The Myth of ‘Covering Your Plate’

I generally agree with Nina Callaway from About.com when it comes to issues of wedding etiquette, but I was surprised to see her promoting the old “cover your plate” myth. When it comes to buying wedding gifts, she writes: “The general rule of thumb is to try to estimate how much your meal will cost, or generally between $65 and $150 per person.”

wedding gifts

While that is a reasonable amount to budget for a wedding gift, associating how much you spend with the cost of the wedding strikes me as highly ridiculous. Putting aside the fact that it is perfectly polite (though not at all socially acceptable) to attend a wedding without sending a gift, when else would you consider basing the value of a gift on how much a host or hostess has spent? Do you select a bottle of wine only after estimating how much the dinner party will have cost? Or choose presents based on how big of a bash the birthday boy will throw? Probably not.

The cover your plate myth is likely an offshoot of the pernicious idea that brides and grooms will recoup the cost of the wedding in wedding gifts. For some couples, this may be true, but I wouldn’t recommend counting on it when you’re putting together your wedding budget… and if you’re choosing well-off wedding guests in the hopes of making back the cost of your wedding you have bigger issues than we here at Manolo for the Brides can fix.


A recent NY Times article about wedding gifts attempted to clear up the issue of how much guests should spend on wedding gifts, and the expert responses were fairly uniform.

Roseann Hirsch, a freelance book editor from New York, is a veteran wedding guest who has “probably been to 75 or 80 weddings over the years.”

“There’s no rule of thumb about how much to spend,” she said. “There are lots of ways to give welcome gifts within a tight budget if you think outside the box,” she said. “Maybe a gift certificate to a restaurant, concert tickets or a stack of art books from a museum. Art books are an interesting gift that has legs in terms of longevity. They will decorate a coffee table long after they are read.” She said those gifts could be bought for about $100.

Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette expert in Washington, said giving a gift isn’t just about emptying the pocketbook. “The whole idea of a present is to please people and make them happy,” she said. “We’ve gotten so blasé in the past few years with all the gift-giving by people wanting to look rich.”

What is her chic, money-saving secret? “I always go to a small, unknown antiques shop and buy something very inexpensive,” she said. “I write a lovely note on the card that this item is very old, perhaps 100 years old, and from Vienna. Just that note makes the gift rise in value. It’s called a gentle white lie.”

I think the best advice I’ve read regarding wedding gifts came from Weddingchannel.com: “The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t spend more than you can afford. If money is an issue, try your hardest not to be impulsive when you’re out there shopping for just the right present.” I’d suggest that you also take your relationship to the bride and groom into account — feel free to spend more on beloved friends and relatives, and less on acquaintances or coworkers.

Other than that, how much anyone spends on a wedding gift is up to that person and that person alone. While I wouldn’t recommend hitting up the Dollar Store (unless you have some kind of wacky idea in mind that you know the bride and groom will love) for wedding gifts, there is no rule that states wedding guests must spend enough on gifts to “pay back” the hosts of a wedding for the cost of dinner or anything else.

9 Responses to “The Myth of ‘Covering Your Plate’”

  1. sterlingspider March 19, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    By the same token, when I am able I like being able to cover my plate. It pleases me to know that my presence at a wedding will not be dogging the bride and groom in the form of monthly statements for the next who knows how many years. I look at this not as a gift of money, but a gift of ease.
    This is however always keeping in mind that a) this is my own choice, made freely and always keeping in consideration my current financial situation and b) for the VAST majority of the weddings I have been to it is the bride and groom that are picking up the tab and these are people I am close to (if not actual family). I don’t think I even know anyone that can afford to invite acquaintances or coworkers to a wedding in the first place.

  2. Twistie March 19, 2009 at 5:46 pm #

    One of my favorite things to do for wedding gifts is to make something with my own hands. In terms of cost to me, it usually comes out to less than ten or twenty dollars, but in terms of value to those who know and love me, it can come out to be priceless.

    I can tell you all that when people started sending wedding gifts, Mr. Twistie and I appreciated things like the dollar store finds ‘kitchen in a box’ set that one friend put together (small gadgets like chip bag clips and a veggie peeler, inexpensive utensiles like wooden spoons, a salad spinner, some cheerful dish towels and potholders, etc.) and the original painting another friend did for us (a polar bear in the snow!) every bit as much as the place settings of our flatware and the professional-quality cookware we’d registered for.

