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May kicks off the gift giving season of graduations and weddings.  Your calendar is probably filling up with out-of-town trips to see relatives you haven’t seen in a while, and your weekends may be as scheduled with events as your workdays.

This time of year presents its own set of financial challenges.   If you’re trying to control your spending, a graduation announcement might be one more expense you didn’t plan on.  If you have your spending under control, you may still be unsure about how much you should spend, or what you should buy for a niece you haven’t seen often in the last several years.

I can’t help with gift ideas for your niece, but I can give you some suggestions to make the season a little easier.

Lumpy Expenses

When we work with clients who are trying to get a better handle on their spending, it isn’t the day-to-day living expenses that generally cause them trouble.  The mortgage, utilities, car payments and other fixed expenses are easy to anticipate and plan around.  The problem is what I call the lumpy expenses.  These are the bigger, all-at-once expenses that can set you back if you don’t have any savings or emergency reserves.   Destination wedding invitations, out-of-town reunions and multiple graduation and wedding gifts can derail your plans.  YNAB is a great resource to help you plan for ahead for these expenses.  It may not help you for the June wedding you have to attend in 3 weeks, but using it as a tool over time you can organize your finances so you are always one paycheck ahead of your monthly expenses, and always have reserves for unexpected lumpy expenses in the future.


According to graduation etiquette,  when you receive an announcement you aren’t required to send a gift, but you should always send congratulations with a note or card.  Being the sentimental person that I am, I still have notes that were written to me by friends and family when I graduated, but I don’t necessarily remember what they gave me.  My recommendation is to put some real effort in the cards and notes you give.  Since we rarely receive written correspondence, those tangible expressions can be a gift of their own.

On the practical side, most graduates are focused on going on to college or starting a new job – both of which require money at a time when a young person is feeling financially strapped, so cash gifts are always appreciated.  While Miss Manners may not agree with the newer custom of gift cards or money, I’ve had more than one person tell me that’s exactly what they want.  But what’s appropriate?  Based on my research, I’ve seen a range of $25 for a high school graduate you don’t know well to $2,000 for a close relative graduating from medical school.  In other words, a significant range.  U.S.News  MONEY provided a good framework for determining how much you should give in cash, and other ideas for giving gifts that make an impact.


Wedding gift-giving is easier due to bridal registries that tell us exactly what the bride and groom want.  They’ve become even easier with on-line registries that allow you to purchase and send gifts directly to recipients.  The downside is you can become almost detached from the dollars, until you find you’ve clicked your way to a significant expense when you go to check out.   The best way to prepare is have a target spending amount in mind before you log in to their registry, setting  your limit based on your relationship to the couple.

I believe sentiment trumps dollars, so if you have a long-term friendship with the bride or groom, a gift that has meaning accompanied by a hand written note from you will always have more impact than two place settings.  On the other hand, if the invitation is from a person you don’t know well, stay on the practical side and stick to the registry.

Enjoy Yourself

The most important part of graduations parties, weddings and reunions is the opportunity to reconnect with our friends and family.  We sometimes get so caught up in the logistics and gift-giving that we lose sight of the reason for the celebration.  Try to be present, and spend time with people you don’t get to be with often.  The best part of milestone celebrations are the memories you’re making while you’re together.