Ask an Economist: I traveled all the way to my friend’s wedding–can that be my gift?

For wedding guests, gift-giving etiquette is decidedly murky.
For wedding guests, gift-giving etiquette is decidedly murky.
Image: AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn
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What guidelines do you have about how much to spend on a wedding gift in general?

It is good you have come to me with this, as weddings are fundamentally an economic transaction. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! The goal of a wedding is for friends and family to provide the newlyweds with the basic necessities that they will need in their new home. You know, things  like a dozen ramekins and an electric egg cooker.

When you, in turn, get married, these friends will do the same for you. What this means is that at each wedding you pay a little bit, and then when it is your turn, you get it all back at once. You can think of a wedding as a big “Christmas Club” or ROSCA; you pay into it little by little and it pays out all at once. 

This basically means that you should spend as much on them as you expect them to spend on you (or as much as they did spend on you).

This is, of course, all quite unfair if you never plan to get married, since you’ll never be the one on the receiving end. Weddings were designed for a time when most everyone planned to get married. Today, there isn’t much social grace in telling people you are not buying them a gift because you don’t plan to get one yourself. You’ll just have to swallow the unfairness, and throw yourself a blow-out housewarming party when the need for ramekins gets to be too much to bear.  

If you’re traveling to get to the wedding and paying for a hotel room, etc, can that be your “gift”?

No. See logic above. However, when you get married, feel free to have an expensive destination wedding and demand that they come too.

Should guests always stay on the registry?

Yes, mostly. Under the theory that weddings are a money transfer, the most efficient gift to give is cash. I am sure, by the way, that cash would be appreciated by many young couples, though they may fear it’s gauche to ask for it directly.

If you do not give cash, the most efficient thing is to give the couple something they would have bought with the cash. This is why people register.

You may be tempted to buy something you are sure the recipient will love and that has just not occurred to them. However, based on the amount of time engaged couples spend rifling through Bed, Bath and Beyond while composing their registries, I assure you that it has occurred to them. If they did not register for a vegetable spiralizer, it is because they do not want one. Don’t give in to temptation! Buy the egg cooker.

(The only exception to this is for sentimental gifts, which defy the notion of economic efficiency, and which I will therefore say nothing more about).

How much should you spend if you can’t attend the wedding?

Opinions differ on this matter. Under the economic theory above, whether you attend or not is irrelevant. Under the theory that you are paying for a fun time at the wedding, you should spend less if you do not go.

I subscribe to economics, so I say that whether or not you attend is irrelevant. Having said this, you’re probably going to want to spend more on close friends, and you’re also more likely to go to the wedding, so in the end you’ll probably spend more on the weddings you go to. But this is correlation, not causality.

What are the gift expectations if you’re in the bridal party and have spent money on things like nails, hair, bachelorette party, etc? (The typical cost of being in the wedding party hovers around $1,500, apparently.)

The economic theory of weddings does not extend to bridesmaids, and it especially does not extend to $1,500 worth of dresses that you cannot wear again and helmet-like updos. Save money where you can!

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at Brown University and the author of Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know.

Got an everyday problem that could use an economist’s point of view? Send Emily your questions at