Ask LH: How Much Money Should I Spend On Gifts For Different Occasions?

Ask LH: How Much Money Should I Spend On Gifts For Different Occasions?
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Dear Lifehacker, I never know how much I should spend on gifts, particularly ones for odd, special occasions, such as weddings or baby showers. I don’t want to look stingy, but I also don’t want to go broke after all these events. What’s a normal amount to spend on gifts? Signed, Guessing Gifter

Dear Guessing,
Giving gifts is harder than it sounds, isn’t it? Throughout the year, people you know will be celebrating weddings, housewarmings, pregnancies, graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, engagements and other special occasions. If you celebrate with them, you have to determine for each one how much you’ll spend on a present or give as a cash gift.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for gift-giving, we dug up some guidelines so you can set up a gift budget and wonder no more about the “going rate” of gifts for different occasions. Here’s what you should consider.

General Gift Amount Recommendations

How much to spend will depend on three things: your budget, the particular occasion and your relationship with the recipient.

What are you comfortable giving? Don’t feel like you have to spend a set amount just because that’s how much others spend (or others have spent on you in the past). Gifts and etiquette author Leah Ingram says:

My advice has always been this: spend or give what you feel comfortable giving. For some folks $25 is more than enough for a high school or university graduation gift whereas others may feel that because of a close relationship or simply because they earn a higher salary, $75 or more might be a gift you feel more comfortable giving.

What if you’d like to spend a little less or you don’t want to give money as a gift? Well, you can always go in on a gift with someone else to split the cost. And then you can put together a “tangible” gift that fits the occasion.

How important or unique is this occasion? You’ll probably spend more on a wedding gift for a couple than for a housewarming gift because of the (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime nature of weddings.

How close are you to the recipient? Budget more for your significant other, family members and close friends. Wired suggests you set a total gift budget and then rank each person you need a gift for in importance from one to 10. Then use this very logical gift budget formula (geared towards the holidays but appropriate year-round):

Sum all the people, multiplied by their ranks. It should look something like this 10(wife)+8(kid1)+8(kid2)+3(dad)+3(mom)+1(in-laws)+4(nephew)=37(total)

Set your total equal to your budget: 37(total)=$500 Solve for (total): total=$13.50

Multiply this “total” by each person’s importance to see how much you should spend.

In this example [with a $US500 budget], your wife gets 1013.5=$135, and your kids get 813.5=$108.

OK, you don’t have to get as geeky and precise as that, but just remember that an appropriate gift depends most on what you’re comfortable giving and your relationship with the other person.

Below are customary gift amounts for more specific situations.

Wedding Gifts

With wedding registries, you’d think selecting a wedding gift would be easy, but it isn’t always. Registry choices can include everything from a toothbrush holder to a flat screen TV. (And sometimes all that’s left is the $100 kitchen rubbish bin.) Don’t feel bad about skipping the registry and just giving cash. An American Express survey found that 52 per cent of those getting married preferred cash, 12 per cent wanted gift cards, and 18 per cent preferred a gift from their registry (versus the 35 per cent of people who give gifts from the registry).

As for how much to spend:

Wedding guests say they’ll spend an average of $108 on gifts, up 15% from 2012. Not all gifts are created equal, however, and consumers will weigh factors like relationship to the bride or groom (45%) and budget at the time of the wedding (33%) before deciding how much to spend. For close family members, the average cost for a gift shoots up to $179, while co-workers will only reap $66 on average.

Attending a wedding can be expensive (costing $539 on average, including gifts, travel and clothing), especially if you’re in the wedding party, so you should factor in those costs too. Wedding site The Knot says you should break down your budgeted amount across the many wedding events:


  • 20 per cent of your total on the engagement present
  • 20 per cent of your total on the shower gift
  • 60 per cent of your total on the wedding gift

That means if you’re spending $250 total, you’d spend $50 each on the engagement and shower and $150 on the wedding present. (If you’re only invited to the shower, then spend the extra 20 per cent beefing up the wedding gift.)

