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Gaming the Wedding Registry

The fine china you gave might not end up in the cabinet.

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Both guests and marrying couples agree: The wedding registry process sucks. It’s awkward, outdated, and uncomfortably mercenary. And the dirty little secret is that many of the gifts given each nuptial season will end up getting returned.


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There’s no way to tell what percentage of the $19 billion people spend annually on wedding gift registries goes to presents that end up back at the store. But according to my friend Stephanie, whose name is not really Stephanie, "Everyone I know who has gotten married and had a registry always talks about how all you do is spend time returning and exchanging things." She got married a few years ago and, like many 29-year-olds, is a serial wedding attendee.

Wait, you’re telling me the item I lovingly picked out for your blessed union (okay, more like grudgingly ordered a week before the wedding because it was the only thing left that fit my budget) isn’t going to become a prized family heirloom?

Brides scanning items at Crate and Barrel. Photo: Matthew Peyton/Getty

"I don’t think it’s a big deal that people do this," Stephanie says. ("It can be a little awkward if you’re writing a thank you card for a gift that you returned," she acknowledges.) "Stores understand they’re going to be working with you for a while if you have a registry with them and that you’re probably going to be exchanging a lot of things. I think the employees understand that you have no idea what you’re doing when you set up a registry. Why would you? You register for tons of stuff you don’t need. You sort of figure out what you do need, and then you just switch everything around."

Some people take it a step further, setting up registries while knowing full well they don’t want half the stuff on them. Melissa (also not her real name), who got married in New York in 2014 at 29, didn’t want to register for the typical housewares and kitchen supplies, but her mother insisted on it. "My mom made us order china, absolutely made us," she says. Melissa’s mom also considered honeyfunds, in which guests can contribute cash that you can put toward specific parts of a honeymoon, "tacky." "It was a very, very long fight that I lost," Melissa says.

After the wedding, she returned the lion’s share of it, putting most of the store credit toward what she calls an "insanely luxurious bed," including a mattress with a $15,000 sticker price.

Melissa and her fiance had been living together for several years by the time they got engaged and didn’t need much for their apartment. So when it came time to register at a New York department store, "It sounds horrible, but I really just picked very random stuff." After the wedding, she returned the lion’s share of it, putting most of the store credit toward what she calls an "insanely luxurious bed," consisting of fancy sheets and pillows and a mattress with a $15,000 sticker price. (What did her mother say to that? "Because we kept the china, she didn’t really care about any of the rest of it.")

"There was a real generational gap," Melissa explains. Her parents were concerned with traditions and appearances; she and her fiance just wanted gifts they would actually use.

In Boston, Tara, 25, is dealing with a similar situation right now. Her wedding is coming up in October, and Tara and her significant other want cash. "For the registry, [my mother] thinks it’d be more appropriate to go the traditional route, accept physical gifts, and return them to the vendor if we want the money instead," she told me via email. "[W]hile she’s a nice person and open-minded about a lot of things, she has certain Ideas about How Things Are Done. This includes wedding traditions. She says ‘Your marriage is for you, your wedding is for your parents,’ which I violently disagree with, but I’ve had to back down on a lot because she takes my desire to be in control as disregard for her feelings." The two got into a shouting match about the registry and still haven’t resolved what to do.

On wedding forums like The Knot and Wedding Bee, brides frequently discuss which stores have the best return policies and the pitfalls of returning gifts for cash and credit, but it’s still a taboo subject.

If couples want money, why can’t they just ask for it? On wedding forums like The Knot and Wedding Bee, brides frequently discuss which stores have the best return policies and the pitfalls of returning gifts for cash and credit, but it’s still a taboo subject. One D.C.-area woman who blogs about personal finance under the name One Frugal Girl,noticed someone at Target returning a cart full of items from a registry a few years ago, and was so taken aback that she blogged about it. She got a lot of emails in response, some defending the practice, some outraged by it. "It seems like these days you should be able to be more open about what you want, with the people you’re close to," she says, remembering the incident.

"There’s so much discussion about etiquette when it comes to wedding gifts, people getting judgmental or looking greedy or worried about looking greedy," says Kathy Cheng, the founder of a universal registry site and app called Thankful. "There’s so many unspoken rules."

