NEW YORK -- In Michigan, one of the states hit hardest by the recession, Wendy Higgins has reluctantly told a favorite niece she may not have enough money for her wedding present in August. Higgins' disability checks have stopped, and her husband was laid off in December. The couple fears they could even lose their home.
But Higgins, who worked in the auto industry building engine prototypes, wouldn't miss the wedding. "My niece said the most important thing is just for me to be there," says Higgins, 53. "And she's marrying the nicest boy. I'll wait until things get better, and send a check when we can."
An Associated Press-Brides.com poll released Monday shows that the rituals of attending weddings and giving the couple gifts, while not totally recession-proof, are still deeply important to family and friends, and somewhat resistant to the economic meltdown.
Only 3 percent of Americans said they'd declined an invitation to attend a wedding in the past two years for financial reasons. And 90 percent of those who'd attended a wedding recently said they'd bought a gift for the couple.
But that doesn't mean couples should assume they're getting one: The survey, conducted by GfK, showed that only 28 percent of Americans feel couples should expect a gift.
"I just think it's rude to assume people will give you something," says Higgins, of Marine City, Mich. "You just don't know how much people have." Liz Collins of Savannah, Ga., agrees. "A present is something people should give if they are so moved," says Collins, 31, who works with her husband at a home for boys.
And yet most Americans feel obliged to give gifts nonetheless -- including those who know they can't really afford it.
Like Kellie Turpin, who was laid off from her job in car sales a year ago. The mother of three from North Brookfield, Mass., has not been to a wedding in several years. But if she did attend one, she'd give the same kind of gift she gave before losing her job: cash or gift card, in the $75 range, or perhaps her own handmade crafts.
"I shouldn't give like I normally do, but I would," says Turpin, 42. "Because otherwise I don't think it's fair to the bride and groom, to be honest with you. It's their marriage."
Turpin would also send a gift -- maybe $50 in cash, or a gift certificate -- even if she wasn't attending the wedding. Many Americans would do the same: Fully 63 percent said they'd feel obliged to do so.
But as anyone who's ever been to a wedding, had a wedding or even thought about a wedding knows, men and women do not necessarily think alike on such matters.
For example, though relatively few people said they'd be likely to attend the wedding and forgo a gift entirely if they couldn't afford it, men, especially younger men, were more likely to do so. Only 20 percent of women of any age said they were likely to do so, compared to 50 percent of men younger than 35, and 23 percent of men older than 35. (Translation: young men are cheaper than women, young or old, when it comes to weddings.)
And more than four in 10 single men said they'd be likely to go with that option, compared to a quarter of single women.
Those men are missing the point, says etiquette expert Anna Post. "Weddings are a REALLY big deal, and we can forget that," says Post, spokesman for the Emily Post Institute (she's Emily's great-great-granddaughter) and contributor to Brides.com. "There's no minimum amount for a gift -- it just has to be something, and it has to be meaningful. One spatula doesn't do it."
John Williams, a 21-year-old recent college grad from Santa Cruz, Calif., attends weddings about twice a year. He thinks someone who can't afford a gift shouldn't stay away for that reason.
"Some people might not be able to give, but they should feel good about coming anyway," says Williams, who is single. "If I couldn't give a gift, I'd still go, totally, to be there for my friends."
But he might be just as likely to throw caution to the wind -- younger people were more likely to say they'd buy a gift they couldn't afford, though mostly younger women, not men. "I'd like to think I'd be cautious and thinking about my budget, but it's possible I might not be," Williams says.
Only a quarter of seniors said they'd be likely to buy something they couldn't afford. One retiree in Bozeman, Mont., thinks the issue isn't the amount of the gift, but the usefulness.
"Myself, I don't like receiving presents that aren't useful to me," says Guy Betts, who is 84. "So I'd buy gifts that are practical, something they'll use every day, like kitchenware maybe."
The median price people paid for wedding gifts over the past two years was $80, though 10 percent said $300 or more. And the median total cost of attending the wedding -- including gifts, travel, lodging and clothing -- was $200 for those who traveled out of town, double for people who had to travel more than 100 miles. Six percent of those questioned spent $2,000 or more.
That's why Chuck Rizzo, of Venice, Fla., doubts he could take such trips now, if they involved airline travel and a rental car: "These days, I'd probably just send an envelope -- maybe even if it was immediate family."
Rizzo is a former small business owner, but now is forced to cobble together part-time jobs in retail, and occasional handyman work. Times are very tough, but he just attended a wedding three weeks ago, and plans to attend another in a few weeks, both within driving distance.
"There's not a part of a wedding that I don't enjoy," says Rizzo, 47, who is married and has a young daughter. "I find myself thinking back to my own wedding. I just find it a very sacred experience. Weddings are one of the few sacred things we have left in the world."
The AP-Brides.com poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media from May 28-June 1, 2009. It is based on landline and cellular telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,000 adults, including 939 adults who have ever attended a wedding. The margin of error for those who have ever attended a wedding is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Associated Press polling director Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.
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