I’m going to start this article with a big, beautiful disclaimer…
Weddings are highly personal.
No matter how you conduct them, they always end up being perfectly splendid. And you can take my word for it—I used to work in special events, and have probably been to about 150 of them. My focus was high-end events. (Like, high-end high-end. Secret Service clearance high-end. Fun fact: most Secretaries of State are accomplished musicians and all of them will get up and play with the band at a wedding if they’ve had a sufficient quantity of wine.) But my own wedding was in a parking lot behind my house. I’ve seen ‘em all!
Today I’m going to take a wee bit of a shit on certain wedding traditions. They’re widely-practiced traditions that myself and many of my friends have partooken in. (Piggy, don’t you dare change “partooken” to “partaken” when you edit this!*)
For example, I’m going to shit on (spoiler alert) wedding showers. Now, Piggy had a wedding shower—an extremely traditional wedding shower, with tea and tiny sandwiches and everything! And I LOVED it! We had a blast. I would get together and eat tiny sandwiches with friends and strangers any day of the week. My love for tiny sandwiches really cannot be overstated.
What I’m criticizing isn’t this event—but rather, the weird historical power structures and social pressures that dictated the terms of this tradition. Don’t feel the need to rush to the comments to defend why you did your wedding the way you did. It’s extremely understandable why people follow traditions. It’s also not my business.
But they pay me the big bucks to be an opinionated old person. And I’ve got hot takes on the wedding industry spilling out of my eyes, nose, and mouth like liquid-hot adamantium. The weight of my opinions is so heavy that it drops me to the bottom of a tank of water with a metallic clang.
Wanna hear ‘em? Sure you do.
A brief history of wedding gifts
The Olde Methode was simple and straightforward:
The Man and Womyn shall meet when they are idiot teenagers. They shall marrie when they are both seventeen years old, after two weeks of casual dates at the soda shoppe. When the Man taketh the Womyn to Wyfe, neither having a ha’penny to their names, the community shall gather togeth’r to furnish them with crockery for the cooking, and skeins of wool for the sewing, and sheepe and kine for the munching, and fine china sets for the looking and the not-using, and Ikea furniture for the frustrating and the breaking. ’T must beest done this way, that the children might not liveth in sin, but maye dwell in the bosom of settling. Oye, oye, oye, forever and ever, amen.
It’s almost certain that your grandmother—and possibly your mother—went directly from her family home to her marital home. In the early part of the twentieth century, the average age of marriage floated between 20-21 for women, 23-26 for men. Getting married straight out of high school was not at all uncommon. Children often followed fast behind. In 1950, 50% of women were mothers by the time they turned 22.
The age of marriage was so young, and cohabitation was so socially unacceptable, that the couple had no opportunity to work together to accumulate household necessities. That meant the responsibility fell to parents and other adult relatives.
Ye Olde Wymyn came with dowries of household goods, and her Ye Olde In-laws would pay some kind of bride price to purchase land. This is still expected in some cultures. Up until the last century, girls spent their adolescence sewing the dresses, curtains, bed linens, et cetera they would need in their abrupt adulthood. These were collected into hope chests, which incidentally got you a huge score bonus in Oregon Trail 5.
As society became less agricultural/artisanal and more industrial, families shifted from making these necessities to buying them. But otherwise, the tradition has continued unaltered. But very recent changes are seriously challenging the status quo.
A truly wild and unprecedented change has taken place in my lifetime: the rise of cohabitation.
Only one in ten Baby Boomers ever cohabited with a romantic partner. But there’s an incredible jump in the next generation (Gen X) to one in four. Millennials are still a bit young to accurately judge, but we already know it’s more than half. Cohabitation went from socially unacceptable to the norm in no time flat.
Correspondingly, we’ve pumped the brakes on every major milestone. Both men and women are getting married significantly later, at 29 and 27, respectively. The age gap between genders in heterosexual marriages has halved in this century. The number of women in the labor force doubled in fifty years, and has continued to climb. And the average age at which people have their first children has soared to 28 years old.
We’ve also recently discovered that queer people are regular human beings with regular human needs. (Who knew?!) We’re just starting to study the dynamics of queer weddings, and their more nuanced understandings of gender may do much to disrupt traditional patriarchal wedding structures.
