Your Wedding-Gift Etiquette Questions Answered

As distance (and cost) to the destination goes up, gift expectations go down.

(Image credit: ludovica bastianini)

Question: My niece is getting married in her hometown, and the costs of traveling (and staying) there are adding up. Can my presence be the present?

Answer: Even though wedding gifts are never required, it can certainly feel as if they're expected–and forgoing one may make you uncomfortable, especially in the case of a close friend or relative. If you're feeling pinched from travel costs, there is no shame in picking out a small item from the registry. Or consider a fail-safe token of congratulations, such as a picture frame to hold a wedding photo, a gift card to a store on the registry or even a home-cooked meal at your place.

"It's not about how much you spend, but wishing the couple well in their new life together," says Jennifer Spector, director of brand at wedding-planning and registry site A thoughtfully written card with your best wishes can also be meaningful.

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"I still have my cards from friends who traveled a long way to attend my wedding and didn't give a gift," says Meg Keene, author of A Practical Wedding.

The same principles apply to a destination wedding for which everyone must travel to a far-flung location, but in that case the expectation for gifts is generally lower.

My friend's registry includes both gift suggestions and links to favorite charities. Can a charitable donation replace a gift? If the couple presents both options, a donation can always be made in lieu of a gift, says Keene. (In fact, donating to charity in the couple's name is a tasteful alternative to a present if your travel costs to their wedding are adding up.) The couple's situation may help you make your choice. For example, a younger couple might need housewares more than older newlyweds who have already accumulated belongings.

I can't attend the wedding of my good friend's son because of a prior commitment. Should I still send a gift? Tradition says yes, but these days it depends more on your relationship with the couple, says Spector. For a close friend, sending a gift to his or her son is a lovely gesture and helps ease the family's disappointment that you can't celebrate in person. "A gift says, 'In any other circumstance, I would be there,'" says Keene.

Send a gift if the family attended your own wedding. But mailing a card or jotting down some kind wishes on the RSVP note suffices if you have gradually lost touch with this friend over time.

Miriam Cross
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Miriam lived in Toronto, Canada, before joining Kiplinger's Personal Finance in November 2012. Prior to that, she freelanced as a fact-checker for several Canadian publications, including Reader's Digest Canada, Style at Home and Air Canada's enRoute. She received a BA from the University of Toronto with a major in English literature and completed a certificate in Magazine and Web Publishing at Ryerson University.