Updated on 08.30.07

A Wedding Dilemma: I Can’t Afford To Reciprocate!

Trent Hamm

What do you do when you can’t afford to reciprocate the generosity of others? Jane writes:

I’m 26 now, and it seems that everyone I know is getting married (including myself). The problem is that my friends and family are scattered throughout the country. If we were to attend each of their weddings, my fiancee and I would be paying for two round-trip flights, plus a hotel room, plus a wedding gift every few months. We simply can’t afford that, but I really wish that we could be at each of those weddings, because some of these people are very close family members and friends. Additionally, I worry about looking rude, because they’ve all found some way to get to our upcoming wedding. Do you have any suggestions for ways to explain politely that we can’t afford it? Is there anything we can do to communicate our love and support without actually going to the wedding? If we have to choose between friends’ weddings (attending some but not others), how can we keep some friends from feeling offended that we didn’t choose to attend theirs? If we do attend some of the weddings, do you have any suggestions for saving money while attending a wedding? Ordinarily we only visit cities where we know we can stay with friends, and we choose our travel times to minimize the cost of travel, but with a wedding those things are out of our control. Any ideas you might have would be greatly appreciated.

My personal advice would be to not attend any weddings that would require enough financial outpouring that it causes you to have difficulty paying your bills. Here are some important things to remember:

An invitation is not a requirement to attend. It’s merely a statement from the sender that they wish you to attend their event. One should never feel like they have to come to an event.

Honesty is the best policy. If you make a decision that you can’t afford to come, be honest about it. Call the person and explain exactly why you can’t come. If you think that you can’t do this for some reason, then what’s the basis of the “close” relationship that would compel you to go to their wedding in the first place?

Thoughtful gifts mean more than expensive ones. We got many expensive gifts for our wedding, but the two that really stood out were simply very thoughtful ones – and neither of those were expensive at all. Spend some time thinking about the people involved and your relationship to them. Often, a very good idea will eventually occur to you – and often it is one that isn’t particularly expensive, either.

Make every possible arrangement to reduce costs for out-of-towners to come to your wedding. Find places for everyone to stay if they can’t afford a hotel. Host meals for the out-of-town guests. In short, do whatever it takes to reduce the costs for people willing to make the trip to your wedding. This will be greatly appreciated by the people who do attend, and they may be more likely to help you in the same way if you choose to attend their wedding.

Another tip: if you do wish to attend some of the weddings, you should make a clear demarcation between the ones you will attend and the ones you won’t. For example, you may choose to only attend the weddings of people you are related to or just the weddings of people in your bridal party. This way, you avoid any hard decisions that may hurt feelings.

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  1. Margaret says:

    I think the only people who would have offended me by not attending my wedding would have been my best friend and immediate members of my family. If they have any sense of financial reality, they will understand if you can’t afford to go to their weddings. And let’s face it — a wedding is a really busy time for the bride and groom, so they won’t have as much time to spend just visiting with you, and on the wedding day, the focus is not going to be on you. What I’m trying to say is that your inability to attend is probably not going to be a devastating blow to anyone. I agree that being honest about it is best, and also try to make your decision early because, after all, weddings are expensive to host as well as to attend, so giving them notice in time to tell the caterers there are two less dinners or (and I know this is considered bad manners but it seems practical to me) invite someone else. If you can’t attend, you can still show support by being interested in the wedding details and wanting to see the pictures and maybe sending a message to the MC to read at the dinner (if they are having speeches).

    Congratulations on your own wedding.

  2. Kim says:

    Trent’s right. Honesty is definitely the best policy. here are a few situations to consider:
    1) maybe your friends will be a bit relieved to have a few less guests…weddings are really expensive!
    2) maybe your friends have been in the same predicament. They might be relieved to have a way to breach the subject of not being able to really afford to attend your wedding either.
    Best of luck!

  3. dong says:

    If you can’t afford you can’t afford. It’s only offensive if you don’t attend these weddings that then go on some lavish vacation…

  4. Mitch says:

    I’m 27, so some of the people in my circle are starting to get married as well. I went to one wedding this summer for a high-school friend and was in my sister’s wedding, and traveling/getting off work in itself may be stressful enough to advise scaling back. Here are some thoughts:

    Are several of your soon-to-be-married friends in the same “crowd”? Maybe one of the weddings is suitable for that whole “crowd” to get together and you could consider having a tea/shower for all the other brides/grooms. Or can you have some kind of “virtual” party for some of the friends after their honeymoons?

