Another silver bowl or non-stick pan? So passe. Here's how to find a wedding gift that's truly memorable.
For their September 2003 wedding, Melinda and Glenn Adamec, now ages 35 and 38, registered at Tiffany (TIF), Bloomingdale's and Williams-Sonoma (WSM), but many of their guests chose to give them gifts that weren't on their registries. "We were a little bit older, established, we already had a home, and we didn't really need a lot of kitchen stuff," Melinda says. "So people were looking for something different and unique."
All the gifts they received were special, but one really stood apart. It was a wine crate containing a bottle of champagne and two bottles of wine. Each bottle had a tag with the date of an anniversary: one-year for the champagne and five- and 10-year for the wines, selected to age just right for each occasion. The couple popped the champagne last year, and looks forward to uncorking the wine. In the meantime, when friends visit their Falls Church, Va., home, they often ask about the tagged bottles on their wine rack. "It was one of the best gifts we received," says Melinda. "It was nothing too fancy, but it was very thoughtful, very personal and a nice conversation piece."
Remember the days when buying a wedding gift was as simple as choosing between the decorative vase and the crystal bowl? No longer. Today, many guests choose to forego registries and search for a wedding gift that's thoughtful, unique and nothing less than perfect. "Just like couples are trying to personalize their weddings, guests are trying to stand apart from the pack and personalize their gifts," says Cathleen Murray, weddings editor at The Knot, a wedding-planning Web site.
That's not surprising, given that more couples nowadays wait until later in life to get married. The proportion of 30- to 34-year-old never-married men and women more than tripled between 1970 and 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means many newlyweds today already have a home filled with all the linens and kitchen appliances they need. And even with couples who have yet to equip their home, there will always be close friends or family members who want to give them something special.
Needless to say, foregoing the registry isn't always a safe idea. "We definitely recommend getting creative, but with caution," Murray says. "Unless you know the couple really well and are very close to them, it may be best to stick to the registry."
But for the people you truly care about, finding the perfect non-registry gift doesn't have to be a daunting task.
Here are some tips to get your creative juices flowing.
1. Set a Budget
With registry gifts, budgeting is kind of automatic: You pick an item you believe you can afford and you're done. It should be no different when you're going off the registry -- yet many people find it difficult to set a budget.
What's the right price? Some say it should reflect the estimated cost that the couple spends on your behalf for the reception meal. Of course, if you're shipping the gift ahead of time, this can be tricky. Calling the bride and asking whether chicken Marsala or prime rib will be served can be awkward.
The Knot recommends spending between $100 and $150 for weddings in New York and other big cities, and $75 to $100 nationwide. But those are just basic guidelines. Your budget should ultimately be a personal decision, based on how close you are to the couple and how much you can afford to spend.
2. Group Think
For their wedding in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico last April, Chris and Corrie Carrigan received a non-registry gift that was truly impressive. About 20 of the groom's friends pitched in for a group gift: a 42-inch Panasonic plasma TV, worth around $4,000, and a perfect fit for the wall space in the couple's Chicago apartment. "It's an awesome gift," the 32-year-old groom says. "Certainly one we see every day and might not have bought on our own."
Without a doubt, group gifts can work out well for both the gift-givers and gift-receivers. Pooling your finances allows you to give something truly spectacular. If certain members of the group are in radically different financial situations, Jeanne Hamilton, a wedding and etiquette expert, and author of the book "Wedding Etiquette Hell," recommends setting a contribution range rather than a set price for each person. 3. Mind the Couple's Taste, Not Yours
Chamein Canton, a wedding planner and owner of Chamein's Creative Elegance in Amityville, N.Y., remembers the beautiful Victorian-style china set a couple received from a friend who decided to forego the registry. "The woman who bought it thought it was the best china pattern she'd ever seen," Canton says. "(But) they were horrified. Not that it wasn't a gorgeous china set, but it wasn't their style. It made them feel like it belonged in their grandmother's house."
The lesson here is to pick a gift that fits the newlywed's taste, not yours, says Canton. Otherwise, you put the couple in an awkward etiquette situation: They'll worry about hurting your feelings if they return the gift, yet it will almost surely be buried in a back closet if they keep it. Canton's advice: Unless you're absolutely sure you're getting something the couple wants, share your idea with the bride or groom's mother, sister, or another close friend or family member beforehand to gauge their receptiveness.
