The etiquette of giving money

Money is one of the few subjects – it may actually be the only one – that even the best of friends find hard to discuss.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I found myself broaching this taboo topic with a girlfriend, who was preparing to attend a going-away party. “The invitation said there is going to be a wishing well,” she sighed, eyes rolling back into her head. To add insult to her financial injury? “The hosts are only going away for five months! It’s embarrassing.”I have yet to encounter the wishing well, a modern wedding-day phenomenon that many consider a lazy way of saying, “Money, please!” Unaware of and slightly bewildered by the etiquette surrounding this increasingly popular practice, I relayed her dilemma to some other friends. Each one purged a horror story of uncomfortable proportions. The worst one involved a friend who accidentally attended a co-worker’s wedding sans cash. She vowed to follow up with a contribution, but before she could even run to the ATM – indeed, the next day – the bride called, asking when the newly wedded couple could expect to receive their payment.

An extreme example, but nonetheless telling. More and more time-poor Australians are opting to give cash instead – online magazine Wedding Central Australia estimates that more than half of all nuptials in this country feature wishing wells. In some cultures (India, China), money is a customary wedding gift. But these are age-old traditions, and while a generous uncle may be happy to throw some cash around, it’s a potential landmine for friends and acquaintances.

“It’s alarming that guests are increasingly seen as commodities,” says Phoebe Montague of fashion and etiquette blogLady Melbourne. Despite having attended wishing-well weddings, Phoebe has never given money. Her reasoning: “I loathe to think that the money received will just go towards the mortgage.”

“Money as a gift is meaningless,” adds Leni Papadatos, co-owner of online gift directory The Gift Corner. “It’s the thought that matters – that’s why we give gifts in the first place. I’ve become addicted to that excitable feeling you get when you give someone the perfect gift. That just doesn’t apply when you hand over an envelope of cash.”

To avoid cash gifts being used for something as mundane as the electricity bill, more people are opting for gift cards, thus controlling where the recipients shop. According to Jason McVicar, general manager of David Jones store operations, gift cards have experienced such considerable growth that the retailer recently introduced a ‘Celebration Card’ designed specifically for events such as weddings, christenings and baby showers. He says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

But let’s say you do find your hand hovering over the envelope, wondering how much to contribute to the wishing well. What price do you put on a friendship? “I would say that a single person should give between $50 to $100,” recommends Michelle Boyle, a wedding planner based in Sydney’s north shore. For couples, closer friends and family, she estimates doling out at least $150, if not more.

Cash can be creative, says marriage celebrant Penny Hartelt, who suggests attaching a cheque to a picture frame or photo album. This way, long after the cash has been spent, “you’re giving the couple something to remember you by,” she adds.

For more ideas to help you avoid gifting a wad of cash, here’s five fail-proof alternatives:

1. A voucher for a great restaurant meal, spa treatment or resort getaway. Endota Spa’s Dream voucher, $400 (per person): a three hour, 30-minute appointment with bliss. See endotadayspa.com.au or phone 03 9811 0600.

2. A limited-edition bottle of wine to be opened on an anniversary. Splurge on a bottle of Penfolds Grange Shiraz, from $549. See penfolds.com for more.

3. A donation in their name to their favourite charity. Log on to everydayhero.com.au to purchase a gift card that goes towards the charity of your choosing.

4. Monogrammed his-and-hers set of leather luggage tags for the honeymoon.

5. A gift certificate for a one-of-a-kind experience.

Published in Madison Magazine