That’s why we dreaded getting any more stuff.

And I still have in a cupboard presents from that wedding that have never been used.

With respect to my second wedding, the situation was similar in that Thi and I both had established households.  It was dissimilar in that we were intending to have a fairly normal wedding and reception (the Origin story elsewhere on this Website explains what happened to that idea).  Therefore we decided that pre-emptive action was needed.  On our wedding invitation we specifically asked that no presents be given.  Knowing that a number of our friends would ignore that, we added that if anyone found it impossible to accede to that request, we asked that they at least follow Vietnamese tradition. 

(This might be an appropriate point at which to mention that my suggestion of cold hard cash as a wedding present is, in fact, the traditional wedding present in a number of cultures.  Obviously, as I have just mentioned, Vietnamese culture is one of those cultures, but it is also traditional in places like Greece.)

And that is, amazingly, what happened.  Almost all of those who gave us presents gave us cash – in fact enough cash to cover the cost of the wedding and the reception.  (The exceptions were some family members, and the friend who was kind enough to give us a cooked suckling pig for consumption at our lunchtime reception after our Vietnamese wedding.)  Even though we knew we had a few Bolshie relatives and friends who would not accede to our no present request, amazingly, it turns out that we pretty much only have Bolshie relatives and friends.  Despite our request, we actually received a present from all but one of the guests who attended our weddings/reception. 

Exceptions

 

There are 3 significant exceptions to my give cash advice.

First, if you are a close family member, you might be in a good position to give a non-cash present with confidence that it is something that will be appreciated.  I am thinking in particular of older family members gifting family heirlooms, or treasured personal items, to the newlyweds.  While in many cases a wedding isn’t the most appropriate occasion on which to make such a gift, sometimes it is.

Second, if you are close to the newlyweds, you might be able to buy them something that they have told you that they would like.  If that is the case, go for it.

Third, if the newlyweds are already very wealthy, giving them cash is obviously a fairly pointless exercise.  But then, giving them anything is a fairly pointless exercise.  I’m afraid I’m in unfamiliar territory here, so I haven’t really got any bright ideas.  A voucher for an adventurous activity ?  A tub of caviar ?  A bottle of Penfold’s Grange ?  The problem here is that these are very expensive presents. 

Why you should eschew vouchers

 

Returning to my wedding/s with Thi, in the case of one of our relatives, despite the fact that they had a Vietnamese background, for some reason they chose to give us a voucher for a relatively small department store.  It was for a very generous amount, but now, a few years later, we have still only been able to use a part of it, and it has caused us headaches trying to remember to use it, as the possible occasions for its use are few and far between. 

That is one of the reasons I recommend that you not give a voucher.  Vouchers also used to cause problems because of their relatively short expiry dates, although that is not so much of an issue these days.  They also cause problems because they sort of demand that the newlyweds spend money in a particular way.  So, even if you have chosen a voucher for something that you know one of the newlyweds will like to spend money on, if you had given cash they may well have used the money for something that was higher on their list of priorities at that time. 

And that raises another point, ideally a voucher should be for something that both partners can use.

 

First, if you only know one of the partners well, that makes the choice of vouchers difficult.  Second, even if you know the preferences of the partners, the need to have something that is suitable for both of them might result in a fairly boring set of options to choose from.    

In any event, the vast majority of vouchers show how much the voucher cost.  That removes one of the purposes of not using cash.  (Of course, if you are able to obtain vouchers at a considerable discount to their face value, that is something else, and may justify you giving them as a present (with apologies to any non-cynics who may be reading).)

Of course the other reason why vouchers are given is to suggest that the present-giver put some thought into the present, unlike the situation where clearly those giving cash have not.  I have hopefully already said enough to dispel that furphy – giving cash requires thought, and is a sign of consideration and thoughtfulness to the partners. 

Well, what about vouchers for adventure activities/restaurants/holiday accommodation ?  They usually don’t show the price, and may get the couple to have an experience that they may not otherwise get to have.  If you definitely don’t want to give cash, these sort of vouchers are probably the next best alternative, but they are not without their problems.  Newlyweds often find themselves to be incredibly busy in their first year together, and may struggle to find the time to use the voucher.

 

It is actually very easy to forget that you have a voucher.  Also, newlyweds may not be in a position to take a holiday to a particular place during the time that the voucher is valid.  And with vouchers for truly adventurous activities, it may not be possible to get both partners to be willing to do the activity.

There is also the problem that those sort of vouchers often come with conditions that restrict, sometimes severely, when they can be used.  I once received as a birthday present a voucher for holiday accommodation that was in a place that I was keen to visit.  There was only a mild restriction on when it could be used, but the only times that I would have been able to use the voucher in the period that it was valid were, you guessed it, when that restriction applied.  So, unfortunately the voucher expired unused.

Thus, if you have an idea for an experience that you think the newlyweds would like, my recommendation would be to put sufficient cash to do the activity in an envelope, together with a card suggesting that they use the cash for that purpose, and include in the envelope information about the activity.  

Thi and I received a present of that sort at our wedding.  Thi’s sons gave us a very generous cash amount that they specified was to be used for a holiday to a particular country.  It is a country that has been high on our wishlist for some time.  We had had hopes of going there soon after our wedding, but they were derailed.  We have not yet made that trip, but we still intend to do so, viruses willing.  When we do we will explicitly use the money we were given for the purpose.  Now, if we had been given that present in any form other than cash, it is highly likely the present would have expired by now. 

How to calculate the amount

 

So I have managed to persuade you that cash is the way to go.  But how much should you give ?

See, giving cash isn’t thoughtless, that’s a question that requires a bit of thought right there.

The answer depends on which of the following groups you fall into:

1)         close family or friends;

2)         anyone else invited to attend the wedding reception;

3)         everyone else.

