So, you’ve decided to take the big step and propose to your sweetheart. Congratulations! It’s an exciting moment, but it’s also a nerve-wracking one.
Right now, your mind is probably teeming with questions: What’s the most romantic way to propose? Should you present a ring when you pop the question or hide it for your honey to find? And crucially, how much should you spend on it?
It isn’t just a problem for guys. In 2018, Brides magazine reported that record numbers of women are searching for ways to propose to their significant others — both male and female — and some of those proposals include a ring. But even for women expecting to receive a ring rather than give one, cost is an issue.
Getting married doesn’t just mean joining your lives. For most couples, it also usually means combining your finances. That means whatever sum your partner spends on your engagement ring is coming out of the money you’ll both have to live on in the future. It’s a decision that affects both of you.
The 2 Months’ Salary “Rule”
If you consult bridal magazines and other wedding-related resources, you’ll probably see many references to the “rule” that an engagement ring should cost one, two, or even three months’ worth of the bridegroom’s salary.
But did you ever wonder where this “tradition” came from? It was actually made up by De Beers, a cartel that controls most of the world’s diamond market.
According to the BBC, at the beginning of the 20th century, most engagement rings didn’t even contain diamonds. Beginning in the 1930s, De Beers ran an incredibly successful ad campaign to promote diamond engagement rings, which popularized the idea a ring should cost one month’s salary.
The campaign did so well De Beers pushed the concept even further in the 1980s, raising the suggested ring price for American consumers to two months’ salary. In Japan, it upped the ante still more, proposing three months’ salary as the benchmark price.
Clearly, this “tradition” doesn’t have a lot of history behind it. And yet, in less than 100 years, it’s become overwhelmingly pervasive. Not only do most engagement rings today contain diamonds, but according to The Knot, the amount the average American spent on one was $5,900 in 2019.
The average income for a single American that year was around $49,000, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, so the average ring price was between one and two months’ salary.
There’s one big problem with this formula: Most Americans don’t have this much cash to spare. According to a 2018 Bankrate survey, fewer than 30% of Americans even have the six months’ worth of living expenses experts recommend keeping in an emergency fund, let alone an extra one to two months’ salary to spend on a ring. And for single Americans, savings figures are even lower.
That means that to spend two or even one month’s salary on an engagement ring, most Americans must either drain their emergency savings or, worse still, start their married lives with debt. For many couples, that gets piled onto additional wedding debt and other debts they accumulated before their marriage, such as student loans.
This shared debt burden weighs on your finances throughout your married life. It hampers your credit scores, making it harder to buy your first home together. It could even affect your decisions about parenthood by putting the cost of having a baby out of their financial reach. Finally, based on a 2020 Fidelity study, it dramatically increases the chances you will fight about money.
In short, the De Beers ad’s message — that buying an expensive ring is the best way to get your marriage off to a happy start — has no basis in fact. In fact, according to a 2014 study at Emory University, the opposite is true. It found that men who spent $2,000 to $4,000 on their partners’ engagement rings were 1.3 times more likely to end up divorced than those who chose more modest rings priced between $500 and $2,000 — that’s an increased risk of 30%.
Setting Your Own Guidelines
As you can see, the two months’ salary rule is neither truly traditional nor particularly helpful. There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for how much to spend on an engagement ring. You have to figure it out based on your situation, factoring in both your finances and your partner’s expectations.
Learn What Your Partner Expects
Before you can even think about shopping for a ring, you need to know what kind of ring your partner wants. If you know them well — and you certainly should if you’re preparing to spend your lives together — you most likely have some idea what kind of jewelry they like.
But an engagement ring isn’t just any piece of jewelry. It’s a symbol of your love and commitment to each other. It’s something your partner is going to wear every day. You want it to be something they feel thrilled about and comfortable with.
Based on the DeBeers ads, it might seem like you can’t go wrong simply choosing the biggest diamond you can afford. However, that’s a vast oversimplification.
There are many differences among diamond rings, including the size and shape of the stone, the design, and the band metal. If your partner wants a gold ring with an emerald-cut solitaire diamond, presenting a platinum ring with a round diamond flanked by sapphires won’t be a pleasant surprise.
