One of my friends is getting married, and she asked (sounding exhausted, poor dear) whether it was lazy and irresponsible not to do a gift registry. I said not at all, that a registry is for your convenience and the convenience of your guests, and if it isn’t convenient for you, don’t do it. Symmetrically, I have also had at least three conversations in the last four months about what to get people who either haven’t registered or who have but whose registries have been picked clean by the time the person talking to me got there. So here we are! Wedding gift ideas for when the registry, in one way or another, fails you!
Money. Yes, I know that in some subcultures this is not the thing to do from the giving end. I don’t really know of any in which it’s not the thing to do from the receiving end, though. If you are the best friend/person of honor, odds are pretty good that they were thinking maybe something they could look at specifically, rather than money. Otherwise, hard to go wrong with money. I have never once heard a bride or groom say, “Darn that money; I did not want any money.” (I have occasionally heard, “Auntie so-and-so really didn’t have to do that!”, but that’s Auntie’s choice.) But if you don’t want to give money, don’t. (Among other things, money makes it very clear how much you spent on their wedding gift, because it’s right there on the line of the check. Some people feel uncomfortable with that. If so, read on.)
Art. Rule of thumb: this is a better idea the better you know the people getting married. Another rule of thumb: small things that you think are beautiful are a better idea than big things that you think are beautiful unless you REALLY REALLY NO REALLY know that the recipients of the gift want that specific seven-foot-tall welded nearly-abstract sculpture that turns out to clearly be a goat when you look at it for more than a minute. When Mark and I had to pick out a wedding gift last fall, we chose one of Tim’s prints. We did not pick one of the panoramas that is longer than I am tall, because the people who were getting married had never said to us, “You know what would be really great on the wall of our living room? That bridge panorama, that’s just gorgeous. If he could do a seven-foot long print of that, it would really be the best thing.” It is just gorgeous. It’s amazing. But he also had several other amazing things that had better odds of fitting in a home we’d never seen, just in physical terms. If you choose art, there’s some chance that the recipients are going to say, “Oh…that’s…really different…” because taste in art varies so much. You don’t want to compound that problem with, “That’s amazing! That’s so gorgeous!…where are we ever going to put it.”
Food. I know, they won’t be looking at it on their 20th wedding anniversary saying, “This is the ham that Jen gave us!” (Well. Unless they’re related to Klages; then all bets are off.) But honestly, a lot of people aren’t looking at their blender on their 20th anniversary with that thought anyway; either it breaks or they’ve forgotten who gave it to them. If you know that the people getting married cook or bake, stuff they might not buy themselves all the time–or might still appreciate if they do–is great. (I personally think that vanilla beans are always a great gift. ALWAYS. Nobody ever gets them for me. Literally. I have never once gotten them. But they would always be a good gift. I have actually gotten truffles and truffle oil and saffron, and they too are good gifts, even though I buy myself saffron every time we run out–this is how I can tell we are rich by global standards. And/or I am a spoiled cook.) If you don’t know that they cook/bake, treats like a wheel of good cheese, chocolates, a jam of the month club, bacon of the month club, fruit of the month club, etc. are things that they can eat without having to know a great deal about preparation. Labeling a basket of this sort “honeymoon snack attack” or “never too soon to spice up a good marriage” or “here is your cheesy themed present” is not necessary unless you have the sort of relatives who will look at each other and say, “Why did they give me cheese/spices/what the heck is this?” But some people do have that sort of relatives if they are given something that is not tea towels, so.
Strong drink. Might have a better chance of lasting to be opened on a large-numbered anniversary than the food. Then again might not. People in liquor stores are often quite good at helping you with “I want a ‘special bottle’ and my friends drink this sort of tipple.” Then if you blanch at the price you can say, “Not quite that special; they’re not that good of friends, I’m afraid,” and unless you’ve chosen a horrible liquor store, the clerk will laugh and get you something more like what you wanted. And if you’ve chosen a horrible liquor store and the clerk tries to pressure you into buying the expensive thing, you walk out and go somewhere else.
Obviously with both food and strong drink, you will have to remain sensitive to key questions like “do my friends have dietary needs.”
Towels and sheets. I know, I said your friends were not registered or the registry had been bought out. But linens wear out. They wear out. Seriously. They. Wear. Out. Spares are good. Put the receipt in the package in case everyone else thought so too, or in case the people who are getting married hated the colors or materials you picked, or in case you guessed wrong on the size. Sheets. Towels. In fact, if you have loads of extra cash, go buy some for people you know who are not in the “just getting married” demographic. Linens for everyone. Is there anybody who couldn’t use a few new linens, other than the person who just sighed, “OH FINE” and went and bought some? I just wore enough holes in one of our big lovely bath towels that it is now a big cruddy bath towel and had to get relegated to the rag towels, and another one is close on its heels. I rolled my eyes at the label “guest bath towels” in one of our wedding presents, because we did not have a guest bath and did not anticipate having one for some years. But I didn’t return those towels, because: towels. Useful, regardless of how they were labeled.
What about charitable donations? I am less keen on recommending this absent specific knowledge of your friends’/relations’ relation charitable inclinations for several reasons. First off is that if the people who are getting married want to donate the money you have given them to charity, they can! Hurrah! So write them the check and let them do it. Because you are giving them a gift, not trumpeting your own charitable inclinations. You need to be really careful that you are not making this happy occasion about you. We have a cultural perception that if we put the words “FOR CHARITY” on something, it cannot be selfish, but actually it can. It really, really can. Your friends and relations will prioritize charitable needs/causes differently than you do. They might know things you don’t about a charity you thought was innocuous, or have different opinions than you do about its policies. Be really, really careful about this one. The people getting married should feel absolutely sure that you were thinking of them on their special day, as well as of whoever else you wanted to help.
String, or nothing. This was Mark’s suggestion, but he’s actually right. Presents are always optional. They really, really are. The reason the traditional etiquette guides consider it rude to put, “No gifts, please,” on invitations is that gifts are always optional. They are always supposed to be something that your guests feel spontaneously moved to give you, not something that they are dragged into. If you truly can’t think of anything you want to give people, you don’t have to give them things. “The gift of your presence is enough” should really, literally always be true.