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How Much Should You Spend on a Wedding Gift?

An invitation to a wedding means a call to my gift coordinator, a.k.a my sister, who will divine the answer to the question: What gift to give?

The bride and I both live in New York City, so without a doubt it will be a cash gift. But I’ve lived in the Midwest and know that the cash-in-the-wedding-card is definitely not standard practice elsewhere. I remember how flimsy my envelope seemed next to all that beautiful gift wrap and silky ribbons on the gift table. A check in the Midwest feels like an afterthought. A gift at a New York City wedding feels like a burden. Who’s going to carry it home?

So the big question for my sister, who is the expert based solely on the ridiculous number of weddings she goes to annually, is what number to write on the check. She always asks: "Who is it?" (Meaning, how close are they to you or are they important business contacts?) "Where is the reception?" (A buffet in the church basement nets less than the five-course dinner with live band at a country club.) And, if applicable: "How much did they give you at your wedding?"

Then she comes up with a number that, I’ve learned, is heart-stopping to people not used to the cash-as-gift world: $200 to $400.

These big numbers go along with New York City being the priciest wedding spot in the country, according to TheKnot.com. A Manhattan wedding averages about $77,000. That trumps the national average, which is $28,427. The most economical place to get hitched is Alaska, where the whole day runs about $15,000.

The equation my sister and I (and many New Yorkers) use -- which takes into account what the bride and groom are spending on the wedding -- is extreme, according to Catey Hill, David’s Bridal’s resident financial expert and author of "SHOO, Jimmy Choo! The Modern Girl’s Guide to Spending Less and Saving More."

"I don’t think you have to pay out as much as your plate costs," says Hill. "That’s a myth. Think about how close you are to the couple or to their parents and your own budget. You really have to look at what you can afford to spend and sometime it’s not what they can afford to spend (per plate).”

Thanks to “save the date” cards, you can budget in advance for a wedding gift, says Hill. If you know a wedding is three months away, figure out how much you can put aside each of those months for the event. Make sure that includes expenses such as travel, a new dress if you need it and that blow-out you know you’ll want. And then use that number to figure out your perfect gift.

Which still leaves the question: cash or gift? Nationwide, wedding guests seem split on the issue. According to American Express, 35 percent of guests will buy a gift off the registry and 32 percent will give cash. (The remainder will give a mix of gift cards and other items.) But if you ask the bride and groom what they’d prefer, 52 percent say they prefer cash.

What do guests spend on average for wedding gifts? Keep reading to find out.

The average friend of the couple spends $79 on a wedding gift, according to TheKnot.com. Family members spend nearly twice that: $146. The Knot advises wedding guests to consider the following formula:

  • Co-worker or distant family friend or relative: $75-$100.

  • Relative or friend: $100-$125.

  • Close relative or close friend: $100-$150.

How you spend that money varies by region. In some parts of the country, buying an item off the couple’s registry is a fantastic way to give. But "don’t bring a bulky gift to the wedding reception," says Katie Stedman, owner of Day Planner Events in Denver, who recommends instead sending it to the address on the couple’s registry. "This will help avoid having a member of the wedding party load up a vehicle at the end of the night."

Destination weddings have a whole different set of rules, says Hill. You still need to give a gift, but it definitely can be less extravagant than what you’d have given had you not had to book a hotel or bought a plane ticket.

If your budget won’t allow for a cash gift or one off the registry, or you want to give something more personal, think of something the couple will truly value.

"As a wedding gift, I had a friend who is an artist paint a portrait of the couple," says Hill. "It was really nice and the couple loved it. I think it is important to go personal if you are going to go off of the registry. Then the couple thinks, 'oh, we completely understand why you did that.'"

How much should you give as a wedding gift? Is $200 too much? Is a gift better than cash? Tell us what you think.

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