Please follow me through a short exercise (choosing from the options in parentheses to tailor it to your own experience):
Your friend (since elementary school/from graduate school/of the family) calls to tell you that she's gotten engaged. You're thrilled, and you scream with her for five straight minutes. When the shrieking subsides, she tells you the engagement story. They were (in the roof garden at the top of the Met/in sweatpants at home, paying bills/at a restaurant with a mouthful of food) when her significant other got down on one knee. The ring looks (round/square/gold/platinum/plastic with a lollipop on top) and she can't stop looking at or talking about it. You wish her mazel tov again, which brings the total number of congratulations during the conversation to 18, which feels like a good place to stop.
When you hang up the phone, you get ready for bed. As you're brushing your teeth, the realization hits you -- you have to get them an engagement gift. And then, if there's a bridal shower (or two -- one locally and one in her hometown), you'll have to get a shower gift. There could be a bachelorette party to contribute to, engagement parties to attend, flights, train tickets or a hotel room to reserve and, ultimately, the wedding gift itself. You start to carry the digits in your head or, more likely, take out a calculator. And suddenly, the money you saved for a vacation in the Florida Keys is being reallocated; weddings are expensive!
Though you love your friend dearly and don't want to miss any of the wedding festivities (which hopefully will happen only once in her lifetime), how do you handle the relationship between your love for her and the money you can afford to spend on her wedding? What is the connection between friendship and gifts? Will a toaster, a gravy boat or a menorah convey that you cherish your friendship with her? Will she and her fiancé prefer a gift off the registry, cash or a symbolic Jewish gift? What are the rules?
Isn't there some kind of equation to solve that will somehow give you the magic answer? Take the number of years you have known the person, multiply it by your current yearly income and divide this sum by the number of months until the wedding.
As someone who hopes to get married one day, I hate to think of my engagement and wedding plans putting anyone I care about in financial distress. Yet, having been to six weddings in the past six months, I know that it could do so. From narrowing down the guest list to ordering flowers and food, wedding decisions are largely made around money. The same goes for purchasing gifts. Though one should spend only what one can afford on wedding gifts (and weddings in general), society seems to be spitting out a Jones or two to keep up with.
I asked around to see how people in their 20s and 30s were deciding how much to spend on wedding gifts, and the answers ran the gamut:
One co-worker estimates the cost per plate (with the exception of more lavish affairs, which in some cases could run to the tune of several hundred dollars) and spends that much on the gift.
A good friend goes by a $50-per-gift-giver scale -- meaning $50 from individuals, $100 from couples and $150 from Hugh Hefner and twins.
An acquaintance looks at what she has in discretionary income for that month (or the next several months) and makes a case-by-case judgment call. Also, she says, it's better to go by the gift idea itself, rather than to be restricted by a price tag precedent you set for yourself.
Another friend often buys Judaica, because this way the gift is thoughtful and meaningful. She caters the gift to the couple's favorite Jewish holiday or ritual, to ensure that they will get use of it.
Unanimously, people responded that the amount of money one spends on wedding gifts should factor in the cost of transportation as well as the purchase of other related gifts. For example, if you attend showers or bachelorette parties or purchase travel tickets, the cost of the wedding gift itself should decrease.
Some people don't follow traditional models of gift giving and go with more creative alternatives:
One acquaintance puts her craftiness to good use and makes her own tzedakah boxes as gifts.
ivillage.com suggests giving a donation to charity -- of an unspecified amount.
My sister and I recently bought a "Mazel Tov Cube" for our cousin's wedding. After the wedding, we mailed in the remnants of the smashed wedding glass and, five weeks later, the bride and groom received an artistic rendition of the glass, permanently displayed within a Lucite cube. (Another option is for the crushed glass to be turned into a mezuzah.) Try www.Judaica-gift.com.
My friend's sister suggests buying random -- yet practical -- gifts off the registry, like towels, office chairs and salad spinners.
"Even though one sheet for $100 may not be the most glamorous gift, it is used much more than a serving bowl," she said.
What's the truth behind the thank-you notes? What do couples really think of the wedding gifts they receive from friends and family?
A friend from camp who has been married for two years says that checks were her favorite gifts to receive when she got married.
"Cash is the best," she said, "because this way you can do with it what you want. Receiving money in general gives you a sense of starting a life together. Making that first deposit into the joint account together was an incredible experience for us. Plus, if there are leftover items from the registry, you can use some of the money to purchase the ones that are important to you."
My cousins, on the other hand, said that it wasn't the money that mattered to them. Though it was nice to receive, sometimes it was even too much. Big checks from guests they weren't that close to made them feel uncomfortable, wondering if the guests had given more then they should have. Did the guests feel as though they had to give that much? Could they really afford it? My cousins cared most about whether their guests felt good about the gifts they gave.
My friend's sister, who recently celebrated her six-month wedding anniversary, said that she loved when friends asked her what she and her husband wanted, perhaps even something not on the registry.
"A digital camera, a TiVo, a DVD player and a fax machine aren't the kinds of things you would volunteer or register for," she said, "but electronics are important in starting a home."
She also loved getting home-decor items like a table lamp and a decorative mirror. "It's nice to have things in our home from special people and a special time," she said.
Another couple said that they loved getting china. "Even though we probably won't use it for a while," they said, "it was something we had picked out together and we were so glad to get all of it."
In addition to asking for advice from your friends and family (or from the couple themselves), you may wish to consult sites like theknot.com or www.ivillage.com, which contain articles and bulletin-board entries on how to keep down wedding costs.
For Jewish-themed wedding gift ideas, ask a rabbi with whom you have a personal relationship, log on to ritualwell.org, or stop by a Judaica store near you. Also, try onlysimchas.com, which even allows you to post wedding pictures and stories in its gallery section.
When conducting research for this piece, I got several responses along the lines of, "You're going to write about that? Everyone thinks about it, but no one actually publishes it!" There's unquestionably a taboo surrounding the whole wedding-gift phenomenon. No one wants to speak out about the process or any accompanying stresses because they don't want to hurt friends' feelings, offend anyone or have it come back to them when they get married one day. But the truth is, there is pressure involved in this transaction, and many people feel it. Simply recognizing this fact may help to alleviate some of the stress.
Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that your friend is happy. She has found a life partner -- someone for whom she wishes to declare her undying love in front of all the people she knows. It is truly a blessing, something to wish for everyone, regardless of how you choose to symbolically recognize it with a gift. And the best gift by far is always your attendance at the wedding. After all the gifts have been unwrapped and deposited, what lingers longest is the memory of you being there to share the day. (Dancing at the wedding is, by itself, considered a mitzvah, and in my book, eating a piece of wedding cake counts, too.)
When in doubt, go with your gut instinct, buy something you feel good about and put things in perspective.
All of life's stresses should come from such simchas.
Reprinted from GenerationJ.com, a service of Jewish Family & Life.
Jodi Werner is the assistant director of publications at The Jewish Theological Seminary and former editor of GenerationJ.com.