If you fall into the first group, I can’t give you much advice.  It depends on your means; how generous you are feeling; your feelings for the newlyweds; if you are a relative, how much you might have given a sibling of whoever is getting married; whether there is some traditional present or amount in the family; whether you have had to shell out for a bridesmaid’s outfit or the like …

If you fall into the second group, I recommend that you give a minimum amount.  Now, please close your eyes and turn away if you are in any way romantic, but I suggest that the minimum amount should be your guess as to how much whoever is paying for the wedding is likely to have to pay per head for the reception meal.  That per head cost should be the minimum amount of your cash gift.  If you are going as a family, the minimum family present should be the per head cost multiplied by the number of people in the family attending.

Please feel free to gnash your teeth, put pins in a doll representation of me, or whatever else takes your fancy, but then consider: have you heard anyone come up with a better idea ?

And what I have just said is my suggestion for the minimum amount.  There’s nothing stopping you from exceeding it by however much you want.  And, when it all boils down, that minimum amount does not really represent a present at all – it is simply the amount needed to offset the cost that the couple will incur as a result of your attendance at the reception.

Put that way, it sounds as if I have just turned a romantic event into a grubby commercial transaction.  I am sympathetic to that point of view, but I don’t resile from the advice I have given.  We are in the real world, we are faced with a problem, and my suggestion is aimed at solving that problem. 

By the way, my advice still holds even though you might know that the newlyweds are not going to be paying for the reception.  Why ?  Because, from your point of view, it’s really irrelevant who pays for the reception – we are talking about what present to give the newlyweds.  In fact, this is a circumstance where you can be reasonably confident that any cash that you give the couple will be used by them for something chosen by them, which, of course, is exactly what you hope will happen when you give a present. 

But you say: “I’ve got no idea how much reception places charge per head, so your idea is pretty impracticable”.  For those of you in that boat, my recommendation is that you assume that you will receive a 3-course meal that will be of a standard that you could expect at a restaurant that charges middle-tier prices.  If you don’t eat at such restaurants often, their menu prices are often readily found on the Internet.  You should also be able to readily find information on the Internet that provides advice about the different levels of restaurant. 

I should also mention that lots of reception places charge wedding meals at 2 or 3 times the rate they would charge ordinary customers for the same meal.  My recommendation is to simply ignore that possibility - it makes things too difficult.  Just go with what I recommended in the last paragraph.

And, when doing your calculations, don’t forget that drinks are a significant component of meal prices, and you should roughly estimate how much you are likely to drink, the likely per glass cost of the drink, and add that to your calculations. 

Of course, there is really no need to get so technical.  For most people in most situations, you can just make a reasonable guesstimate of what your presence at the reception will cost.

And what about if you are in the last group I mentioned, anyone else who will not be attending the wedding reception ? 

If you are in this group, obviously any amount of cash that you give will be pure present.  Despite that, if you are thinking of giving a gift of cash, there is probably a minimum amount that you should give, in that giving a relatively small amount is probably a completely pointless exercise that may even carry some risk of being seen as an insult – if your inclination is to give small, or your ability to give is very limited, then usually you would be better advised to simply give a card with appropriate sentiments.  A wedding is not usually an appropriate occasion to make token gestures. 

What is a relatively small amount ?  I would suggest that it’s anything about the size of, or smaller than, a cash birthday gift that you would give to a close relative.  You should be thinking in terms of at least double that amount if you are wanting to give cash as a wedding present.

What goes round comes round

 

There is one particular situation in which you might not want to follow the advice in this subsection.  It arises if you are invited to the wedding of someone who you invited to your own wedding.  If that is the situation, and you can remember what you received as a gift from the person, then rather than trying to calculate the minimum I suggested above, you can simply use your knowledge of what you received as your guide to what to give.

 

What if the invitation says “no presents” ?

 

In view of the advice I have just given, it should come as no surprise to you to hear that my answer to this question is: you should ignore any statement that there should not be any presents, provided, of course, that the present you give is cash.

And, as I have just said, unless you want to freeload, the amount of cash you give should be at least what I have recommended above.

How about using a wedding registry ?

 

What about if there’s a wedding registry ?  (For those of you not familiar with the concept, some commercial organisations (mainly department stores) create a facility which enables a couple to list products sold by the organisation that they would be happy to receive as a wedding present.  The list is made available to those interested in it – if someone chooses a gift on the list, it is automatically removed from the list to ensure that there is no doubling up of presents.)

In theory, wedding registries are not a bad idea.

But let me tell you a little story. 

I was invited to the wedding, in another state, of one of my cousins.  They set up a wedding registry, which was the first time I had come across the concept.  The items on the registry list all had eye-watering prices.  It might be worth mentioning that I am, comparatively speaking, reasonably generous when it comes to wedding presents.  However there was nothing on the list that was close to the amount that I had been intending to give. 

Then, inspiration struck.  My parents had also been invited to the wedding.  I suggested that we combine to jointly buy a present from the registry.  We did that.  So we bought a candlestick.  Yep, with our combined resources that was the only viable present that we could buy from the registry list, a single candlestick.

About a year after the wedding, I happened to visit my cousin.  During the course of the visit I happened to notice that they had a candlestick on their dining room table.  I also happened to notice that it wasn’t the candlestick that we had given them (I can assure you that the image of that candlestick was burned in my memory). 

 

I queried them. 

That was when I heard that the candlestick on their table had also been a wedding gift.  It was not particularly to their taste, but because it was given to them directly, there wasn’t much they could do about it – they were essentially stuck with it.  The candlestick that my parents and I had given them was to their taste, but because it had come to them via the registry they were able to return it to the registry in exchange for cash.  They then used the cash to buy something else that they wanted.

Do I need to say more ?