How much should a couple spend on their wedding? Cast that question into the wild, and you’re likely to net a lot of varied (and passionate) answers. Ask the same people a related, yet much less discussed question — how much should guests spend to attend a wedding? — and the answers you’ll get will probably be no less incensed — or diverse.
As my friends and I approach our 30s, there have been plenty of opportunities to think about this second question. In April, I asked Anna, whom I met in grad school, how many weddings she’s attended. It’s 9 p.m., we are in the desert, and Anna is comfortably ensconced in a hot tub.
“Megan, Mandy, Kristyn, Katie, Mallory, my sister —” she lists off past brides, without shifting her intonation on “sister,” as if to indicate that there might be… more.
“What about the friend who got married in Italy?” I ask.
“What about the friend who got married right after that?” pipes in Hanna, who is also in the hot tub, glasses mysteriously unfogged by the steam.
“It was probably Megan’s,” Anna says. “But anyway, that’s probably seven weddings. And then there were my cousins’ weddings when I was little.”
For Megan’s wedding, Anna continues, she’d had to fly out to Indiana from Montreal, where Anna was studying at the time. The flight had cost US$500, and the bridesmaid dress US$200. “Then I had to get her a gift. I had to pay for a hotel room,” she says. “No — I didn’t pay for a hotel room. I stayed at my friend’s. Or did I? I did pay for a hotel room.”
She estimates that she spent about US$800 total on Megan’s wedding — a figure that seems suspiciously low, especially if she had paid for a hotel stay. But Anna can’t be blamed for getting a little creative with the math. These days, the costs of attending a single, modern-day wedding can approach, or even exceed, a month’s worth of rent. In a 2018 CreditKarma/Qualtrics survey, respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 reported that the most they’d ever spent to attend a wedding was US$770 on average. It's no surprise, then, that a lot of guests would rather not think too closely about how much cash they’ve actually put out.
But how much should guests actually be spending, etiquette-wise?
“I always heard you’re supposed to give a gift at least the value of your meal,” says Anna, who estimates a catered meal to cost around US$50. If you’re attending a bachelorette party or a bridal shower, she anticipates spending extra. “US$20 for a funny bachelorette gift, and US$30 for a bridal shower gift.”
Hanna, who is from Toronto, is not convinced that this is necessary — especially if you’re already putting out money for other wedding-related costs. “When you’re a bridesmaid… and you pay for travel and your dress, do you still have to get a gift?” she asks.
In Anna’s experience, it is. “Even if you don’t go [to the wedding], you’re supposed to get a gift,” Anna adds. “This is absurd but it’s true — even if you’re invited to a bridal shower, you’re supposed to get them a gift.”
Hanna is not impressed. But Anna is not the only one who feels pressured to spend.
Culture plays a part
Japleen, who lives in Vancouver, is used to putting out even more money than Anna. $100 to cover her meal at a reception, she tells me, and between $50 to $200 — depending on her relationship to the bride — to split between the bridal shower and bachelorette party gifts.
Of course, those rules only apply to what she calls “western” weddings. When it comes to a traditional Indian wedding, which typically involves multiple events beyond the ceremony and reception, Japleen expands her budget — especially if the bride in question is family. “They cost more if you are a close relation because there is money given at all the events,” she explains. “When you add in western things like a bachelorette and bridal shower, the cost increases.”
Carmen Luk, principal planner and owner of Toronto-based wedding firm Devoted to You, agrees that expectations for guests will shift according to cultural context. “For Asian weddings, most of the time the bride would pay for [the bridesmaids’] dresses, or maybe hair and makeup,” Luk says.
“But, I see most western weddings where the bridesmaids will be paying for [their own] dress, paying for the hair and makeup.”
Japleen, for her part, is used to covering her own hair, makeup and outfit costs at both Indian and western-style weddings, but the former still ends up costing her more because of the number of events involved. “If I [were] a bridesmaid at an Indian wedding, it will cost way more than if I were a bridesmaid at a western wedding,” Japleen says. “More outfits” — some of which have to be custom-made, or at least tailored — “more hair and makeup.”
Throw in a bridal shower and a bachelorette party, and you’ve suddenly added several hundreds of dollars to your bill. Japleen estimates she spends between $400 to $600 total as a bridesmaid for a western wedding, and $800 to $1,000 for an Indian wedding.