    Similarly, you might be able to use your social network to split a double hotel room or find nontraditional housing such as house-sitting or a cabin. Obviously, when staying in unfamiliar cities compare rates online at sites like Kayak or Travelocity, then check the hotel websites–sometimes they have a cheaper rate there.

    Keep in touch with people–write and visit them with regularity–maybe you can plan to visit the other brides/grooms at their new homes over the next few years and really get a chance to catch up.

    Gifts: Either give everyone the same gift, or tailor gifts carefully in cases where people might be hurt. If you can’t be to the wedding, write a nice card or letter–people love getting real mail.

    Aside: I gave my sister and her new husband gift certificates to their community college. My thought is to encourage them to finish their associate’s degrees (they met in a UNIX class there–to hear his dad tell it, apparently we are weird in that our parents taught us the difference between bits and bytes when we were in grade school), but it would also be good for hobbies, a financial planning course, or other experiences. That CC would do a certificate for any amount, no surcharges. Some might say it’s too much like giving cash, but I think it’s aligned with my values and what makes them a good couple with a bright future.

    Travel: It might be worthwhile to fly into a town an hour away and get a rental care, even more so if someone else in your circle (see above) will fly in around the same time. Or check the Amtrak sales; if you happen to be near a good straightforward route, it doesn’t take much more time than driving, and you can catch up on reading, laptop work, etc.

  5. rkyles says:

    I agree with Trent. Be honest with the bride and groom. They’ll understand.

  6. Maha says:

    Another thing to consider is for one of you to go to the wedding rather than both and splitting the hotel room with a single friend. My husband and I have not had to do this… yet…., but my family has done that- sometimes if a wedding is in the US I will go (my parents live abroad) as sort of a family rep, saving us loads of tix and rooms but still letting the people getting married know that we all love them.
    This is not for everyone and if you dont have the $$$ you dont have it- most of my friends make more money than us and its just a fact of life…

  7. Tim says:

    just say no and a simple explanation. if they are good family and friends, they will understand. if not, then they weren’t that good anyways.

  8. Monica says:

    I’m curious to know what were those two thoughtful gifts that stood out for you…

  9. Josh says:

    My fiancee and I just had a chat the other night about this.

    A few things we do to cut costs – share a hotel room with friends. We were a little nervous about this, but could not afford the wedding without doing so. Turns out, we all had a blast – kind of like a slumber party.

    If the wedding turns out to be a weekend long event, try to skip drinks out the night before if it will be really expensive. Take you and your mate out for a nice night out – have a less expensive meal and maybe a drink, but you won’t feel the need to treat the entire wedding party.

    Also, don’t feel like you both need to attend the wedding. Sometimes it might make sense for just one of you to attend (and it has the added bonus of giving the non-attending mate some free time to themselves!).

    We are currently planning a wedding. We love our guests dearly, and want them all to come. Having said that, if people cannot come it is a little less we have to pay the caterer :) I should say I would be upset if my closest friends did not come though. Last night we received a note from two people we really wanted at our wedding. We were sad that they could not make it, but the fact that they included a little letter expressing their happiness for us made us feel really good. Most people just don’t do that. If you can’t go, just send a little note – it will go a long way.

    Lastly – gifts. There are a zillion theories on this. My thinking is any good friend would not want you spending more than you can afford. Chip in with someone, make a gift, get something inexpensive off of the registry, or take them out for a meal. My attitude is the wedding day is about the two people getting married sharing their happiness with friends and family – it is not the food or venue or the gifts.

  10. Celeste says:

    Slightly off topic ’cause it doesn’t seem to apply to the relationship this reader has with her friends, but…I am so sick of weddings getting to be bigger and bigger blow-outs every year, with more and more expected from the guests. My co-worker planned a huge blowout wedding, but she planned everything to make her GUESTS feel comfortable, not the other way around. I thought that was a nice sentiment.

    Trent, here’s an article idea: how about what to do when social “obligations” and etiquette norms clash with choosing frugal living?

  11. Maria says:

    I had a year much like Jane is having a while ago. It seemed like I didn’t have a weekend all summer without a wedding to attend. Fortunately most of them were local, but still involved the expenses of buying shower gifts, wedding gifts and clothes for myself. One thing that was really helpful was to participate in a lot of group gift purchases. That way everyone in my group of friends could contribute $20 and give the bride and groom a really nice gift.