In fact, your partner might not want a diamond ring at all. Before the 1930s, most engagement rings didn’t contain diamonds. Maybe they’d prefer an old-fashioned ring with a different type of stone. Also, if they’re the socially conscious type, they may prefer to avoid diamonds because of all the environmental and human rights abuses associated with diamond mining.
It’s also not safe to assume your partner would prefer to have the largest ring possible. For one thing, it’s not the size or price of the ring that makes it meaningful. You could make a much better impression with a ring you had custom-designed to fit your partner’s taste than with a much bigger ring you simply picked out of a display case.
In a 2015 Brilliant Earth survey, nearly half of women and 30% of men said what mattered to them most about an engagement ring was its design, while only 6% of women and 8% of men said the size of the diamond mattered most.
Additionally, a frugal partner might actively hate the idea of spending thousands on a ring when you could put that money to more practical use. In a 2014 ERA Real Estate survey, 50% of women said they would rather skip the large engagement ring and put that money toward the down payment on a house — and 17% said they had already done so.
There are even some people who would prefer not to wear an engagement ring at all. When I got engaged to my husband, I told him I didn’t want a ring because I disliked the idea of wearing a ring when he wasn’t — as if I were spoken for, but he was still a free man until the wedding day.
Instead, we opted for the Elizabethan custom of wearing our wedding bands on our right hands until the ceremony, then switching them over — which also happened to be cheaper.
The easiest way to find out what your partner wants in an engagement ring is simply to ask. If you don’t want to spoil the surprise of the proposal, try strolling past a jewelry store while out on a walk and casually asking which rings in the window they like best. You can also try asking their friends or family if they’ve ever talked about what they want in an engagement ring.
Finally, pay attention to anything they mention on the subject in conversation. Even if you’re trying to keep your proposal plans a secret, there’s a good chance they have an inkling about your intentions. If so, they may be dropping a few hints to help guide your shopping.
Evaluate Your Finances
What kind of ring your partner wants is only half the equation. You also have to figure out how much you can afford to pay for it. That depends on both your financial situation and that of your partner. You’re going to be sharing a home and expenses once you’re married, so the money you spend on this ring is really coming from both of you.
That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to ask outright how much they think you should spend — unless you know your partner would appreciate that kind of upfront approach. But it’s essential the two of you discuss your finances before getting married, and that discussion can give you a better idea of how much you can reasonably afford to spend.
Talking about money may seem unromantic, but it’s something you need to be able to do as a married couple. If you’re ready to make a lifelong commitment to each other, you should be prepared to talk openly about your financial situation. Topics to discuss include:
- Your Income. The more you make as a couple, both now and in the future, the more you can reasonably afford to spend on a ring. If you have to draw down your savings to buy it, you’ll be able to replenish it quickly. Talk with your partner about how much you each make now and about expectations for future earnings.
- Your Expenses. You can’t use your earnings to pay for the ring if they’re already committed to other expenses. Talk about how much each of you currently spends on living expenses and how much you’ll spend as a married couple. Then consider how much of your income that will leave to contribute to savings.
- Your Current Savings. It’s obviously important to know how much you both have right now. If you don’t have enough saved to pay for the ring with cash, you have to go into debt for it, which isn’t the best way to kick your marriage off on sound financial footing.
- Your Debts. Going into debt for a ring is an even bigger problem if you or your partner already have other debts, such as student loans or credit card debt. Be candid with each other about your current debts and how much they cost each month. This information matters when you’re deciding what type of ring you can afford.
- Your Financial Goals. Finally, consider what other financial goals you and your partner want to save for. Possibilities include your wedding, paying off debts, buying a home, starting a family, and putting your kids through college. When you list all your goals and consider how much they matter to you, suddenly, a big ring might not seem like such a high priority.
If your partner’s preferences are pretty much in line with what you can afford, you have no problem. However, if the ring of your partner’s dreams is simply beyond your means right now, you’ll need to find some way to compromise.
That could mean settling for a smaller ring, waiting longer while you save up for a big one, or looking for ways to make that fancy ring more affordable.
However, don’t lose sight of the fact that the ring isn’t the most crucial part of the proposal. What matters most is the person doing the proposing.
If your partner really wants to be with you, it will be the proposal that makes them happiest — not the ring that accompanies it. Presenting a smaller or simpler ring isn’t going to be a deal breaker. And by choosing a ring that fits your budget, you can leave yourself and your partner more money to live happily ever after on.