The Great Gift Dilemma

These days, the bride and groom might find a gondola ride more practical than a blender or a toaster.

April 21, 2002|By Linell Smith | By Linell Smith,Sun Staff

Get your credit card ready: That season of once-in-a-lifetime moments has arrived again.

If you're planning to attend several weddings -- plus a graduation or two -- you could easily be in for $500, according to estimates from local retailers and wedding planners. Wedding gifts start at $75 and climb ever upward -- Bride's magazine places the average gift at $100--- and graduation gifts aren't too far behind.

But buying wedding gifts usually raises more anxiety, perhaps because of the changing nature and etiquette of weddings. Almost half of today's ceremonies are "encore weddings," events in which one or both members of the happy couple have been married before. Many other weddings unite people from different cultures with different ideas about gifts.

All of which means more research for anyone used to giving towels and toaster ovens.

"The symbolism of wedding gifts has changed in a way," says Peggy Post, etiquette consultant and author of Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette. "In the past, a lot of gifts helped set up a couple's home. Now what's important is that a wedding gift be something a couple can enjoy."

Today's bride is often a woman in her 30s who already has a home and a well-equipped kitchen. Although she and her groom may want such traditional gifts as china, crystal and silver, they may prefer camping equipment. Or hope for contributions toward a giant flat-screen television or their dream honeymoon in Venice. Their Internet registry site might suggest guests purchase a gondola ride. Or a dinner for two overlooking the Grand Canal. Or it might request contributions toward new hardwood flooring.

"Often a couple will use the wedding as an opportunity to upgrade what they already have," says Carley Roney of Internet wedding service. "So you can give them an antique Tiffany fork -- or something they really want."

And they'd always be happy to take a check.

Nearly half of the 66,000 couples surveyed last year by American Express, the Emily Post Institute and said money was what they most wanted and were most uncertain how to request.

"People have greater needs than what's in a gift registry," Roney says. "They want a new car, but they can't ask for that. Some couples need money to fund their wedding. And then there are intercultural weddings. I'm married to a Chinese man, and at Chinese weddings, you're supposed to give money. In that culture traditionally it would be inappropriate to give gifts."

Nevertheless, many guests balk at the notion of cash. Some think a wedding gift should be tangible. Others fear the money could disappear into heaven knows what -- or that they'll have to spend more than they would have on a gift.

"In order to give money today you have to give at least $100, $150," points out Baltimore wedding planner Sherri Minkin. "Whereas you could go out and buy a beautiful piece of Waterford for $75. Or spend $125 on an antique piece of silver that really looks like something."

Guests should remember that they are not obliged to send money or select a gift from the couple's registry, says Post. If they have a fabulous idea for the perfect wedding gift, they should act upon it.

"A lot of times people say their favorite gifts are total surprises," she says. "The bridal registry is merely a list of suggestions -- a wish list."

Sherri Minkin says she often reminds people that "Weddings are not about presents."

"I always say 'You should never have a wedding to get a gift, because I guarantee you will not get back in gifts what you have spent."

But that doesn't mean some folks don't dream on.

Encore bride Liza Minnelli recently registered at Tiffany's for 20 silver Elsa Peretti soap dishes at $495 each. According to a recent check of her Internet registry site, she did not receive any. Her friends and relatives found them a tad over the top.

On the other hand, some registry gifts can offend by their modesty. According to bridal consultant Jan Dardozzi, one Baltimore-area mother of the bride was appalled when she saw her daughter's wish list.

"She scratched out everything that was $19.99 or less and redid the listing of china and crystal. She said, 'I'm spending $70 per person on the dinner, and I don't want people fighting each other over $20 gifts.' "

The practice of matching gifts to estimated expenses started when weddings began to include many guests from different backgrounds, Carley Roney says.

"Nobody wanted to be seen as a cheapskate. So if it was going to be one of those big fancy weddings at $250 a head, they'd think that that was what was expected from them as a gift."

Which was often right: "I've heard brides say, 'Hell, I spent $200 a plate on them, and they only spent $50 on a gift.' "

Deciding what to spend can be particularly troublesome for younger guests, the folks most apt to go to several showers, serve as wedding attendants and accumulate travel expenses.

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