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The wedding gift as price of admission

Should your gift equal the cost of your reception meal?

By Donna_Freedman Oct 11, 2010 11:00AM

I want to get married. That is, I want to get married after I've finagled an introduction to J. Money of the Budgets Are Sexy personal-finance blog. Once he and I are best buds, I want to get married a whole bunch of times, because J. Money's wedding gift of choice is a $100 bill.

"Nothing more, nothing less -- just a straight-up Mr. Benjamin for all our friends and family," he wrote in this post.

All right, I'm not actually looking to get married. (Unless it were for something really romantic, like health insurance.) But I have to say I'm tempted by J. Money's largesse, which is, well, large.


Also probably a touch wasteful. He knows he'd spend less if he bought from the gift registry, but cheerfully cops to slackerhood. Cold hard cash is the procrastinator's best friend.

But here's what really struck me about the post: the folks who left comments suggesting the size of the gift should be equivalent to the cost of the food served at the reception.

Cake and punch or surf 'n' turf?

"Heather" wrote that her gift is based on "what is put into the wedding." A backyard barbecue would rate $50, whereas she'd shell out $100 for a fancier affair.

"Uncle" suggested that $100 per person is the rule; if it's you, spouse and three kids, then your gift should be "at least $500."

And "Phanzy" admitted to bringing along both $50 and $100 bills. When the reception food is "subpar," guess which picture of a dead white guy gets handed over?

Those of you who are allergic to old-school rants better leave right now. Because here's what I think:

If the bride and groom want to throw a big party and invite me, I'm touched. But they decide how much the reception will cost -- cake and punch? salads and sandwiches? rubber chicken? filet mignon? -- and they should pay for it.

The gift I bring will be a symbol of my good wishes, not reimbursement for the number of glasses of champagne the caterer thinks I might consume.

It's your call

Then again, I'm disturbed by the way weddings have turned into floor shows. Aren't people just as married if they don't spend the $26,000 that the average wedding allegedly costs?

If you've got the do-re-mi and that's really how you want to spend it, obviously you're free to do so. It's your money. You can spend it all on Snickers bars and neon beer signs if that's what makes you happy. But here's what you can't do:

  • Spend way more than you can afford and demand that your friends cough up enough cash or expensive gifts to pay for it.
  • Hint broadly afterward that you felt shortchanged by guests who didn't perform according to your expectations.
  • Complain ad infinitum about how much the wedding cost and how stressful it is to be in debt.

Myself, I think you can stick to a budget and still get married in style. But it's up to you to set that style, rather than let wedding planners and bridal magazines tell you what you want. Or more to the point, sell you what they want.

And what they're selling is, frankly, a marketing myth. Check out wedding websites or read those magazines and you'll see phrases like "The best day of your life" or "The most important day of your life." All to be determined by the number of attendants, the cut of the diamond and those glasses of champagne. (I don't drink, by the way. One of you can have mine.)

Weddings have enough baggage

All you about-to-be-marrieds, listen up: You have no way to ensure the wedding will run smoothly. If you nerve yourself up into thinking that this must be the best day of your life, then you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Besides, other days might possibly be more "important." How about the day you were born? The day you met your soul mate?

Maybe it will be the day you have your child. Or the day you win the lottery. Weddings have enough baggage. Why add to it?

An afternoon wedding and a light repast vs. an evening extravaganza that lasts until last call -- such choices should not affect future happiness. Why would the amount you spend on the ceremony determine the success of the marriage?

It seems to me that the opposite could sometimes be true: If you start out your marriage deeply in debt, it would add a lot of stress to what is a challenging life (though delightful) transition.

Gobs of money spent do not necessarily guarantee a great time. Ask anyone who's ever been to a bad big wedding, or a joyful small one.

And hey, J. Money: Call me.

Donna Freedman is the MSN Money Living With Less columnist and also blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.


More from MSN Money:

Oct 12, 2010 7:43AM

From the wedding site


The Rules of Gift-giving

Of all the events surrounding a wedding, the only one that technically requires a present is the bridal shower.


That said, you don't need to bring a gift to the ceremony but it's common to do so. 