All of this equates to a much more controlled and experimental approach to mate selection. Men have many more years to focus on supporting themselves, instead of jumping directly into supporting a family. Women have the same, plus considerably more career, fiscal, and sexual freedom. Even for people who aren’t cohabitating with romantic partners, roommates and housemates are a much more common living situation. I still have many appliances and furniture pieces inherited from friends.
An extended young adulthood has given all parties a much greater opportunity to build shared households. And the cost of those household goods has plummeted, thanks to cheap imports. As a result, rather than necessary basics, registries are now filled with mid- and high-range luxury products.
What doesn’t work about wedding gifts
All of this background information leads me to this crucial question: why the fuck should I buy you a set of copper Moscow mule mugs you’ll never, ever use?
My answer is, emphatically: I shouldn’t. Let’s dig into that.
Weddings are expensive enough already
A lot of women in their late twenties have written woe-is-me accounts of going into debt for other people’s weddings. Just a moment, hold on, I’m getting some breaking news through my earpiece… Ah. Apparently we wrote that one too.
(And a few more on the topic of weddings, if you liked that one.)
The obvious advice is “Omg, spend less!” Which… thank you. That advice is pure genius. A Plutus Award for you.
Humans are social animals. MANY people prefer a financial setback to a social insult. Especially towards a close friend or family member. Broadly, that’s a good thing. Politeness is the grease that keeps the gears of communal living from grinding.
Guests are already paying to attend weddings. Perhaps they’re not shelling money out directly—but they’re getting babysitters and pet sitters. They’re taking vacation days or getting a shift covered. They’re driving or flying to your event. They’re wearing nice clothes and shoes. Depending on how many wedding traditions the hosts are following, these guests may have done this multiple times, for engagement parties and wedding showers and bachelor/ette parties. Fucking yikes, man!
And sadly, the timing of other people’s weddings isn’t democratized. They come in waves! In a two year stretch, you can get a dozen invites. No matter how prudent you are, it’s going to hurt.
Gift pressure diminishes the enjoyment of both guest and host
This conundrum sucks for everyone.
It was a source of real dread for Piggy and I when we were planning our weddings. We both have a lot of friends who are in the starving artist slash nomadic hippie demographic. The idea that someone would bow out of the wedding because they couldn’t afford to give us a gift was stomach-turningly sad. Every time we said “You don’t have to get us anything,” we could hear the social pressure implicit in it whispering “but you should. I’m just giving you a pass because I think you’re poor.”
It’s hard work to convince people that you truly do not require a basic social nicety, and it’s embarrassing to feel like you’re leaving a social contract unfulfilled.
There’s also the strange but common occurrence of gifts disrupting your understanding of a relationship. When someone fails to give you a gift, what does that mean? Are they angry with you? Did they send something, but it didn’t arrive? Are they ashamed of some financial trouble? Did you forget to give them a gift at some point in the past, and is this their revenge-served-ice-cold?
Or do you have the opposite problem—someone you’re not close to sent you a wildly extravagant gift? Is that how close they think you are? Are they more well-off than you realized? Will they expect the same from you at their wedding next year?
Etiquette sucks. It is the wet, humid environment needed to grow a disgusting mold of unnecessary social anxiety across your relationships.
You don’t need this stuff
Mr. Kitty and I lived together for four years before we got married at age 27. In that way, we’re a very typical case. The average length of dating before marriage is 4.9 years, with the average age at which people get married being 27-29.
Anything that we truly needed, we had four years to get. We were not rich—not in the least. Some of the stuff we owned was low quality, or acquired secondhand, but we had it, and it worked. If anything, we were dreading getting stuff we didn’t need that we could never get rid of because it was a wedding gift.
For this reason, we ultimately decided to firmly state “No gifts, please.” We still got several, mostly from older, well-off family members who couldn’t take no for an answer. That was fine! All parties were satisfied.
But the time in our lives when we most needed gifts of basic household tools had long since passed.
What works about wedding gifts
Given these facts, I find the traditional gift-giving model really, really hard to defend.
What I do like is the spirit of the wedding gift. I love giving gifts to people to commemorate a happy event! I’ll be the first to admit that I get a fond thrill when I use something that was gifted to me.
I also like the idea of helping young adults to set up their household. Whether the person in question is leaving for college, or entering the workforce, or taking a gap year, or jumping right into marriage, people in their late teens could almost always use the help. That’s a perfectly sensible and compassionate thing to do.
