Tied up in knots

Expert tips on wedding gift etiquette

Every spring brings a flood of wedding invitations to my mailbox. But instead of feeling joy, I think about lost summer weekends and massive spending. When can I say, “Thanks, but no thanks” to an invitation, and what is the latest in wedding-present protocol?

The annual spring thaw heralds a marital marathon that could weary the most eager wedding guest. But your name in calligraphy on creamy stationery does not mean you’re wedded to attending and over-spending. With some nuptial know-how, you can negotiate the wedding season with the time and budget to say “I do” to the fetes that matter most.

Saying “no” nicely

It can seem like a gift grab when the company receptionist you barely know invites you to her wedding. But as one baffled bride points out, “Couples often err on the side of safety to prevent bruised feelings.” Although it’s a privilege to be invited to The Big Day, you are not always bound by duty to show up. Aside from the must-attend ceremonies of immediate family, close friends and colleagues, trust that if you’re not well acquainted with the couple, you are free to offer best wishes and decline. Simply return the RSVP card promptly and make no excuses for your absence.

A gift for etiquette

Your absence at a wedding doesn’t translate into no present for the new couple. Along with your regrets, it is appropriate to send a small generic gift. A perfect sorry-we-can’t-make-it token? “Nice white towels,” says Stella Farrace, national gift-registry manager at the Bay. “Most couples don’t register for nearly enough.”

What to spend if you decide to attend

Deciding what to spend on the gift depends on your cash flow and what the couple means to you. No one enjoys putting a price on emotional relationships, and it’s virtually impossible to decide if you like Rita and John $75 more than Ken and Sara. But if Rita is one of your closest friends and she’s struggling under a huge student debt, be as generous as you can. If, however, you have your own loan to pay off and the long-shacked-up Ken and Sara met at a law firm where they’re both partners, you can ease up on the generosity.

Whether it’s your long-lost cousin or ex-high-school sweetheart, “The minimum amount you should spend per person is $75 to $100,” says Farrace. That said, if you know the couple well, you can always get creative and go off the bridal registry with something original. One artistic but cash-strapped bunch I know got together and repainted a couple’s apartment while they were on their honeymoon.

Whatever you decide, ensure that you firmly attach your card to the present and include a gift receipt (when appropriate) so the blushing bride isn’t left with a pile of unacknowledged panini grills.

Show some love – and money

Some etiquette experts find requests for cash gifts in poor taste. Maybe, but it is certainly worse to ignore the wishes of the couple who have invited you to share their momentous and joyous occasion.

Modern couples are often stuff-rich but cash-poor: they already have all the home electronics they need but are often still saving for a house to put them in. Also, cash gifts are the traditional wedding offerings in Italian, Portuguese and other cultures. Tuck the equivalent of what you’d spend in a pretty card with your best wishes.