  12. Jen says:

    I went through that about 5yrs ago. The group of us always pooled money and got a good gift from the group. The person in the town the wedding was in was in charge of buying it. It was usually towels or china.

    when my friend Kelly got married, it was on the opposite coast of me and my hubby and we just couldn’t afford the airfare. I called her and told her the facts and she was sympethetic but sad. The next day she stumbled on a cheap red eye fare and called me. We could afford that and booked it and were really glad we got to go.

    So talk to the bride and groom, and they may help you figure out a way to go.

  13. Lori says:

    What I’ve been doing is declining invitations and just sending a really nice present. You don’t have to explain why you can’t attend and in my opinion if you say, “We can’t afford to be there,” then you run the risk of making them feel bad. Even small weddings are a lot of work and the bride and groom probably don’t have time to figure out how to help everyone get there. I think it’s kinder and easier for everyone to just decline and send a gift.

    Our wedding was small, about twenty people attended. About six of those people wanted to take us out to dinner as our gift… that weekend while they were in town! The thought was really nice and I appreciated it, but time was so tight that it was exhausting to accommodate everyone. Some people who came didn’t get us presents because they couldn’t afford it on top of the trip, and that was totally fine with us. I get really upset when people use their weddings to extort gifts… my friend was invited to a wedding and the couple were asking for Visa gift cards with a minimum $50 balance! Tacky, tacky.

  14. Rebekah says:

    While this won’t work for many people, my mom says that one of my brother’s favorite gifts was my getting my parents to his wedding, as he wanted both of them to walk them down the aisle. I pre-ordered and picked up their train tickets, got my elderly father cleaned up and got both my parents to the train on time. I left a day later, to deal with their plumber and a mess at home. (For the wedding itself, my brother hired a nurse to dress my dad and to look after him, and she was a godsend.) I’d helped with packing, last minute items, the driving, etc., and it was one less thing that my family had to worry about.

    For a gift, I’d only gotten my sister in law and brother sheets, and I’d gotten to their registry late and got the last trinkets for their shower. But I got my mom to the shower, and managed to get my parents to the wedding, and that meant more to everyone than an expensive gift.

  15. kay says:

    I hear you, sister! Here are a few ideas…

    1. Even if you don’t know anyone in town, the bride and groom may have nearby friends, relatives or members of the wedding party who will happily put up guests. (Bonus: they’ll be going to the wedding, too, so you can all carpool!)
    2. I’ve had good luck with alternative forms of housing, like college dorms (sometimes they rent rooms out during summer vacation) and camping at outdoorsy weddings. Also: try hostels!
    3. If it’s within a day’s drive, I’ve turned it into a road trip. It’s extra fun when travelling with other wedding guests, plus you can split the driving and the cost of gas, and bring along some of your meals and snacks.
    4. If you have a talent for doing something wedding-related that the bride and groom might otherwise pay for (like baking cakes, doing photography or videography, designing invitations and thank-you cards, deejaying the reception), the couple might consider your offer of service a lovely wedding gift.
    5. I’m also a big fan of the home-made gift. A photo album of favorite times together is easy to make, even if you aren’t crafty. Or, how could you go wrong with a donation to a charity they support?
    6. Finally, if you can’t be there in the flesh, be there through the magic of media. The previous comment about sending a toast to be read at the reception is a good idea — or, how about writing a special letter only to be opened on your friend’s wedding day, or recording a message on cassette or video for them? Just a little something to let you know you’re thinking of them that day…

  16. 3bean says:

    Keep in mind that you and your fiance don’t need to BOTH attend every wedding. Think about just one of you going… a delegate for the couple, if you will :-) Not only does this reduce a plane ticket, but you’ll more likely be able to share a hotel room with another single friend. I am married and I would do this. I’m not saying you fall into this category, but so many married people stop doing anything solo after they tie. It drives me nuts.

    Personally, I make every effort to attend any wedding of someone who made the effort to come to mine. In fact, I’ll be driving 7 hours this very afternoon to get to one!

  17. plonkee says:

    The only thing I’d say is that you absolutely must send something. When I say something, I’m thinking that the minimum is a card. And if you don’t go, you should write a really nice message in the card.

    Other than that, if you really can’t afford to go, then don’t.

  18. ruthie says:

    Jane, on the ones you decline, if it is a realistic option, you might mention that you and your future hubby would love to come and visit them later (after big expenses have calmed down for you). The time spent would be quality time after their wedding (when their lives have calmed down) instead of rush-rush limited time during their wedding.

    As an aside, speaking for myself only, I lost a lot of “friends” after I got married. I think you will find out who your true friends are six months to a year after your wedding.