But that’s about it.
The future of wedding gifts
If I could wave a magic wand, this is how I would shift our culture.
Instead of waiting to give household gifts to couples at weddings, give them to individuals as they come of age. Coming of Age Parties are already a thing in some cultures, like quinceañeras and bar/bat mitzvahs. Everyone deserves them. (Especially the part with the Hora. The Hora is fucking lit. No one should die without their drunk relatives hoisting them aloft in a dangerously wobbly chair at least once.)
This does several helpful things. On the practical side, it gives when the need is highest. A kid graduating from high school is the one who needs plates, sheets, and a chunk of money for first/last/security deposits on an apartment. It also removes the expectation that peers will contribute, eliminating the risk that young people might go into debt to save face.
On the more ephemeral side, it also erodes sexism, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy (my second-favorite kind of erosion, after glacial). It weakens the patriarchal idea that entering into a monogamous relationship is something that needs to be rewarded and socially reinforced. It includes people who might otherwise be left out (for example, aromantic people who have no interest in a committed partnership). It dignifies the stage of young adulthood by acknowledging its challenges, which are often logistical and financial.
Best of all, it gives everyone a more equal footing from which to seek love and partnership. One of the most common reasons people stay in toxic relationships is because they don’t have the money to leave. And the single most statistically impoverished demographic in the United States is women aged 18-24. One in four fall below the poverty line.
When weddings do come around, everyone is in a better position to give, and there’s no expectation that gifts must furnish their lifestyle.
Couples could decide to ask for donations to a favorite charity in lieu of gifts. (I saw this trend a lot among the very wealthy, who couldn’t possibly ask for more with a straight face.)
They could also ask for money to go towards a honeymoon. I think this is a fine idea, especially if the collection is done blindly. If the couple doesn’t know who gave what amount, it removes the shame and stigma of giving within one’s means.
They could even accept small gifts on par with birthdays and holidays, if only from their immediate families and bridal parties. A bottle of wine, a framed photo, a gift certificate for a nice dinner together… a commemorative token to commemorate the day, rather than a yardstick of esteem.
The present of wedding presents LOL SO FUNNY LOL
I know, I know, my idea is a good one, right? But it doesn’t help you for shit right now. You’re expected in the Poconos on Labor Day weekend with a perfect dress and a fat check.
Here’s what I would suggest for now.
If you are hosting a wedding
My personal opinion is that a marriage is for you and your partner—but a wedding is for your guests. This isn’t to say that you should submit to any nonsense your nosy, opinionated parents, relatives, and in-laws want. By all means, throw the kind of event you want to. But remember that the function of the wedding is a party. And as the party hosts, it is your duty to consider your guest’s needs.
Make your wedding as affordable to attend as possible. If you want a destination wedding, make it a destination elopement. Don’t ask people to sacrifice tons of money and vacation time for expensive trips. Hesitate before parking your wedding over a holiday or three-day weekend. (Exception is New Year’s Eve. “You’re allowed to have ten weddings on New Year’s Eve.” –Kitty, Bitches Get Riches dot com.)
You get one party and one gift. Engagement parties are for people who want their baby’s picture in the paper. Bachelor/ette parties are a relic of an era where weddings doomed you to a predictable state of permanent unhappiness. Wedding showers can go straight to hell, and they may not pass Go, and they may not collect two hundred dollars. We have deemed that voting days are not important enough to merit a holiday, yet you believe you deserve a wedding weekend?
Nah, brah. If you’re asking for gifts, you only get one. If you want to have additional parties, you need to seriously consider if you have thought about what your guests want as much as you’ve thought about what you want. How sure are you that nobody in your bridal party cried when they clicked “purchase” on the hotel reservation? If the answer isn’t “one thousand percent sure,” pump the brakes on your ceaseless bacchanal.
If you force someone to buy an outfit, that is their gift to you. Full stop. I think it’s becoming passé to mandate the bridal party’s attire, but it still happens. If you want everybody to be matchy-matchy, they don’t owe you a check or a blender on top of that. Don’t make other people pay for your arbitrary aesthetic preferences.
Think long and hard before you ask for gifts, and consider possible alternatives. Are the gifts worth their attendant drama and heartache? Does marrying your partner excite you so little that you need some small appliances to round it out? You’re not a monster for wanting nice dishes, but by asking for them, you might force a handful of people into tough positions, including clear out of the wedding.
