5 Ways To Save on Wedding Registry Gifts

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Wedding registry gifts can look more brutal than pink taffeta bridesmaid dresses, but that doesn't mean wedding guests have to dredge the depths for deals.

An estimated 1.5 million U.S. couples, or 88% of couples getting married, register for wedding gifts each year, according to The Knot ( XOXO) and WeddingChannel.com's 2010 Registry Study. Of those, 70% strongly prefer getting gifts from their registry when the big day comes, though only 54% of the gifts received come from the registry. Unless wedding guests plan to be among the 11% of attendees last year who felt a hug or a handshake was an adequate gift, they should consider a registry-related game plan.

"If you're a close friend or member of the bridal party, you're going to be attending a number of events leading up to the wedding, so come up with a number like $200 for the entire wedding and break that down for the engagement gift, shower, bachelor party and wedding itself," says Amy Eisinger, associate editor of WeddingChannel.com. "Save the majority of the spending for the wedding gift, because you don't want to spend more on the engagement gift than wedding gift."

In Eisinger's scenario, an esteemed guest or matching-color-wearing bridesmaid or groomsman should restrict their $200 spend to $40 for the engagement gift, $40 for the shower or bachelorwhatever party and $120 for the wedding gift. That estimate comes in a bit low for family members who spent an average of $146 on wedding gifts last year, but is awfully generous for friends who generally capped gift spending at an average $79.

"Brides and grooms know financial times are tight for everyone, and they're more grateful than ever for any gift, no matter the price," says Sharon Naylor, wedding expert and author of Bridesmaid On A Budget. "It's putting a personalized twist on a modest-price gift choice that makes it worth so much more than a price tag amount."

Either figure will get wedding guests much further than they'd imagine. More than 80% of registry items are less than $100, with 52% going for $50 or less. But how does a couple's buddy on a budget keep costs down without resorting to an awkward combination of strawberry hullers, acorn-print dishtowels and napkin rings? TheStreet and its friends in the wedding industry came up with five ways to game a couple's wedding registry while still giving gifts they'll love:

Start early
Once the engagement ring makes its first appearance, the wedding registry isn't far off.

Brides in the U.S. register an average of 5.6 months before their wedding, according to TheKnot and WeddingChannel.com's registry study. The 87% of brides who register before their bridal shower are still fairly laid back compared with the couples who have a shopping list at the ready before every pre-wedding event.

"Couples register eight to 10 months in advance of their wedding date because if they're going to have something like an engagement party, they're going to want to have the registry up by then," WeddingChannel.com's Eisinger says. "As a guest, you can start looking early because it's going to give you the widest range of prices available -- and you won't be left with the $5 serving spoon or the $300 TV."

This long-term approach also gives guests plenty of time to hang back and wait for seasonal or holiday sales. Have a friend with a winter wedding? There's no rule forbidding guests from knocking off registry items during Black Friday or Cyber Monday sales. Is the couple registered for outdoor or grilling items for their April wedding? Picking them up for less at the end of the fall before never hurt. Naylor insists that he best way to stay on top such sales is to sign up for a registry newsletter and keep an eye on merchant Facebook pages and Twitter messages so guests know when the retailer's calendar says is sales time.

Still worried about looking tacky? Eisinger says exercising a little frugality doesn't breach registry decorum one bit.

"In the early spring, there are a lot of home goods and houseware sales that happen then," she says. "If you're a guest and you can plan that way, I'd suggest shopping then, but it's perfectly OK to sit on a registry and wait for something to go on sale."

Bundle up the bottom-dwellers
To the untrained eye, the leftover ice bucket, lobster crackers and corn holders lingering on a registry don't look like much. To registry pros, however, that's a summer seafood feast waiting to happen.

"If you're on a tight budget, try to pick several lower-priced items that will go well together," Eisinger says. "This is all about going to the registry early on and maybe getting some of the servingware and flatware, which is important because couples like gifts that feel complete."

To avoid giving a disjointed collection of little leftovers such as kitchen towels and spatulas, Naylor advises gift givers to think big and come up with themes that allow loose ends to be packaged together. It can earn big points for effort without forcing a guest to spend big bucks.

"For instance, if you see that the registry still has lots of spatulas, measuring spoons, lemon zesters and other tiny kitchen gadgets, snap them up and put them in a basket or inexpensive mixing bowl with a great cookbook that you've gotten from a bookstore's discount rack for $4.99," Naylor says. "It's an instant theme basket that the couple will love, and you've spent perhaps half the average that others are spending."