Your relationship to the couple matters
Nicole, who is from Mississauga, Ont., has spent Japleen’s maximum budget on a bachelorette party alone.
Once, to celebrate an engaged friend, she flew to northern California for a five-day bachelorette trip. Between flights to and from Toronto, hotel and Airbnb bookings, car rentals and a wine tour, Nicole estimates that she spent $1,000 on the trip overall. (To be clear, the bride was explicit about wanting to pay for her own expenses; many bachelorette parties see the bridesmaids paying for the bride’s share in addition to their own.) While this is definitely not what Nicole would usually spend on a bachelorette party, the circumstances for this bachelorette trip were different — and the bride gave her plenty of notice.
“She’s my best friend,” Nicole says of the bride. “I wouldn’t spend that much on just anyone. Plus, I also got a vacation out if it.” Combined with the cost of her bridesmaid dress and gifts, the wedding cost Nicole nearly $1,500 in total. When she is invited to a wedding only as a guest, however, she’ll spend far less: reception gifts are $150, and shower gifts (if she’s invited) are $50. This puts Nicole right in the middle when it comes to how much her friend group thinks they should spend on wedding gifts.
“I’ve had conversations with friends that range from giving $100 to $300 for wedding gifts,” she says. “Lower end if [they’re] just a guest, mid-range if they’re in the bridal party, higher end if it’s a sibling/close relative.”
Diana Pires, founder and creative director of another Toronto-based wedding company, Truly Yours Planning, also recommends that guests scale their contributions based on their relationship to the married couple. The dollar value of your gift, she says, does not necessarily have to reflect the cost of your dinner at the wedding venue.
“Usually the couple that’s getting married is hoping for that to happen, but I think as a guest it’s not their obligation to do that,” Pires says. “I believe that when you’re looking to gift someone for a wedding, it comes down to a personal experience as well and what their relationship is with the couple. I think that’s really important.
“Some people will give more because they are related and they’re close to the couple... whereas others are not as close.”
How does labor factor in?
Meanwhile, Hanna has walked into wedding receptions with no gift at all. Having only ever attended weddings with her parents up until a few years ago, she had no idea that guests are typically expected to bring either a gift or cash (her parents had always covered her share). And since her friends started getting married, Hanna has attended at least two weddings, sans parents, where the expectation wasn’t clear.
“I’ve been just a guest at my friend’s reception, and I didn’t give a gift — I just showed up,” she says. “I showed up, and I ate the food.”
But while Hanna can’t always speak to her contributions in terms of money, she can speak to them in terms of time and labor. For a friend’s wedding at the trendy Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, she contributed to a zine at the friend’s request — a project to which she’d dedicated weeks of work in order to perfect the details. (To pay homage to a quote that the bride loved, Hanna had hand-embroidered the words onto a fabric banner, which she then photographed for inclusion in the zine. She also hand drew the seating plan.)
This approach to weddings — where guests put in time and work as opposed to cash — comes from Hanna’s experiences with weddings in her extended family. “I think my family is very DIY,” she says. For one wedding, she remembers her parents bringing a salad to the reception, which was a potluck. For her cousin’s wedding, which took place on a private estate outside of Ottawa last year, she describes her role as that of a “stage manager, essentially.”
So.... what’s the ideal number?
While many people have a specific dollar amount that they feel is appropriate, it’s clear that there’s no standard number they all agree on.
Like Anna, Luk thinks that it’s important to consider how much the couple is spending to host you at their wedding. If you’re invited to celebrations in Toronto, she says, you should expect to gift the couple at least $150.
Even several years ago, the number she recommended was lower: $100. “Now, everything has inflated,” Luk says. “The cost of a plate at a wedding if you’re in downtown Toronto — that’s close to $200 a person.”
Pires also recommends about $150 as a baseline gift. Still, she insists, “There’s not an actual concrete number.”
“Everyone has a different expectation, so we can’t determine exact costs… they know that if it’s an elevated service, if it’s an elevated expectation and attire, they’re going to spend a little bit more,” she says.
“If it’s something more casual, they can spend a little bit less.”
Illustration by Taryn Gee.