Give people who cannot afford a gift a clear “out.” Piggy worked very hard on the phrasing of her wedding website, and I believe she landed on something like, “The greatest gift you can give us is the gift of your attendance.” She followed up in person with all of her friends to reiterate that she understood the realities of buying plane tickets, and getting pet sitters, and taking time off. Possibly said something like, “If you feel like you need to give me a fucking immersion blender after all that, I will lay down dead of embarrassment right here on this fucking sidewalk.” I don’t know, that was the spirit of it. I had a lot of red wine that weekend. Red wine, provided by Piggy. Piggy is a good friend. Be like Piggy.
Write everyone a thank-you note for attending, regardless of whether they gave you a gift or not. Everyone who attended gave you the gift of their presence. Write them all a note that makes it clear that is what you treasured.
If you are attending a wedding
Consider that they probably care a lot less than you think. In some of our more awful bygone eras, you might hear advice like “if you can’t afford a gift, stay home!”
Very, very few modern couples feel this way.
As a Married Old, I can confirm. I don’t remember what I got for Christmas last year, but I remember what I gave. Four years later, I couldn’t name more than four gifts I remember getting at our wedding—but I could still rattle off the list of everyone who was there. The gifts just don’t matter the way I think they used to.
Consider your circumstances and commit to a budget. How many weddings have you been invited to this year? What are your feelings about this couple? Do you have to travel, or take time off of work, or hire a babysitter? Consider all of these factors.
I browsed a bazillion wedding advice sites, and many stated something like “if you’re really broke, you can just spend $50.” And I call bullshit on that. This goes back to a really old and really toxic rule of etiquette your mother or grandmother may have followed: “The gift should cover the plate.” Meaning, if you think the couple spent $100 to feed you, you owe them a $100 gift in return.
I guess I admire the whole equivalent exchange thing. It’s very Edward Elric… but it’s also transparently greedy. You did not consent to this couple’s wedding budget. You are under no obligation to tier your gift to reflect its simplicity or its extravagance. A line graph charting the cost of American weddings resembles the flight trajectory of a fucking Blue Angel. You are not the pilot of that Blue Angel.
The only amount of money you’re morally obliged to spend is $0.49 to send a really nice and heartfelt note. They invited you because they wanted you there, not because they wanted a really nice chef’s knife.
If the host is asking too much of you, find a way to say so as honestly and openly as possible. Yes, it’s possible that some people will be put-out by it. But take my ancient Internet person advice on this one: those people won’t stick around in your life anyway.
I was once planning a surprise bachelor party for a friend at a video game themed bar that was a two hour drive away from the town we lived in. Another member of the bridal party broke down the week of the event, and told me she couldn’t afford to give up a lucrative weekend shift and buy pricey bar drinks all night. We could’ve just left her out, but instead we reconfigured the entire event. We turned it into a video game themed house party instead. It ended up being much more pleasant, intimate, and memorable.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Real friends—ride-or-die friends—can’t have fun when they know it’s hurting you.
Don’t bow out of a wedding because you can’t afford a gift—at least not before talking to the hosts. “I’m so excited for your upcoming wedding. I would absolutely love to attend, because I think you two are the best and I know it’s gonna be a blast. But if I’m being totally honest, this has been tough year for me. I’m afraid I have to decline, but it’s not because I don’t love you guys—I just know that I can’t afford to give you the kind of gift I would like to give you.”
No good person could receive a note like that and respond with “Sounds good, smell you later.”
Cheap out with your head held high
And finally, here’s a list of completely socially acceptable cheap-ass wedding gifts.
- A nice fucking note
- A cute fucking picture frame with a photo from their wedding
- A pretty good fucking bottle of wine, and yes I define “pretty good” by whether or not there’s a drawing of a horse on the label, if there’s a horse, it’s probably pretty good
- A homemade fucking meal so that they don’t have to cook when they’re exhausted after throwing a fucking wedding
- A cool crafty thing that you made with your skilled-ass hands
- A straight-up useful fucking offer to house-sit while they’re on their honeymoon
Truly, a nice fucking note is enough. Because you are enough, and your friendship is enough.
*Edit from Piggy: What kind of fun-hating monster do you think I am?