NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
If you had a few thousand dollars to spare, you probably wouldn't choose to spend it buying housewares for friends, buying clothes you despise or throwing parties that celebrate other people's love and good fortune.
But if you're between college graduation and a mid-life crisis, that's probably what you're doing, as invitations pour in for weddings, bridal showers, bachelor and bachelorette parties, rehearsal dinners and other festivities related to the upcoming marriages of friends and family.
Of course, weddings aren't the only social expenses in life. Today's nuptials will become tomorrow's baby showers. Then before too long, you'll be attending 40th-birthday blowouts, 25th-anniversary bashes and retirement parties, and spending a small fortune on gifts, clothes and travel in the process.
Celebrating friends and family is one of life's great pleasures. But how can you meet your social obligations without emptying your wallet or filling up the plastic? Try these strategies.
Learn to say no selectively
The typical wedding with three or four related events can cost a guest $500, a groomsman $700, and a bridesmaid $1,400, estimates Rosie Amodio, executive editor of The Knot. If you attend a few weddings a year, that could add up to several thousand dollars, a lot for anyone, let alone someone just starting out in life.
So you need to perform social triage -- that is, figure out when to say no. Weigh the cost and your financial resources against your desire and obligation to attend. You obviously can't turn down your brother or your best friend or, probably, your boss. But a former college pal you rarely speak to who lives across the country may merit a pass.
Nor do you have to attend every event of every wedding you're invited to -- perhaps you skip the bridal shower or the bachelor or bachelorette party and just go to the wedding. As for pricey destination weddings, no one should feel these are a social must, unless you are related to the couple. If you do say yes, try to make a vacation of it. Budgetwise, that's two birds with one buck.
To say no gracefully, you can rely on the phantom previous commitment. Or you might say, "I want to be as much a part of this as I can, but I think I'll only be able to attend the wedding," Amodio suggests.
Get creative with gifts
Many people think you should buy a gift equal in value to what your hosts spend on you as a guest. Not so, says Rosanna McCullough of TheWeddingChannel.com.
On average, guests spend $75 to $85 for a gift, more for close friends or family. Your relationship to the couple and your financial situation should determine how much you spend. If you're a recent grad eye-high in debt, a gift worth $50 or less is fine since it's understood you're not flush.
But you still can give a great gift. If you're not inclined to buy the saucer sans cup from a $400 place setting, give a gift card where the couple is registered, Amodio advises. If you're handy, offer them your services (say, to paint a room). Or give them a memory, like paying for a honeymoon breakfast in bed. And don't forget the glories of the group gift: one really big gift with your name attached, for a fraction of the cost.
That way, you're still supporting your friends' happiness but will have some money left to fund your own. Think of the possibilities: You could pay down debt, save for a new home, maybe even buy your own stemware.
Jeanne Sahadi is a senior writer at CNN/Money. E-mail your comments to her at email@example.com.