What to Do So Weddings, Baby Gifts, Etc., Don’t Break the Bank

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So you’re paying back student loans on a starter salary, or meeting a mortgage while raising a family. Still, you’ve managed to get an emergency fund going and are squeezing dollars into a retirement plan.

Maybe you’ve even got a “pay cash for next car” fund or a college plan for your kid. Things are tight, but you’re doing pretty well.

Then your older sister gets engaged and wants you in the wedding party. An in-law is expecting a baby. Your BFF buys a place and invites you to the housewarming. A niece will graduate from college in December, and cousin Maria’s quinceanera is approaching fast.

While a sensible budget should include room for special occasions like holidays and birthdays, your finances can get nibbled to death by occasional occasions: bridal/baby showers, retirement parties, bar/bat mitzvahs, godparenthood and the like.

Happy times certainly can be pricey. That’s why it’s important to build a Milestone Fund alongside that EF and your holiday spending plan.

The process is pretty simple:

  • Guesstimate how many occasions might pop up.
  • Decide what (if anything) you can afford to spend.
  • Find the money.

I said simple, not easy. When your paycheck is already mostly spoken for, it can be hard to parse out more dollars. Give it a try anyway vs. panicking when all those invites pile up.

How many parties?

We can’t always know exactly how many special occasions to expect. Yet some are easy to anticipate: a parent retiring at the end of the year, a niece finishing high school in June, a 12-year-old nephew studying for his bar mitzvah.

Next, cast around your circle of friends and family: Anyone recently announce an engagement or let it be known they’re trying to adopt? Two more potential giftees.

Close friends looking at condos? You might be invited to a housewarming. Is a pal ring shopping for a longtime sweetheart? Put him on the list – and if it’s a close friend, be ready to rent a tux and/or host a bachelor party.

Plan for wild cards, too, such as sudden marriages and even more sudden babies.

How much should you spend?

You shouldn’t spend more than you can afford. Period. If a friend expects you to break your budget as maid of honor, then she’s more of a Bridezilla than a BFF.

Weddings can be huge budget-busters even if you’re not expected to host parties and pay for your own (unwearable anywhere else) dress. Some people now expect multiple showers, big wedding gifts and even engagement presents.

Fie on that, says Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”). Such people “have even had the effrontery to claim that etiquette requires this matrimonial grab-fest, or at least sanctions it. It does not,” Martin says.

“There is no such thing as a marriage tax that comes due whenever the would-be recipients declare it is.”

Engagement presents were a rarity until recently, Martin says, and no one should be expected to attend multiple bridal showers. Oh, and wedding presents are associated “only with first weddings.”

Seriously, how much should you spend?

According to Cheryl Seidel of RegistryFinder.com, it depends on your situation and/or relationship to the couple:

  • A young person on a limited budget, $30-$50 for a shower gift and $50 for a wedding gift
  • A co-worker or acquaintance, $50-$75 for each gift
  • A close friend or relative, $50-$100 for shower and $100-$200 for wedding

Remember that this is a guide, not a bible. It’s perfectly acceptable to purchase (or make) someone a gift that isn’t on the registry and to ignore the bridal couple’s implied or specific request for checks. You aren’t buying your way into the party, no matter how many people swear that the price of your gift should equal the amount the couple spends per plate at the reception.

“The amount you spend is strictly a matter of your budget, how close you are to the bride and groom, and what you think is an appropriate gift,” Seidel says.

As for other occasions, feel free to do an online search for reasonable amounts to spend on gifts for babies, religious landmarks (bar/bat mitzvah, First Communion, Confirmation), graduations or housewarmings. You should also feel free to follow your own conscience.

Incidentally: If you’re invited to an event that specifies “no gifts, please,” that is not code for “we really want presents but we want to look like we don’t.” What it means is “don’t bring a gift.”

How much can you afford?

Look at your monthly budget. What’s left on Day 30? Now: How many months before that wedding, graduation or due date?

If it’s not enough, you have two options: Trim your budget to save money, or make some extra dough. Or maybe both.

Here are some money-hack pieces to get you started:

As far as making extra money, it’s important not to run yourself ragged. Working an extra 30 hours a week in order to buy a nice shower gift isn’t smart. You might end up spending almost as much as you earn on stuff like takeout, babysitters and commuting, or making yourself sick. None of those situations is good for the budget.

However, it should be possible to earn a little something extra through overtime (if it’s available) or a side gig (waiting tables, delivering pizza). You might also put out the word that you’ll house-sit, walk dogs or offer any special talents you possess, whether that’s computer wizardry or handyman skills. See “20 Odd Ways to Make Extra Money” for some other possibilities.

How to spend less on gifts

Gift-buying for any occasion can be done more affordably when you use one or more of these tactics:

Use discounted gift cards to pay for gifts on or off the registry, or give the cards outright. You’ll save up to 20 percent this way.

If buying from a department-store registry, look for online discount codes at sites like Savings.com or RetailMeNot.com. The savings can be considerable and the shipping likely free.

Don’t want to buy from a registry? Use a price comparison website like PriceGrabber.com when you shop elsewhere.

Buying on Amazon? Before you hit “purchase,” plug the product URL into a site called PriceJump, which will compare it with 5,000 other online retailers to see if a better deal exists elsewhere.

Cash in rewards points for gift cards and use them toward the purchase price.

Split the cost of a big present (stroller, patio set) with one or more other people.

Should you just say no?

Sometimes you should, especially to invitations that seem like outright gift-grabs. Ever get a graduation notice from a former neighbor’s son? Or a wedding announcement – not an invitation – from a second cousin you vaguely remember?

Or maybe they aren’t gimme-notices. Maybe the bride-to-be or new parents are just so excited that they wanted to share their joy with everyone they know. Either way, understand this: You don’t have to give a present, especially if you aren’t actually invited to an event.

That may sound cold, but the truth is often both cold and hard. Sending a $25 baby gift to a new mom you worked with for six months back in 2013 is a nice gesture. Keep doing it, though, and your budget quite literally pays the price.

Acknowledge the invitation with a “How sweet of you to invite me, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend” note. Reply to the announcement with a “What wonderful news – congratulations!” letter. Include your very best wishes with every response. But don’t go into debt so that someone you haven’t seen since high school gets to unwrap a $70 butter dish at her shower. Her third shower.

How do you keep milestone events affordable? Leave your tips in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

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