"I don’t blame the couples; I blame the system," says Josh Brooks, who, with Jung Lee, plans weddings and events with their company Fête and has a brick-and-mortar store, Jung Lee NY, that specializes in registries. "Wedding registry is sort of stuck in the 1950s."

There are some people out there looking to change that. Brooks and Lee, for their part, aim to provide more guidance and a more personalized experience to the couples they work with. And online universal registries, like ThankfulZola, and MyRegistry, allow couples to include gifts from more than just one store on their lists, as well as honeyfunds and other cash requests.

Erin Brady, Miss USA 2013, shops for her wedding registry at Bernardaud Flagship. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty

It’s not just parents who like to stick to tradition, many attendees still prefer giving tangible gifts. There’s a mentality of, "This is what I would have wanted to receive, so this is what I’m going to buy for someone else," One Frugal Girl told me of the continuing popularity of physical, non-check or gift-card gifts. "I think it’s nice to give guests options," Lee says, advising against only having a honeyfund or asking for money. "I think more guests prefer to give a concrete thing."

Once a gift is yours, though, you can pretty much do what you want with it. Whether you do a mass-return or you end up using your honeyfund to pay off your bills, "At the end of the day, it’s an honor code," Cheng says.

"It’s just one of those things that you have to do, because people are going to buy you stuff regardless," says Becky.

Trying to opt out of the system by not registering at all might just make things worse. "It’s just one of those things that you have to do, because people are going to buy you stuff regardless," says Becky, a 30-year-old New Yorker who is getting married in October. Becky (not her real name) favors small and independent businesses, but reluctantly registered for a few items at big-box stores. "There is some pressure from friends and family members who want to use their Bed, Bath & Beyond 20 percent-off coupons, they want to use their Bloomingdale’s credit cards to get better deals."

Stores are well aware of the post-wedding returning frenzy. Though Bloomingdale’s declined to comment on the topic of wedding registry abuse, Brooks says he has heard of department stores that have trouble keeping employees in their registry departments, because too many were unhappy about losing commissions when brides would return gifts and exchange them for clothes.

There are also many smaller stores — Jung Lee NY and Scully & Scully do this, and Michael C. Fina used to before going online-only — that provide registries that offer to hold all the gifts a couple gets until after the wedding, a tacit acknowledgement that couples may not actually want a good amount of what they register for and receive. This way, instead of receiving things piecemeal, one by one, couples can take stock of all their gifts at once — and decide what they finally want to keep. "The couple should be the final decision makers in terms of what they ultimately get," Lee says.

Ten $40 bowls equal one $400 mixer. Sneaky!

And then there’s the phenomenon of putting "decoy gifts" on your registry. Stephanie told me that the employee who helped her set up her registry at a New York department store recommended that she place decoys on her registry — cheaper items that would provide a wider range of prices on the registry, especially on the more budget-friendly end of things, and that she could later return all together to exchange for something more expensive she really wanted but was unlikely to receive. Ten $40 bowls equal one $400 mixer. Sneaky!

Another smaller, and totally acceptable, way to game the system is through the so-called registry completion discount: Many stores offer markdowns to couples on the items on their registries that didn’t get bought, and in some cases, they can keep adding things for months after the ceremony has taken place. One colleague told me she registered at Anthropologie before her wedding — not because she expected anyone to buy her anything from there, but because she knew she’d get a 10 percent discount on those items afterward.

The biggest irony might be that there’s no way to predict how you’ll feel about your wedding gifts — and all the machinations involved in your registry process — once you’re in the thick of married life. "We’ve gotten rid of quite a lot of stuff that we got on our wedding registry, I would say the majority of it," One Frugal Girl, who’s been married 12 years, told me. "Because you realize that maybe that’s not the life you were going to lead."

"I definitely should have doubled up on all of the flatware, because that’s really easy to take back," she adds.

Still, if you plan to go the returning route, be prepared for some hassle. At the store where she registered, "if you return [a gift] via mail, it alerts the sender that you returned it, so you have to do it in person. It’s a real production," Melissa says of her returning marathon. "I went there like every weekend for a month."

"I definitely should have doubled up on all of the flatware, because that’s really easy to take back," she adds. The bigger the object, the more cumbersome it is to schlep back to the store.

But guess what? "It was all worth it in the end, because my bed is my favorite thing." All $15,000 of it.

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