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How much to spend on a wedding gift? 8 rules to live by

As anyone who’s ever paid for or attended a wedding knows, celebrating eternal love can get pricey.

Not only is the cost of a wedding soaring — couples spent an average of $30,000 in 2013, according to TheKnot.com, up from $28,000 the year before and the highest level since 2008 — but wedding guests are spending more than ever, as well.

An American Express survey found guests spent an average of $539 on weddings in 2013, up from $339 in 2012. Bridal party members spent even more, shelling out $577 on average. Expenses like travel, hotel stays and wedding attire make up the bulk of wedding guest expenses, with an average of just $108 left over for gifts.

With all that money flying around, it becomes a perennial question for many wedding attendees: How much to spend on your friend’s, cousin’s, co-worker’s nuptials? You don’t want to look cheap, but you don’t want to go over budget.

To make things easy, we reached out to a few wedding etiquette experts to find out — once and for all — how to buy an ideal wedding gift.

1. No, it’s never OK to not buy a gift

No matter how cash-strapped you are or how packed your calendar is with weekend weddings, there’s never a good excuse to justify stiffing the bride and groom at the gift table.

If you truly can’t afford something right away, it’s OK to send a gift after the wedding has passed, says Denise Penny Shepard, senior editor at Brides Magazine. “You can give gifts up to six months to a year later,” she says. “You don’t need to feel guilty or sheepish. Spin it as an awesome anniversary gift.”

Destination weddings are expensive affairs for both the wedding party and the guests, so don’t feel pressured to cough up major cash on a gift. Once you’ve covered airfare, lodging and your transportation to the venue, take a look at your budget and decide how much left you have to give.

“I think couples who are having destination weddings kind of know people aren’t going to splurge on wedding gifts,” Shepard says. “They’re using valuable vacation time. That’s [when it's] totally OK to spend a little less on the gift.”

2. Use the 60-20-20 gift split

The friendlier you are with the bride and groom, the more expensive weddings can be. Not only do you have the ceremony to attend, but there are pre-wedding events like the engagement party, bachelor(ette) party and bridal shower.

The experts at TheKnot.com recommend using a 60-20-20 split if you’re trying to budget for several events for one couple. Spend 20% of your budget on the engagement party gift, 20% on a gift for a bridal shower or other pre-wedding occasion, and reserve 60% for the wedding gift itself.

“Outline your budget ahead of time to see what is doable for you,” says TheKnot.com editor Jamie Miles.

3. Family always spends more

Much like the wedding party itself, there’s a hierarchy when it comes to the amount spent on gifts. And when you’re related to the bride or groom, budget a bit more for a gift than you would for a friend.

“Your relationship to the couple should inform how much you’re giving,” Miles says.

The majority of wedding guests who are friends of the bride and groom spent less than $100 for a gift, according to a 2010 survey by TheKnot.com. Relatives shelled out an average of $146 on wedding gifts and were twice as likely to spend more than $100 compared with friends of the couple.

4. The cost of your Butterflied Leg of Lamb Provencal  is irrelevant

Couples spent an average $220 per guest at weddings in 2013, according to TheKnot.com, including $66 on food alone.

But all of our experts agreed that basing the cost of your gift on how much you think the couple is spending on food and entertainment is an antiquated notion.

“It's a bad idea to use the price-per-plate as a measure for how much you should spend on the wedding gift,” says Jessica Silvester, a deputy editor and wedding expert with New York magazine. “You wouldn't give your best friend a less expensive gift just because she was having a more casual affair.”

5. Cash isn’t always king

Cash seems like the sweetest gift to give a pair of newlyweds — whether they’re putting it toward their honeymoon, a down payment or all that wedding-related credit debt, there’s no doubt they’ll find a use for it.

But Shepard cautions guests against cutting a check until they are sure the couple prefers it.

“At some weddings, cash is considered a faux-pas, at others it's encouraged,” she says. “I'd say, if you are older than the couple getting married, and you know through word-of-mouth that they have been living together for a while, have barely registered and are desperately saving for a down payment, a check is great.”

To make the gift feel less transactional, she suggests writing a note in the memo line of your check — such as “Nest egg!” or “For your new digs!”

If you’re stumped, it may be better to just stick to the registry. “More often than not you are better off buying them a gift off their wish list,” she says. “Especially if they've spent a lot of time curating their registries. It's fairly obvious if they have.”

6. Yes, it’s OK to go off-registry

If you’ve waited until the last minute and all the good stuff is taken on the couple’s registry, it’s OK to shop off the beaten path — so long as you know their tastes well enough to pick a gift they actually need or want. If you don’t know them well enough to gauge their tastes, you might be better off sticking to the registry.

“At our wedding, a couple gave us an amazing set of Cook's Illustrated cookbooks because they knew I was an aspiring cook,” Shepard says. “I thought it was more generous than buying from the registry because they took the time to think of something original instead of just clicking through a checklist, which takes five minutes.”

7. Combine resources with friends

Group-gifting has never been trendier. Miles recommends checking out Blueprint Registry, where you can combine funds with friends to give the bride and groom a big-ticket item you may not have otherwise been able to afford.

8. Give a gift even if you can’t go

If you’ve been invited to a wedding but can’t make it, it’s bad form to skimp on the gift, Miles says.

“It depends on your relationship with the bride and groom but my instinct is you send a gift,” she says. “It’s just classy. Include a handwritten note telling them you’re sorry you can’t make it.”

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