  19. Sharon says:

    I thought that requesting money as a gift was really tacky. With a stated minimum amount…that is beyond tacky. Beyond rude. Wow…Almost criminal…

  20. Ted says:

    Ah yes. Been there. By the time I was 30 I informed my wife I’d no longer be attending weddings with the exception of family members or if I was a member of the wedding party.

  21. Kathy says:

    Yes, I think AT LEAST send them a beautiful card so they know you acknowledge the wedding and send best wishes.
    I had a similar problem a year ago, three coworkers had babies showers all at the same time. The only thing I could think of to do was to just go to the ones within my immediate department. I just couldn’t afford to do more. Unfortunately I believe I did offend the gal I left out, but I honestly didn’t really mean to. I just didn’t know how to handle it.

  22. Dawn says:

    For anyone planning a wedding, We had this problem because our family is from 2 different coasts. For the guests who traveled, we arranged cheaper airline tickets and donated miles to family. (As soon as we got engaged we got a mileage credit card. they will waive the first year fee, and we used it for all wedding expenses, paying it off as we went. After the wedding, we cancelled the card). We also arranged for people to stay with family as much as possible, and arranged for hotel rooms less than $100 a night at a very nice hotel. The best thing we did was have a bus that took people from the hotel to the wedding/reception and back. It cost us only $350, but it saved all of our guests so much stress and grief. We also asked our friends traveling to consider not giving a gift, as their travel was our gift.

    We weren’t offended by people who didn’t come, but sent cards and/or gifts, or by people who came but gave no gift. Everyone just does the best you can in this life.

  23. pam says:

    I just got married this summer. I sent invites to out-of-town family so they wouldn’t feel unwanted. I in-no-way expected them to come! I know how expensive it is to travel. I agree with Dawn.

    For the only out-of-towner that I really wanted to see (my sister), I got her a plane ticket with frequent flier miles and arranged a place to stay.

    Relax about the invitations you’ve received! Sent a card with your hand-written good wishes. Tell them honestly that you wish you could be there to share their day. They will be happy you thought of them.

  24. guinness416 says:

    In a lot of the weddings I’ve attended, the couple (and other guests) have been really touched by a warm, carefully written message from absent invitees read out during the “telegrams” bit by the best man. Especially for a large wedding, this may hit the spot more than a gift, because it’s a public message of how much you care.

    But really, yes, honesty is the best policy. I personally think one should move heaven and earth to attend siblings’ weddings, but beyond that everyone understands that not every guest can attend – some people still cancel a few days prior to the event.

  25. Michelle says:

    Kay, I really like some of your suggestions. I am going through this myself. For me, although money is tight, the real problem is getting the time off work for every one of these weddings. I simply explain that I wish I could be there, but there is no way I can get the time off work right now to make the trip, and then I send them a meaningful gift and a nice note. This way the couple does not feel bad about money being the problem and I offer to visit as soon as work gets a little less hectic and their lives have settled down a bit.

  26. Alisha says:

    Make sure to check the following cheap travel options:

    Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.com), where people will let you sleep at their house (guest room, couch, floor), FOR FREE.

    also Kayak.com for cheap airfare. A friend of mine got 2 round trip tickets from DC to Seattle for about $200 there. YMMV.

  27. Patti says:

    Once for a job wedding shower, where the bride had an expensive registry that she did not expect her coworkers to use, I found two cool gifts at a grocery store: a Libby glass water pitcher and a Rubbermaid thermos bottle. Each was about three dollars. She was thrilled, particularly at the water pitcher. Think about it: most water pitchers eventually get broken so why not use inexpensive pretty pitchers?

  28. rev.lewis bowman says:

    I am a fairley new reverend and very nervous about doing any of my duties that involve getting up in front of a crowd of people, but i am very capable of doing the counseling involved and would practice alot till i am sure i could deliver you a wedding sermon you would be proud of so if you are getting married in the 30014 or anywhwere around it in georgia, i am ready to start doing my services that i am supposed to be doing, anyway if you are willing to take a chance on me, i am willing to start doing weddings, so if you think you need me for weddings or any other counseling i need to start doing the things god has intrusted to me to do so e-mail me with your questions, i will do a standard wedding or will do vows you have chosen, thank you and god bless all you love and care aboutrev. lewis

  29. katy says:

    There is no shame in saying you can’t attend and are saving up to pay off………..whatever. Send a nice card with a note.

    Any one would appreciate your kindness and honesty.

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