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By Alix Langone
December 5, 2019
Illustration by Amrita Marino

It’s that time of year again, when your Instagram and Facebook feeds fill up with posts of happy couples sharing the news of their recent engagements. December is the most popular month to pop the question, and for many millennials, that means one thing: save that Christmas check from Grandma. Because you know what’s coming next.

Weddings. Lots of them.

And they seem to cost what feels like an ever-increasing amount of money to attend. But what’s really changed in recent years is the intensifying social pressure, not the rules around gift giving or travel, says Lizzie Post, a president at The Emily Post Institute and co-host of The Awesome Etiquette podcast. The FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) you can experience from scrolling through social media and reading endless group email chains can often be a factor in young people pushing themselves to shell out cash or take time off of work to attend weddings — even when it causes them financial stress.

Before social media came along, you never had to prove you were there, looking fabulous, to a few hundred of your closest friends. It was easier to say no to events that might strain your budget, etiquette experts say.

Wedding guests now spend an average of $901 to travel to and attend a wedding, according to a 2018 survey from The Knot. That number, which includes costs for travel, accommodations, gifts, attire and accessories, creeps up to $928 if you’re a member of the wedding party. While it’s true that that’s less than the cost of the latest iPhone, it’s still a pretty penny for most young people. And it adds up fast: if you’re between the ages of 25 and 35, you’re more than likely going to at least one wedding per year —realistically two or three (maybe even four or five).

So how can you navigate all your invites, now that your choice of whether to attend a friend’s wedding has become a public decision — thanks, Internet! — and going to those weddings costs the equivalent of the median weekly earnings for an American worker? When you spend thousands of dollars a year traveling to celebrate your friends and family, do you still owe them multiple gifts or big checks?

“We have to get more confident being realistic with ourselves — it’s ok to say no,” says Post, the great-great granddaughter of one of the original queens of etiquette, Emily Post. But learning to set boundaries after scrolling through Facebook is only half the battle these days. Figuring out how to afford an Instagram-worthy gift can also feel overwhelming. Here’s what you need to know:

Is there a “right” amount of money to spend on a gift?

“Ignore what your friends are doing and do what fits your budget and meets your lifestyle needs,” Post says. “Nothing in etiquette dictates you have to give a gift at the same level of your friends.”

Eighteen percent of millennials report spending more than $500 in the last year on wedding gifts, which is double the number of Baby Boomers (9%) who also reported spending $500 or more, according to a recent survey from the virtual payment app Zelle. Of course, younger people generally attend more weddings than older ones, but $500 has always been — and still is — a hefty chunk of change.

Etiquette expert Elaine Swann, founder and C.E.O of the Swann School of Protocol, agrees with Post. “We’re so far into this gift culture. Take yourself off the hook.” Swann says as a general guideline for gifts, it’s ok to start around $50 for distant relatives or co-workers and increase the amount from there based on how close you are to the bride and groom. Post says there’s no magic number at all.

“If you have seven weddings in one year, your gifts may be in the $15 range per wedding,” she says.

The bottom line? Find a number that feels comfortable for you, and don’t feel guilty if you can’t splurge on a lavish gift. It’s trite, but true: “Your presence is the present,” Swann says.

Is it ok to give cash as a gift?

The growing popularity of peer-to-peer payments apps like Venmo and Zelle have muddied the waters when it comes to figuring out whether giving cash, or how to give cash, is acceptable. In the past, wedding guests never had to consider whether it was appropriate to send a virtual gift.

It’s always been ok to give cash as a gift, reassures Post, but that still doesn’t mean it should be through an app. Smartphone apps should be a last resort for gift giving, Post says. Millennials may have transformed many industries, but some things never change: send a check with a heartfelt note in the mail.

Even though you should avoid apps, it’s clear that giving cash has become especially popular with millennials. According to the Zelle survey, 45% of millennials would rather give money than select a gift from the registry. But don’t count out a friend’s registry: both experts agree they’re still a relevant and efficient way to buy a gift you know someone will enjoy.

Do you still have a year to give a gift?

Experts’ opinions differ somewhat when it comes to this timeframe: Post says three months has been the norm for some time now, but Swann says taking a year to send your present is still ok. So what can millennials take away from that? Try not to wait to give your friends a gift, but if you do, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, it’s easier than ever to send a gift, but Americans are also busier than ever before, too.

One thing that’s never changed? When to write a thank you note, experts say. You should expect a thank you note from your newly married friends, say Post and Swann. And that timeline hasn’t changed: the happy couple should send a thank you note within three months of receiving a gift.

“Anytime someone does something for you, you should always say thank you,” Swann says. “The most appropriate way to say thank you for a monetary gift is to say it in writing.”

Does the couple still have to send a thank you note to procrastinators who miss the three-month mark for sending a gift? What about writing thank yous to guests who even miss the old-school one year rule?

Yes to both, says Swann.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s three days, 13 days, 30 days or 355 days. It’s the proper thing to do. It’s still a gift.”

Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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