    The price tag was immaterial to us. What mattered was the affection and thoughtfulness shown by our good friends and family members.

    Cover your plate is an etiquette nightmare on multiple levels. A wedding is not a fundraising event. It’s beyond rude to speculate on the dollar amount spent on entertaining you. It also makes people think the honor of their presence is unwelcome if they can’t back it up with the price tag of their presents.

    If you’re invited to a wedding, please don’t hesitate accepting on the grounds that you can’t afford to spend a lot on a gift. Don’t blow your budget, either. Use your imagination and give something you can comfortably afford with love. Anyone who appreciates your friendship will accept it with the same affection with which it’s offered. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate that doesn’t deserve to be rewarded for greed.

  3. Jennie March 19, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    How much a couple spends on the wedding isn’t any of my business. It won’t change what I would buy or make for them. The gift will depend on my relationship with the couple and my financial status at the time. I’ve spent a few hundred on a couple having a covered dish and BYOB reception and I’ve spent twenty on a couple having a sit down dinner for 500 people. If my appearance is desired only for the dollar value of gift I will bring, please leave me out.

  4. Melissa B. March 22, 2009 at 3:21 pm #

    There just seems to be so much guesswork involved in the “cover your plate” rule. How on earth can anyone know if the couple will be spending $30, $50, or $100 a head? Should I call the happy couple and demand their budget details? Wait until after the wedding and decide how much to spend based on whether they served chicken or beef? I do understand the logic, but I find this rule to be a bit uncomfortable.

    Oddly enough, I usually spend the most on a gift when I can’t attend the wedding. Since I’m not buying plane tickets or staying at a hotel, I have a little more cash to spend on my gift.

  5. Twistie March 22, 2009 at 4:14 pm #

    And that, Melissa B., is why cover your plate is an etiquette myth rather than a rule.

  6. Never teh Bride March 22, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    sterlingspider: That’s an interesting take on it. I’ll admit that it never did occur to me to consider how much the bride and groom are spending when they’re hosting their own affair. I wouldn’t want to put my friends into debt, but I also typically don’t give gifts of money so a sconce from the registry wouldn’t recoup the cost of a plate anyway.

    Twistie: I’m always rather afraid to give gifts that don’t appear on the registry, simply because you hear those stories of brides going ballistic when guests give off-registry gifts. The Beard and I didn’t register for anything, and I could tell that it really irked and confused a lot of guests… many of whom went on to ask us to tell them exactly what we wanted. It was very weird.

    Jennie: I’ll second that!

    Melissa B.: Ahahaha, if only I could go back in time and take back a part of my gifts at those weddings where I ended up dining on rubber chicken!

  7. De March 24, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    This is something that comes up and I always feel the need to remind the world:

    The actual etiquette rule is that Gifts (for any reason; christmas, birthday, wedding, etc.) are NOT MANDATORY. You are not required to get a gift for anyone for any reason.

    If I am invited to a wedding, I LIKE to get people something to show my happiness and support for them, but I know that if money is tight, its okay if I can’t manage anything. This does not make me a bad person and it doesn’t make people who DO get gifts bad people.

  8. Never teh Bride March 24, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Right you are, De! As I said above, it’s perfectly polite not to give a gift… though socially, some people may look at you askance for not doing so. Not everyone who attended my wedding gave The Beard and I a gift, and that was fine by us!

  9. iHateweddings October 9, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    It seemed like every one I knew got married this year. When did weddings become gift grabs??? These are my friends? No. They’re greedy little pricks.

    THREE showers??? Oh yeh. Three. Engagement Shower, Bridal Shower, and Couples’ Shower. Then a gift registry for the wedding and of course the giant card box staring at you in the face as soon as you enter the banquet hall where you’re expected to pay for the expense of your meal.

    What about Bride and Groom etiquette?

    This is supposed to be about love. Not gouging your family and friends.

    There is no question in my mind that weddings have gotten COMPLETELY out of hand.

    I applaud those who return to the “traditional” wedding – a celebration with family and friends.