It’s that time of year again. All over the country, people are beginning to receive lovingly assembled and hand-addressed envelopes announcing this year’s crop of summer weddings. Besides the joy of seeing the bride walk down the aisle, the anticipation of waiting for the couple’s first dance, and the delight in comparing the relative merits of each couple’s chosen cake, one of the most traditional parts of wedding preparation is selecting and giving a gift. It’s also one aspect of weddings that’s traditionally fraught with potential faux pas.
It’s not just invitees who fret about gifts; a bride also worries about what’s expected of her and what she should (and shouldn’t) expect from her guests. The etiquette surrounding wedding-gift giving includes some most famously unbreakable rules—mentioning gift registries on the invitation or asking for cash outright are big no-nos—as well as some of the finer and more delicate points of good manners. With the help of Anna Post, etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute and the author of Do I Have to Wear White?: Emily Post Answers America’s Top Wedding Questions, we’ve compiled a list of essential wedding-gift etiquette for the benefit of brides and guests alike.
1. If you’re invited to the ceremony, it’s customary to send a gift.
“This holds true whether or not you’re able to attend,” Post says. However, this guideline applies only if you’re invited to the actual marriage ceremony. If you’re invited to a belated reception, such as one that takes place after a destination wedding or an elopement, gifts are not obligatory. “You’re not on the line for a gift,” Post says, “but many people give one anyway.” Likewise, a wedding announcement does not require the recipient to send a gift, but many friends and family members still do.
2. Don’t wait a year.
“It’s best to have the gift giving done by the wedding, or within three months at the latest,” Post says. “‘The sooner, the better’ is still the rule of thumb.” The same rule also applies to thank-you notes. “If somebody sent you a beautiful gift, don’t leave [her] hanging,” she says. For gifts received at the wedding, send thank-you notes as soon as possible, or up to three months after the marriage. It’s important to acknowledge a gift quickly so that the sender knows that it was received. Of course, even if you miss the three-month deadline—for gifts as well as for thank-you notes—it’s always better to send them late than to never send them at all.
3. Even if your friend didn’t get you a gift, it’s still nice to give one in return.
When shopping for a wedding gift, many people just can’t help but remember if, at their own wedding, the current happy couple didn’t give anything at all. Anyone taking this factor into account when making a purchase obviously feels that her friend made a misstep; why repeat the same mistake? “Etiquette is not about two wrongs making a right,” Post says. “Hold yourself to your own standard, even if you’re upset or frustrated.” She recommends that if people are truly so hurt or upset about not receiving a gift that they’re considering retaliating by not buying one in return, it’s better to have a conversation about those feelings in order to preserve the friendship.
4. Attending a destination wedding isn’t an excuse not to give a gift.
Between transportation, accommodations, and other expenses, attending a destination wedding can get pricey. It’s not a free pass not to bring any gift at all, but it can certainly influence how much you spend. The financial reality for the majority of people is that if they stretch their budget to attend the wedding, they’ll spend less on the gift, and that’s fine. “Think about your own budget, which you don’t have to explain or excuse,” Post says, “and think about your relationship to that person. Only you can be the judge of what’s comfortable for you.” Hopefully, the marrying couple would rather have their friends and families there to celebrate than just have have a gift. “Believe me,” Post says, “they’ll understand.”
5. Give gifts for both the shower and the wedding.
“If you attend a shower, you should give a gift,” Post says. “If you don’t go, you don’t have to.” However, showers and the wedding ceremony are separate, and if you attend and give a gift at a shower, it doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to give a gift for the wedding itself.
For guests who are invited to multiple showers, it’s not expected that they’ll give a gift at each event. Traditionally, the guest will give a gift at the first shower (or whichever one she’s more comfortable at), and savvy brides will mention it at any subsequent events the guest attends. Saying, “Jane gave me a lovely spice rack a few weeks ago” is a gracious way for a bride to publicly acknowledge the gift without calling attention to the fact that there was a previous shower. If a guest truly doesn’t want to show up empty-handed at any wedding-related event, it’s acceptable to split the total budget allotted for gifts among the various celebrations.
6. If you gave a gift for the first marriage, there’s no obligation to give for the second.
Although second marriages are common, guests who attended the bride or groom’s first marriage ceremony are not obliged to give gifts for an encore wedding. Some second-time brides and grooms sometimes request that their guests not bring gifts, but Post reminds that it’s never appropriate to put gift information on an invitation. “It should be mentioned by word of mouth,” she says. When attending a celebration where the couple has requested no gifts, it’s nice to respect those wishes, although some close friends and family members will always want to give gifts.
7. If the marriage doesn’t happen, the gifts should be returned.
Post offers some old-fashioned wisdom that isn’t always followed: Wait until after the wedding to open and use any gifts that absolutely can’t be returned. Proper etiquette dictates that if the wedding is canceled before it happens, all the gifts should be returned to their senders. If a marriage ends soon after the wedding, the couple should send back any gifts that haven’t been opened yet.
If the couple uses their gifts but then cancels the wedding, it’s appropriate to write a note explaining why they can’t return the gifts. A simple “I’m sorry, we just couldn’t wait to open that case of wine!” is fine. “Don’t get into discussions about reimbursements,” says Post, “because then you get into awkward questions like ‘How much money did you spend on us?’” The situation is already uncomfortable, so simply apologize and move on.
Weddings may seem full of pomp, propriety, and old-fashioned arbitrary rules, but they’re really just governed by common sense and good manners. Whether you’re attending a wedding (or three) this summer or are planning one of your own, just remember to give thoughtfully and thank graciously.