4. Start With the Registry, Then Personalize It
Jane Carter, 27, always tries to find creative, useful wedding gifts. And having attended more than 60 weddings within three years -- 30 of them took place in one summer, when it seemed like all of the members of her church congregation's singles club got married -- Carter has mastered the craft. Her strategy: When buying a non-registry gift, look at the registry for pointers on what the couple likes.
"I've discovered that even when you think you know a person, you don't really always know their taste," she says. "Even if it's a good friend of mine and I want to give them something special, I'd still look at the registry just to see what their colors are, that type of thing. Then I'll use what I know of the person to give them something a little more fun that still goes along with their theme."
Last month, Carter and her roommate attended the wedding of a couple who always used to come over to their place for Mexican food. So they got them a chip-and-dip tray that matched their registry (even though it wasn't listed), filled it with the ingredients to make their favorite Mexican recipe, and put the recipe in it. Between the two of them, the gift cost only $40, but the couple told them after the wedding that it was the best present they'd received.
Denise Dinyon, a gift-giving and etiquette expert at Lenox, the gift and tableware company that makes the china used in the White House, is a firm believer in registries, and says guests can be fairly creative with registry items. "The bride and groom take the time to do a registry because they have specific taste, a specific style that they want to represent in their home," she says. "There's an easy way to add your personality and make these gifts special."
A picture frame might not sound too exciting, but framing the wedding invitation or adding a few disposable cameras for the couple's honeymoon is a lot more personal. Or you could get a pasta bowl from the registry and add a family pasta recipe and a few gourmet pastas or olive oils. You get the idea.
5. Give an Experience
For their wedding in April 2001, Angela and Randy Vargo of Dallas received a TicketMaster gift certificate with a note that said, "Always make time to have fun together." A year later, Angela, now 28 years old, says they "donned (their) Jimmy Buffett gear and rocked out with other Parrotheads at an outdoor Buffett concert." It was a great experience the couple now attributes to the gift-giver, one of the bride's best friends who has known her since their college years.
Who said wedding gifts have to be stored in the kitchen? These days, "experience gifts" are becoming increasingly popular. Depending on your budget, you could now give a gift certificate for anything from a couple's massage at a spa to week-long cooking school in Italy.
"Experience gifts are a great idea, especially if it's something that the couple will do together," says the Knot's Murray. "It's something they'd appreciate even if it's not an ice bucket that's more lasting in their home." But, she warns, it also comes down to knowing the couple: A wine tasting experience might be great if they love wine, but not so smart if one of them doesn't drink.
Not sure if the couple prefer bungee jumping to bar hopping? At the Experience Store, you can find vouchers that the gift receiver can redeem for any experience offered at the store. Options range from a $99.95 couture hair styling to a $3,750 day-long zero-gravity flight.
6. Give a Present That Keeps on Giving
When one of Amanda Leesburg's good friends got married last May, the Atlanta PR executive didn't want to get a boring gift for the couple, who were both in their middle thirties and successful in their careers. So without revealing her intentions, Leesburg asked them about their favorite charities and made a $250 contribution in their names. "My friend liked the idea so much, she decided to do the same with another friend who was getting married," she says.
A charitable donation can be a great gift for an older, established couple or one who loves to give to their community. An added bonus: As the gift giver, you can take the tax deduction for the amount of the contribution. (Or you could be doubly generous and give the charity the newlyweds' address, Leesburg says, so they can take the write-off themselves.)
If you don't know the couple's favorite charity, you can send them a charity gift card from Charitygift.com, which will allow them to donate the amount to any charity of their choice. (There's a fee of $3.95 plus 5% of the donation amount. With Charitygift.com, the tax write-off can be used only by the gift-giver.)
Just be sure that the couple is truly charity-minded. Even couples that believe in fighting world hunger might prefer to get the silver salad fork when it comes right down to it.
Another idea: Veuve Clicquot for their first anniversary, Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon for the fifth, Barons de Rothschild Pauillac Bordeaux for the tenth: The wedding gift Melinda and Glenn Adamec received from their friends Greg and Mercy Kelly was personal, thoughtful and a great conversation piece.