Click here to read more from Slate’s wedding issue.
Heather Warnken, Modern Bride’s Bride of the Year, last week came in for a lot of grief courtesy of the Web site Gawker. Her sin? Heather and her fiance, Michael Vallarelli, are asking wedding guests to pay for their honeymoon by purchasing $8,250 in gift certificates from a registry at the St. Regis in Bora Bora. The couple was pilloried for being crass and mercenary.
But why? Asking people to give you cash, or registering for a vacation—rather than fine china—is perfectly in keeping with the traditional ethos of wedding gift-giving. In fact, for a host of psychological, economic, and even environmental reasons, it may be preferable to the old-fashioned way of wedding gifts.
In theory, gift-giving is an unselfish act aimed at meeting the needs and desires of others. But frequently, the act of giving is about the self-fulfillment of the giver. It’s common for people to give a book they enjoyed, or a subscription to a magazine they like, or a gift certificate to a restaurant they love. Gift-giving is an occasion to show off your own impeccable taste. Giving presents is also a form of social control, especially when the presents are gift cards. The message: I’m giving you some money to spend, but you can spend it only at the place of my choosing. Presents and gift cards are both forms of donor-directed giving.
But weddings are one of the few occasions at which recipient-directed giving is socially acceptable. The gift registry is a long and highly respected tradition. Soon after the engagement is announced the couple—OK, usually the bride and her mother—selects the tasteful, affordable home furnishings needed to set up a bourgeois household: linens, china, crystal, silverware, all sorts of stuff that a couple needs but might not have the discretionary money to buy. The registry is presented to gift-givers as a convenience. Don’t bother scouring SoHo for something quirky. Forget about a sentimental object or, God forbid, a painting. Just buy us a few silver forks, or a gravy boat, or a blender—the ones we’ve chosen. This exercise, played out daily at Williams-Sonoma stores all over the nation, raises few hackles.
And a really nice trip—say a week at the St. Regis in Bora Bora—is simply another form of recipient-directed (Isn’t that what he means, since it’s on their registry?) giving. Sure, it’s more evanescent: A honeymoon lasts a week while silverware lasts many lifetimes. And people like to think that the gift they give—that vase, or whatever—will stay in the couple’s happy home for decades. Just as we try not to judge couples based on the recipient-directed gifts they put on their registry—most wedding guests will uncomplainingly buy silver even if they think the couple really should have gone with the Fairfax Sterling Silver Flatware by Gorham instead of the Malmaison Sterling & Silverplated Flatware by Christofle—we shouldn’t judge couples if they prefer to register for experiences rather than objects. Instead of buying a place setting, Heather and Mike want their loved ones to buy them a few continental breakfasts.
In fact, you could argue that couples who register for trips are more evolved human beings than those who ask for a set of Baccarat tumblers. The emerging field of happiness studies teaches us that not all expenditures are created equally. Economist James Montier regularly shocks (subscription required) well-heeled audiences by telling them that buying things won’t make them happier. As Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University put it in a fascinating paper, the good life “may be better lived by doing things than by having things.” In surveys, they found that people report greater returns from experiences than from material goods. A Porsche can break down, or the enjoyment it brings can be reduced when your neighbor buys a more recent model. But memories of a fantastic trip age well, never go out of style, and can’t be easily replicated by the jerk next door. Some consumers—they’re called Transumers—are getting wise to this dichotomy. “What we truly want for our wedding is the opportunity to celebrate our marriage together on the trip of a lifetime,” as Heather and Mike put it.
Finally, this mode of gift-giving is more environmentally friendly and economically efficient than the old-fashioned registry. Let’s say you buy a friend a food processor off the Bloomingdale’s registry. Labor, money, and energy are consumed as the food processor is wrapped, packed, shipped, and delivered. Then the happy couple must dispose of the packaging material—all that Styrofoam and nonbiodegradable plastic. This carbon-emitting process can be repeated dozens of times per wedding. By contrast, giving somebody cash, or resort credits, is a virtually frictionless transaction. The gift itself moves digitally. No funds are wasted on packaging or shipping. To be sure, jetting to Bora Bora involves burning copious amounts of jet fuel. But you can allay those concerns by purchasing carbon offsets for the environmentally conscious couple.
So, young lovers, don’t let the haters at Gawker get you down. Register for a safari in South Africa, a Caribbean cruise, five days at a dude ranch, or for cold, hard cash!