Gift Ideas: Best and Worst Wedding Gifts

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Last Updated Jun 17, 2010 10:51 AM EDT



Ask Marla Dickerson about her favorite wedding gift and she's likely to wax fantastic about some hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments that make her think about the giver every year – even now some 18 years after her wedding. Michelle Barlow Weech, married 19 years ago, mentions a book of family recipes that she's still using. And Susan Rempel, wed in 2003, says the best gift she got was a photo album of candid shots that a friend took at the reception.

On the surface, you'd imagine that buying the perfect gift for a wedding would be a snap. After all, the bride and groom have gone through the trouble of registering to tell you what they want and where you can get it.

But talk to couples a few years after the nuptials, and they’re likely to say that the best gifts they got didn’t come from the registry. They were sentimental favorites that remind the recipient of the gift-giver year-after-year.

Horror Stories

A few words of caution, though — because these same couples likely have a few horror stories about off-registry gifts too. There was the long and badly rhymed poem that someone framed for Julie Makinen; she lovingly stored it in the closet. Then there’s that set of brothel-red bath towels that I got; I wound up using them for years ... to wash the car. Even expensive gifts can be wasted on the wrong couple — like the professional meat slicer that I might have absolutely loved, were I a butcher. (It spent several years in the garage before we had the temerity to give it away.)

If you want to buy something that the couple hasn’t asked for, it’s pivotal to know the couple really well, says Nancy Mattia, senior features editor at Brides Magazine. A close friend is likely to buy something truly thoughtful –and the recipient is far more likely to find the gift sentimental.

“The better you know the couple, the easier it is to deviate from the registry because you may have an idea of what they like or want,” said Mattia.

Go Practical

It also might help to be married yourself and understand the sort of things a young couple might need.

Leslie Branton Hoffecker said she wouldn’t have known to register for a vacuum cleaner, for example. When she got married in the 1970s, wedding registries were just for things like china and silver. But her parent’s friends looked at the fresh-out-of-college couple and decided that they might need something more practical – an Electrolux.

“It lasted forever and I thought fondly of those close friends of my parents who gave it to us every time I used it,” she said.

When Julie Griffen Childs married her college sweetheart, their sorority and fraternity friends knew the couple was far too active to enjoy hosting dinner parties. So rather than buying place settings, the friends all chipped in to buy the couple a matching pair of beach-cruiser bicycles.

Henry Shapiro, an avid cook, says he loved getting the poultry shears that he didn’t think to ask for. And I got a tool that helps you twist stubborn lids off jars from a childhood friend who knows I hate asking for help. It never would have occurred to me to ask for one, but 23 years later, I still use it every week.

Be Personal, But Tasteful

Dickerson said the Christmas ornaments came from a childhood friend of her husband’s, who was already married and may have realized that “the specialness of tea towels and a blender can wear off pretty quickly.” With the ornaments, Dickerson says she feels like she’s getting a gift each year when unwraps the delicate glass candy canes and Santas to put them on the tree.

Heirlooms can also be sentimental favorites. Barlow Weech, for example, says the cookbook lets her share grandma’s recipes with her kids, passing on family history. (For the same reason, she also cherishes the family silver and an old photo album that she received as well.)

But again: If you’re winging it, make sure you know the couple getting married so well that the perfect gift isn’t a matter of guesswork. Give yourself the wedding litmus test: Have you known the bride or groom longer than their mate? Have you shared a bunk bed, dorm room, or regular drinks and dinner? Is one of them your godchild, best childhood friend or such a close friend of your child that you know their deepest, darkest secrets? If the answer is yes, you’re free to shop away.

If you have to ask a third party what they think the bride and groom might want, however, make that third party a shop clerk — who can read the items off the registry.

“Sometimes a guest will think they’ve come up with this great creative idea. But, if the couple doesn’t like it, they could be left with hundreds of dollars of credit at some obscure store,” said Sharon Stimpfle, deputy site director for WeddingChannel.com. “By following the registry, you can make sure that you get them something that they really want.”

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    Kathy Kristof is an award-winning financial journalist and the author of Investing 101.

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