(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)By Mitch LipkaBOSTON May 14 When you go to as many weddings as Stephanie Wong does, you need to come up with some guidelines for gift-giving. During the past two years, Wong, 32, who works in marketing for a book publisher in San Francisco, has been to about a half-dozen weddings. She expects to attend three more this year. The amount Wong spends is all about her relationship to the people getting married, how fancy the wedding is going to be and whether she brings a date. At a recent wedding of a close friend where she did a reading and went alone, Wong gave the couple $300. At another wedding in her social circle, she skipped the reception and gave $75. As the wedding season gets into full swing, guests from coast to coast are confronted with the same question: How much should you spend and how should you give it?THE ETIQUETTE Wedding experts agree on a couple of things: the closer you are to the bride or groom, the more you are expected to give, and do not give more than you can afford just because of the expectations.
Defying the "cost-of-the-meal" school of gift-giving, where guests give a gift roughly equivalent to what it cost to host them, Kristen Maxwell Cooper, deputy editor of the wedding-focused website TheKnot.com, says location and cost of the reception should not be the burden of the guest. She offers these guidelines to wedding-goers wherever they might be: A distant relative or co-worker should give $75-$100; a friend or relative, $100-$125; a closer relative, up to $150. If you are wealthy, are you expected to inflate the gift? No, Cooper says. "If they do, it's because they're just generous people."Meghan Ely, who has been in the wedding industry for a dozen years, says it is reasonable to give on the lower end if you had to spend a lot to get there.
And, she and Cooper agree, buying items off a registry, where there is one, is a good idea."These days, couples are statistically older and more established in their lives so when they register, they are truly asking for things that they need," Ely says. "It really takes the guesswork out of it for the guests."That's about how it worked out for Melinda Parrish, a 30-year-old model from Washington, D. C. who got married last year in Annapolis, Maryland. Her guests spent an average of $115 off her registry, and most of her friends gave $50-$100. Some who had financial obstacles made gifts or framed photos. One made a charitable donation in their name. Most of all, she was surprised that about 40 of the 200 guests who attended gave nothing.
ALTERNATIVE REGISTRIES Some experts note a trend of couples registering for various elements of their honeymoon, including a night at a hotel, a dinner or an evening of drinks. It's a request that runs afoul of some, including Peggy Newfield, founder of the American School of Protocol in Atlanta, who recently attended a wedding where the bride and groom solicited unusual presents. "You could check whether you wanted your gift to cover champagne on the plane or in their suite at the hotel, their limo service, dinner in the evening, or whatever," she says. Her way of responding to the request: "We sent just a congratulation card. There is no etiquette today that defines how crass our society has become."Cash has even taken a more modern twist - you can send a monetary gift with your credit card. Websites like Tendr.com facilitate the process
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)By Chris TaylorNEW YORK, July 23 Lauren Greutman felt sick. She and her husband Mark were about $40,000 in debt, and were having trouble paying their monthly bills. As recent homebuyers, the couple from Syracuse, New York, were already underwater on the mortgage and getting by on one income as Lauren focused on being a stay-at-home mom."We were in a really bad financial position, and just didn't have the money to make ends meet," remembers Greutman, now 33 and a mom of four. There was one pot of money just sitting there: Their son's college savings, about $6,500 at the time. That is when they had to make a decision that no parent ever wants to make."We had to pull money out of the account, in order to keep the electricity on and pay the water bill," she says. "We thought long and hard about it and felt almost dishonest. But it was either leave it in there, or pay the mortgage and be able to eat."It is a moral quandary faced by parents in dire financial straits: Treat your kids' college savings - often housed in so-called 529 plans - as a sacred lockbox, or as a ready source of funds that may be tapped when necessary.
Precise figures are not available, since those making 529-plan withdrawals do not have to notify administrators whether the funds are being used for qualified higher education expenses, according to the College Savings Plans Network. That is a matter between the account owner and the Internal Revenue Service. TIAA-CREF, which administrates many 529 plans for states, estimates that between 10 percent to 20 percent of plan withdrawals are non-qualified and not being used for their intended purpose of covering educational expenses. It is never a first option to draw college money down early, of course. Private four-year colleges cost an average $30,094 in tuition and fees for 2013/14, according to the College Board. Since that number will presumably rise much more once your toddler graduates from high school, parents need to be stocking those financial cupboards rather than emptying them out. Joe Hurley, the so-called "529 Guru" and founder of Savingforcollege.com, has a message for stressed-out parents: Don't beat yourselves up about it.
"The plans were designed to give account owners flexible access to their funds," Hurley says. "I imagine parents would feel some guilt. But I don't think they should. After all, it is their money."PENALTIES ON EARNINGS Keep in mind, though, that there are often significant financial penalties involved. Lauren Greutman managed to avoid them, since at that time she was using a simple savings account to stash her son's college funds.
With 529 plans, though, it is another story. With non-qualified distributions, in most cases you are looking at a 10 percent penalty on earnings. Withdrawn earnings will also be treated as income on your tax return, and if you took a state tax deduction on the original money, withdrawn contributions often count as income as well. Not ideal, of course. But if your other option for emergency funds is to raid your own retirement accounts, tapping college savings is a last-ditch avenue to consider. Not only because you do not want to blow up your own nest egg but because it could make relative tax sense. As the saying goes, you can borrow money for college, but not for retirement."If you think about it, a parent who has a choice between tapping the 529 and tapping a retirement account might be better off tapping the 529," says James Kinney, a planner with Financial Pathway Advisors in Bridgewater, New Jersey. If the account is comprised of 30 percent earnings, then only 30 percent would be subject to tax and penalty, Kinney explains. And that compares favorably to a premature distribution from a 401