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how much to spend on gifts

How much should you spend on a birthday gift for a friend? How much on a wedding gift for your boss? The answers can be tricky, because they’re all tied up with etiquette, expectations, and emotions. On the one hand, you don’t want to look like a cheapskate with an inexpensive gift. On the other, if you spend too much, you risk looking like a show-off—not to mention, putting your budget in jeopardy. Whether you’re shopping for a friend’s birthday, a workmate’s wedding, or an anniversary gift for your in-laws, this gift spending guide can help you figure out what’s appropriate to spend on gifts for just about anyone in your life.

What’s the Occasion?

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Gift-giving occasions abound, but not all occasions are created equal. In general, people expect to spend more for a wedding gift than a birthday or house warming gift. If you’re specifically looking for advice on buying a wedding gift, pop on down to the wedding gift section. Otherwise, consider the relative importance of the occasion: graduations are generally a bigger deal than a birthday, for example, and call for a more meaningful gift.

What’s the Relationship?

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The more important the person is to you, says the general wisdom, the more you should be willing to spend on a gift. Generally, though, if you’re not sure how much you should spend, you’re probably not looking for a birthday gift for your best friend. The difficult ones are the birthday gift for your mother-in-law, or a Christmas gift for your boss. In fact, figuring out how much to spend on a gift for your boss or a co-worker can be the most confusing of all. That’s where you take the next step, to consider…

What’s the Expectation?

Whether it’s a kid’s birthday party or the office potluck, chances are that well-established expectations are at play. Some workplaces have a standing rule about gift-giving, for example, and may expressly forbid it—or set a spending limit. If that’s the case, observe it. Likewise, if a birthday party or holiday party invitation suggests a spending limit, stick to the limit. Most often, it’s there to avoid putting anyone on the spot, or making a guest feel like they can’t afford to attend the party.

What’s Your Budget?

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The single most important factor in deciding how much to spend on a gift is your budget. How much can you afford to spend? If you’re not sure, has a handy calculator to help you budget for birthday gifts over the whole year. Fair warning—it will force you to create your own budget, but that’s one sure way to know what you can afford to spend. As a bonus, it includes some excellent tips on budget gift-giving:

  • Give experiences instead of gifts. For example, prepare a special dinner.
  • Go the DIY route. For example, put together a gift basket that aligns with their interests, or create a piece of art they can hang on their wall.
  • Shop in advance for upcoming birthday gifts to get the best deals.

What About Weddings?

While all of the above still applies to wedding gifts, people do tend to have more fixed ideas—and more anxiety about doing the “right” thing. Some of that anxiety is inherited. I still remember sitting on the phone with my mother on my wedding night, opening gift cards and telling her which relative gave me how much so she’d know how much to give their kids when it was time. Times change, but the anxiety lives on. If you Google “how much should I spend on a gift,” nearly all of the results assume you’re asking about wedding gifts.

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So how much should you spend on a wedding gift for your boss? According to The Spruce, you should “spend whatever you think is appropriate depending on your relationship with the couple.” Then they follow up with these general guidelines:

  • $50 is a good starting point, no matter what the relationship is.
  • For your boss or co-worker, $75 to $100, since you have a day-to-day working relationship with them. On the other hand, it’s a good time to check in to see what others are spending. Also, maybe co-workers are going in together for a group gift.
  • For a neighbor or casual acquaintance: $50 to $75
  • A friend or relative: $100 to $125
  • For a close friend: $100 to $175 or more

And while all of that may give you a feeling of structure, it’s not de rigueur. The Washington Post’s Lisa Bonos notes that your presence is more important than your gift, and you should base the amount you spend on your budget and your relationship. She also included these spending tips for wedding guests:

  • If you’re buying from a gift registry, shop early. This will increase the chances of finding a gift they really want that’s in your price range.
  • If they say, “No gifts,” take them at their word.

The most important thing to remember, no matter the gift-giving occasion or relationship, is to choose a gift that the recipient will appreciate. Your time and thoughtfulness count for more than all the dollars in the world.

Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.


Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working in Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness, and lifestyle topics.

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