Marriage customs have undergone many profound changes in the past few centuries. Contemporary American brides and grooms don’t meet for the first time at the ceremony, and the bride doesn’t come attached to a dowry of livestock from her father. But while we’ve left many antiquated customs behind us, one aggravating convention holds on: the wedding gift. Doing something nice for your friends is, of course, lovely. Yet as currently constituted, the marital gift exchange is a barbarous relic: wasteful, unfair, and inefficient. It’s time to do away with the registry and this silly tradition.
Of course all gift-giving is on some level a bit illogical. At Christmas, if I buy you something that costs $100 and you buy me something that costs $100, there’s overwhelmingly likely to be some deadweight loss as one or both of us makes a mistake about what the other one really wants or needs. Joel Waldfogel has found that this typically amounts to between 10 to 30 percent of the value of the price of the gift. That’s not to say we should never give presents, but we ought to at least regard the practice with a bit of skepticism. And in the particular case of wedding presents, it’s clear that a once-functional social custom has become badly misaligned with modern lifestyles.
Traditional wedding presents no longer make sense in a contemporary context. Our gifting is based on the outdated (and, needless to say, sexist) assumptions of near-universal marriage, a very young age at first marriage, and extremely low expectations of male housekeeping skills.
If you think of a marriage as typically taking place between a young man who’s not expected to know how to cook and an even younger women who’s likely still living with her parents, then gift-giving makes perfect sense. The new couple is likely to be financially constrained and to face a sudden surge in the number of durable goods needed to establish a new household. Since credit and debt markets are never complete or fully efficient, it makes sense for informal social networks to finance investments in household production. So family and friends gather round to offer the new couple a whole bunch of consumer goods, with a particular focus on the domestic equipment that the new wife will need to undertake her new wifely responsibilities.
This pairing of the crudely functional with the broadly sentimental was well-matched to the circumstances of the time. When done correctly, it could easily compensate for some deadweight loss by allowing the happy couple to obtain needed goods in a timely manner without paying sky-high interest rates on consumer loans.
Today’s married couples are considerably older and more established than those of yesteryear. Like the majority of couples these days, my wife and I were already living together by the time we got married. To move in together, we’d had to merge two stockpiles of existing consumer goods, with many possessions offloaded to her younger sister. And of course we were already pretty old—30 and 28—which is about typical these days. Back in 1960, the average age at first marriage was 22 for men and 20 for women. We more or less had the stuff we needed.
Of course, like anyone else, we didn’t own the best of everything or every conceivable useful item. We could have registered and asked our friends to buy upgraded pots and pans for ourselves. But we didn’t—just a firm and clear “no gifts, please.” After all, if we really wanted fancier stuff, we could have just spent less on the wedding and more on housewares. But the fact is we didn’t value more stuff as highly as the money it would have cost to buy it—that’s why we hadn’t bought it already. Wedding presents for modern cohabitating adults with established households are in the pure realm of deadweight loss—you’re buying things for people that they haven’t bought for themselves because they think they’re overpriced.
And in a society where a large and growing share of the population never marries, the custom is both unfair and inefficient. With birthday presents, what goes around comes around. Not so with wedding presents. Married people already live longer and earn more than single people; we don’t also need to benefit from wealth redistribution.
If you want to be nice to the people in your life, here’s a sensible alternative. At least among the higher-education set, it would be fair and wise to redirect the gift-giving impulse to a more logical occasion, like college graduation. The 21st century’s debt-laden new grads are at roughly the age and life circumstances that the wedding-present tradition is suited for. Launching a new household involves large up-front costs at a time when people haven’t yet had the chance to earn much money. A little help from both parents and a broader circle of aunts and uncles and sundry cousins would be welcome. Meanwhile, leave the newlyweds to fend for themselves. Your presence at their celebration should be its own reward. Or if they don’t like you unless you come with a gift attached, they can just not invite you and turn the food and beverage savings into buying themselves a beautiful crockpot.
Read more from Slate’s special weddings issue:
“The Long Walk to the Altar: Prudie offers wedding advice on family estrangement, inappropriate toasts, and an extravagant bride, just in time for summer,” by Emily Yoffe. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
“My Big Fat Disney Wedding: I’m a tomboy, not a princess. Here’s why getting married at a huge theme park was a delightfully practical decision,” by Rachael Larimore. Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
“This Is the Last Time I Will Ever See You: After every wedding, there is a dear friend who will immediately disappear from your life. And that’s OK,” by David Plotz. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.
“Click Here to RSVP: Online invites are now far better than paper. And yes, you should even use them for your wedding,” by Farhad Manjoo. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.
“How to Be a Better Best Man: Flirt with the mother of the bride, but don’t grind with her,” by Troy Patterson. Posted on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.