Finally, don’t feel like you have to fall into the “cover your plate” trap (where your gift covers the couple’s cost of hosting you at the reception). Your gift shouldn’t be the cost of admission to the wedding but rather a token of your affection and support.

Gifts for Showers

Brides-to-be and expecting parents can also expect to be showered with gifts. Again, how much to spend depends on how close you are to the person. The consensus on Baby Center suggests: $20-$25 for a co-worker or acquaintance, $50 for a close friend, or $100 for a best friend or family member.

Gifts for Kids

Buying a gift for a child has a number of other considerations, whether the present is for your own kid or someone else’s.

The first factor is age. Preteens and teens are more likely to want or expect pricier gifts (ack, new iPhone! or designer jeans) than toddlers. Big City Moms says:

A good rule of thumb is the younger the child the less you need to spend. A one year old will be just as happy with a squeaking duck as a princess costume. Try to think more about the actual gift and not get stuck on the dollar amount. If you know that 2 year old Ava loves to dress up, it won’t matter if you get her $15 sparkly shoes or a $40 tutu and her parents will appreciate your thoughtfulness either way.

LearnVest suggests you spend a little more for close friends than you would for regular classmates (a good thing, since kids’ birthday parties seem to come by the dozen). $10 to $20 is fine for regular classmates or $20 to $25 for your child’s closest friends.

One mum on the Berkeley Parents Network said these birthday parties offer lessons on budgeting and smart shopping for kids too. By limiting the gift budget to $12, it forces the child to think creatively about the gift.

For your own kids, there’s no magic number, but besides your budget, also consider how often you purchase gifts for them during the year. Beware, LearnVest warns, of “gift creep”: The feeling just one present isn’t enough since other kids are getting so many. The best advice: Whether you buy gifts for many occasions throughout the year or one large gift on birthdays, do whatever works best for your family and budget.

Housewarming or Hostess Gifts

Unlike the occasions above, housewarming and hostess gifts are less obligatory, but they’re very thoughtful gestures. If you decide to welcome a person or couple into a new home or thank them for letting you use their spare bedroom, a well-chosen home-related present is usually better than a cash gift.

Because of that, very inexpensive gifts are totally appropriate. A cheese board for your foodie friends, a potted plant that’s easy to care for, and personalised DIY gifts are great for these occasions. If you want to give a gift card instead,’s Interior Decorating site suggests $20 is a decent amount:

This one can be a bit tricky but a gift card to a home store can be a terrific housewarming gift. Sometimes giving gifts with dollar amounts attached to them can be a bit uncomfortable so it’s probably best only to do this with people you know fairly well. When it comes to the value give an amount that’s approximately the same as what you would spend on a vase or book. Make sure it’s enough so they can purchase a small trinket of some sort. $US20 is always a decent amount but you can feel free to go higher or lower depending on the situation.

Don’t Sweat the Amount

Whatever the occasion, no matter how much (or little) you spend on a gift, remember that it really is the thought that counts. Most recipients will appreciate your presence at a celebration, rather than the value of your presents.


Pictures: ewen and donabel, Counselman Collection


  • This is more about what to get than how much to spend, but when buying gifts for kids, don’t buy them clothes! Few things compare to the disappointment of being a kid on his birthday who opens his presents to find clothes instead of toys. A six year old doesn’t care that he has five new t-shirts.

    • Gods, yes. I remember as a kid getting clothes on a couple of occasions and how disappointed I was.

      In the case of one gift, it was the only item I had from my (shortly thereafter deceased) maternal grandmother, so it actually picked up some sentimental value.

      Naturally, once I grew out of it, my mother gave it away. That’s REALLY rubbing salt into the wound.

      • Also, not sure if other people feel this way, but I HATE HATE HATE gift certificates. You’re paying, say, $25 for a piece of paper that can only be used ONE place, for a maximum of its original price, and usually with an expiry date. The certificate is worth less than the cash in EVERY way.

        If you’re thinking of giving a gift certificate, give cash instead, with an attached note saying “this is for you to spend on X”.

        Maybe I’m alone in thinking this way, but gift certificates drive me absolutely NUTS.

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