Do This No. 5: Off-the-Registry Wedding Gifts That Keep on Giving

by Simone Eastman

Hello, junebugs. Simone has been off consulting online wisdom dispensers for advice concerning her own travails and thus has not churned out dos and/or don’ts for you, but. BUT! Here comes a question from a Hairpin reader who wants to know about bridal party duties and gift-giving obligations, which I will take as an opportunity to talk about being present for other people and setting boundaries!

She writes,

My friend is getting married this summer. The cheapest place she registered is Restoration Hardware. She and her fiance both have nice jobs and are into very grown-up and pricy things (really fancy wines, and restaurants people our age usually only go to when their parents are taking them), and most of their families are into that too, so I get the expensive registries. But I’m a no-income graduate student so I’m in a bit of a bind. I’ve already spent a bit of money and there’s more that needs to be spent: She’s a good friend and I’m a bridesmaid/maid of honor, so I’ve shelled out a couple hundred bucks for a dress I’ll only wear once and I still need to buy shoes and possibly jewelry, and I think she’ll want me to get my makeup done that day, plus the wedding is almost-but-not-quite-local, so I’ll need to get a hotel room, and etc.

The only things I can afford on any of the registries are random little things like a deviled egg tray or a toothbrush holder. I can probably buy two or three of these random little things but it feels very… random and little. I mean, how is a deviled egg tray meaningful, you know? (Actually, every time she makes deviled eggs I die of happiness because they’re so good, so maybe that one I could spin into something meaningful, but it doesn’t feel like *enough* for someone I was besties with all through college.) One thing I am doing that is close to free are having all the married ladies at the shower write their marriage advice and I’m going to compile it into a nice book, but I do feel like I need to buy something(s) too.

Mainly, I just need someone to tell me how much I’m expected to spend on the gift portion of this whole shebang. Her bridal shower is coming up so I’m also wondering if I need to get a separate gift for that, if that needs to be off the registry too, or what. I really don’t know how this ish works and I don’t want to disappoint my friend but I also can’t run dip too far into my savings for her special day.

OK, first I will remind you of the drive-by advice I stuck at the end of an earlier column. The standard etiquette (you can quibble with it if you like, I’m just talking about what actual “etiquette” dictates) is this: If you go to the shower and the wedding, you are expected to give gifts for both, regardless of what else you’re spending on attending the wedding. However, you can give a gift up to a year after the wedding — you don’t have to give it before or at or immediately after the wedding. So one easy solution to this would be to get a shower gift and defer the wedding gift, instead writing a card explaining that a gift is forthcoming. You could even say that you’re waiting until the couple is more settled in their new life together so it won’t just be one more thing they have to pack or unpack. Save some cash, pick something no one purchased off the registry, and send it later.

But I can imagine a lot of reasons why you might not find that solution really satisfying, not the least of which is that you can’t afford to spend your summer stipend on table tchotchkes.

You are extending yourself to participate in and share with her this lovely moment, but it’s totally okay to set a boundary on what that looks like for you so you don’t pull a sad Giving Tree and end up eating dented-can groceries for four months after.

So let’s talk about registries and gift-giving. You don’t need to buy from the registry. There’s no rule that says that you do. Particularly because this is someone you’re really close to, you want the gift to express a connection, to demonstrate the strength of your friendship and your support for this new relationship, this new family. A deviled egg tray is not going to cut it, despite your shared love for this culinary delight. You already know this. The wedding advice book you’re going to compile for her sounds absolutely lovely and right on target. So go off-registry and figure out what would be meaningful for you to give and for her and her husband to receive.

What would make a great gift? Here, I made these tips for you.

1. Set a budget that’s at near the top end of what you can afford. I’m assuming a $50 default here, because you’re a grad student, but if you can do $100 realistically, do that. Generosity of spirit is what matters here, so pick an amount you’re comfortable with but that represents the best gesture you can make without going on a rice and beans diet.

2. The best way to make “affordable” both memorable and personal is to go with a gift that has a local touch — something that reminds the couple of a place they love, helps them get to know a place they’re going, or is distinctive to the place you are from. Think local: foods, art, books that all reflect a particular place or are made by local artisans can be really special without breaking the bank. They may require a little more work or creativity, but it sounds like that’d be OK with you!

2. A gift should be something you give to the couple, not to one partner or the other. Think of it as giving a gift to the relationship, rather than to an individual. (Note that this is not true of bridal shower gifts; there you can pick something for the bride.) If you don’t know one half of the couple that well, you can still think of something they together might use and enjoy.

3. A gift can be practical without being a deviled egg tray (or flatware), and it can be something they’ll use immediately, not in the future.

Since you’re in the wedding party and would be able to, all sneaky-like, put something in their hotel room for them to return to after the ceremony and reception, you could consider making a small basket of snacks and goodies for them to enjoy — either for right then or for the next morning. If I were doing something like this, I’d probably pick a few local or slightly luxe treats, keeping the cost under $50. Grab a basket or container (feel like you could probably reuse something you have on hand? or make it part of the gift?) and fill it up. If I had breakfast in mind, I might splurge on an awesome local preserve or jam, a loaf of nice bread, a bag of coffee beans (you might have them ground), and a small French press. (For a little more dough, pick up a couple cute mugs from somewhere inexpensive like World Market, or try to thrift something really dope.) If it’s a snack basket, I’d do a local beer or a specialty beer with a couple nice cheeses (you can get small cuts) and some crackers. Maybe a nice/funky cheese knife as a keepsake. You could also send something like this for them to enjoy right after they return from their honeymoon (or whatever. I didn’t honeymoon. We walked home, stopped at Walgreens to buy a fan, and lay on our bed in our un-air conditioned apartment with the fan blowing directly on us for a couple hours since it was really hot. And went to work the next day. Chill, right?).

4. A gift can reflect something about their past together or about their future together.

I like to give art, usually letterpress or other kinds of art prints, usually from Etsy or from local artists (local to you OR to them), that reflects something about the couple’s life together. One couple I know lives in Chicago and really loves the city, so they got this letterpress print. Friends from the Bay Area who were planning a move to the Midwest received something like this from me as a gift to remind them of their home. Between this and a nice frame (not a custom job, but something from an art supply store or a discount department store like TJ Maxx), a gift like this wouldn’t run you more than $30 and is incredibly thoughtful.

In thinking about a couple’s future, I’d go with something that encourages or anticipates an activity. An unusual guidebook to a place they live; a cookbook from a local farmers’ market or restaurant; a gift certificate for a place they might go on their honeymoon, like a cool local coffee shop (you could arrange this online or over the phone); a gift certificate for a dance class or couples’ yoga (I heard you barfing. Go to hell) or something like that. None of this stuff has to run you more than $50.

5. Or, if you’re too nervous about going off-registry entirely, creatively reinterpret registry requests by choosing affordable locally made or otherwise distinctive versions of items they’ve chosen.

This one depends a lot on the couple and on the registry items, of course, but it could work in your favor if you don’t pick stuff that’s obviously supposed to be part of a matched set or whatever. Here I’d think about going the museum gift shop route. Something like this gorgeous corkscrew or this pretty sustainable cutting board are both under $50 and would be distinctive and thoughtful.

I suspect Our Fair Readers have considered these things and more, and will provide dope guidance via the comments. Either way, it’s wedding season! Be gracious, be generous, be joyful!

P.S. You can try to find a cheaper place to stay on, which is the shit.

Previously: Do This No. 4: Sailing Through the Diaper Changes of One’s Life.

Simone Eastman is a cat lady.

Photo via Flickr