Also from


How Much Should you Spend? (notice nothing will mention the cost of the meal or the amount spent on the wedding)


Whether you’re gifting cash or presents, the exact formula of how much you should spend depends on many factors: your finances; conventions in your family and social circle; how well you know the couple; and whether you’ll be spending a lot of money on transportation and lodging, etc.

Oct 11, 2010 11:02PM
Thank you for this post!  My husband and I ended up canceling our church wedding because all we did was fight about it.  We were married at the local courthouse the following Friday, and we're still here after 15+ years.  So one of our wedding gifts (although, tongue in cheek) to other couples is to tell them to go for the $35/3 minute wedding at the courthouse and save the money you would have spent on the big wedding/reception!  It was nice to have have the huge bill for something neither of us really wanted anyway.  And believe it or not--we are still just as married as our peers who opted for extravagant weddings, and most of whom aren't still together.
Just a thought.

Oct 11, 2010 10:30PM
I think I spent $500 on my wedding when my husband and I were active duty military posted overseas in 1985 and that included the cost of my wedding dress. I say "I" because my husband was broke after buying our wedding rings. I couldn't find a dress I liked so I sewed my own. I helped my bridesmaid sew her dress as well. My husband wore a rented tux as did our best man. I catered my own reception (set up before the event). Our wedding was great fun. We spent what we could afford and "made do". My husband's coworker baked our cake and that was her gift to us. Another couple and the best man took our wedding photos. That was 25 years ago. There's a moral in there somewhere - I think it's spend what you can afford on the wedding - it's not about the event it's about the marriage.

Oct 11, 2010 10:19PM
What ever happened to punch and cake in the church basement?!!! I recently married off two of my children in very nice weddings. What really got me angry were the "no-shows." I had 5 at one and 3 at another. These people had no clue how much their not showing up cost me, and not much in the way of excuses either. One couple sent a card after the fact with $20 in it!! They are not needy people either. Two others (separate people) never sent a gift and had no real excuse for not coming. Needless to say they won't get an invitation from me again!!! The idea of comparing the price of the wedding dinner to the gift given is crazy. Most people, unless they have given a large party lately, have no clue what a nice dinner party costs. Also, I think these bimbo reality shows fuel the fire for extravagance. Girls see this stuff on tv and have to copy it regardless of the cost. They don't have the imagination to make the wedding reflect their own values and background. Personally, I'd rather see them use the money on a nice honeymoon or down payment on a house, but I'm just a crazy old lady!!   
Oct 11, 2010 8:12PM
I agree,  one should give what they can afford to give.  Doesn't matter how much the couple (or parents) spend on the affair.   But I also think amongst all the new married couples, sending out thank you notes for what they do receive should be a priority.   I am appalled at the lack of manners I've been seeing lately.   And since when is 1 year an acceptable waiting time for a thank you note?   It's not that time consuming to write out a few every day or evening.   I am sure people have a couple minutes to spend on a hand written note.  
Oct 11, 2010 5:19PM

Totally agree with Donna. If you want to be reimbursed, why not just sell tickets with a goal of break-even or slightly profitable? Sheesh.


I agree with Donna that a gift reflects well-wishes for the couple. I have honestly never considered the cost of the wedding in the calculation (and like Arimathea said, how the heck would I know that ahead of time anyway?). I also think that no guest should be expected to spend more than they can afford. It's perfectly reasonable IMO for a student, elderly relative, or other guest of modest means to buy a less expensive gift.

Oct 11, 2010 3:01PM

How is one supposed to figure out how much the meal cost, anyway?  Bring your checkbook and a blank check, ask the caterer (or the mother of the bride) what the per head cost is, then fill out your check accordingly?  Please.


And I sincerely hope my wedding day was not the best day of my life.  It was the day that the tree that had been standing next to the front walkway for twenty years decided to clog the outgoing sewage pipe completely.  And we had a backyard reception planned.  Five hours before the wedding the bride, in her oldest sweatpants, was swamping out the downstairs john.  We survived. 


Anyone who plans to throw an extravagant party and expects the "guests" to pay for it runs the risk of being disappointed.  Better to have a modest celebration of the marriage and enjoy the company and the conversation, rather than mentally tallying the gifts received and weighing them against the money spent.

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