Go in on group gifts
Perhaps the best way to avoid knickknack purgatory and present a couple with a memorable gift is to pool resources and buy a big-ticket item.

"A big trend right now is for groups of friends, even the bridal party members, agreeing to do a group gift -- such as getting the couple a large essential like their $400 bedding set, and splitting the cost," Naylor says. "With eight people in the group, that's just a $50 gift expense per person, and the bride will be thrilled to get that amazing, designer-name bedding without having to dip into the wedding gift money."

Not only are more couples asking for group gifts, according to Eisinger, but they're expecting to get them. Roughly 69% of couples registered for a higher-priced item anticipating they'll receive it as a group gift. Overall, 65% of married registered couples got at least one group gift. Joint spending raises a present's profile, but it also expands the options a bit.

Naylor says some top items being given as group gifts are cookware and bakeware that can add up to more $400, even when top brand names are on sale, and electronics such as a digital camcorders. The registry survey also found that as couples get engaged later -- at a median age of 28 for men and 26 for women -- 11% opting for a honeymoon registry on sites such as Zankyou and 1-800-Registry. Those sites almost require a team effort for gifts such as his and hers spa treatments, swimming with dolphins and other experiences.

"The group could go in on a share of the couple's plane tickets, perhaps only paying part of their total cost," Naylor says. "But most groups would rather give the entirety of a really indulgent event that makes the honeymoon extra special, like a gourmet dinner on a private beach, or an adventure zip-lining tour."

Get the gift card
The beauty of a world in which 77% of engaged U.S. couples post and manage their registry online is the ubiquitous gift card option that spares unwitting wedding guests from making bad gift choices.

"If you get to the registry and there's nothing on it that you like, you can always get a gift card to one of the stores they registered at," Eisinger says. "It's always kind of a fail-safe, fall-back gift if the only gift left on the registry is $200 and you're only spending $50."

Given the state of today's registries, there's a strong chance a registered couple wants gifts from at least one retailer that gives buyers the gift card option. The registry market is dominated by the bridal Big Four: Bed, Bath & Beyond ( BBBY) (which 61% of couples used as a primary or secondary registry source last year); Target ( TGT) (51%); Macy's ( M) (39%); and Crate & Barrel (26%). Each can be a gift card-giver's best friend by offering couples deep discounts and sales events, but even cohorts such as fifth-place Kohl's ( KSS) keep pace by emulating what the registry big boys do best: coupons, and lots of them.

"Bed Bath & Beyond's 20% off coupons and $5 off coupons that come via email or mail are a great help with registry purchases," Naylor says. "This registry, among others, are quite great about putting notices in red announcing which registry items are currently on sale."

Considering what couples can do to stretch a gift-card dollar at most retailers, Naylor says wedding guests shouldn't be wary of giving gift cards in smaller, $25 denominations.

"Today's brides and grooms love getting these, since they pile them up and use them after the wedding for what can be an extremely valuable gift: a once-in-a-lifetime free shopping spree to pick out anything they like without guilt or worry about their credit card limits," Naylor says. "After my own wedding, we were so blissed out getting to cruise the store, filling up two carts with anything we wanted (including essentials and impulse buys), and handing over a pile of gift cards. We put our two-foot-long, $2.11 sales slip on our refrigerator!"

Go creative
Going off the registry is always dicey. The couple already knows what they want and built an entire registry to make that clear. Sometimes, though, the registry doesn't give guests a choice.

"If all that's left on the registry is a $30 wine rack and you wanted to spend more on your friend, you can always buy the wine rack and go off the registry and get a nice bottle of wine or champagne to go in the wine rack," Eisinger says. "Stick to the registry because it will make your life easier, but you can go off the registry to add a personal touch."

In certain cases, Naylor says the old cliches apply and the thought really does count if the gift's importance to the couple has no relation to the price. If the bride or groom loves to bake and loves showing off their creations all the more, that domed cake plate for $19 could be the steal of the registry. If your couple once made an offhand comment about paninis they had at lunch but have had espresso every Sunday morning while doing the crossword since they started dating, that $22 set of espresso cups, saucers and spoons may go over better than the $200 panini press.

"Think about their personalities and lifestyle, and the inexpensive item you choose could be their favorite," Naylor says. "For instance, we received gorgeous gifts, but the one we use the most and love every day is a glass water pitcher. Twelve dollars."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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