As Australians vote on marriage equality, and the phrase ‘diamonds are forever’ marks its 60th anniversary, I thought it appropriate to ask how much you should spend on an engagement ring.
One usual answer is “three months’ salary”. Sometimes you may hear “as much as you can afford”. There are even (extremely depressing) calculators to “help” hopeful fiances to calculate an appropriate figure.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, however, you’ll realise “how much should you spend on an engagement ring?” is of course a trick question.
But it is one that is interesting for us all -of any gender, sex, sexual identity, or marital status – to consider.
The only possible answer is nothing.
There is no amount you should spend on anything. Especially on things that are wants rather than needs.
And, I would argue, especially on things that are inherently (and even legally, as we shall see) sexist.
Despite what the bridal industry (and some of your friends) may say, you don’t need a ring to get married.
If the recent (unnecessary and destructive) debate over marriage equality in Australia has shown anything, it is that getting married is a highly personal, emotional topic, but also one about which people like to voice their own opinions and judgements on loudly.
I anticipate some will find my opinions in this post offensive. But I would argue that putting a price on a woman, equating the value of a man to his wallet,and reducing both to stereotyped gender norms, are much more offensive. And that the last thing the internet needs is another post encouraging rampant consumerism.
Enrichmentality’s aim is to encourage rational thinking.
But first, let’s take a look at some of the ridiculous advice on engagement rings, and you can make up your own mind.
How many months’ salary?
The custom of engagement rings is said to go back as far as Ancient Egypt and Greece. But the tradition can only be traced reliably to Ancient Rome. The use of diamond rings specifically only dates to 500 years ago.
The vast majority of what we currently believe about engagement rings is the result of an advertising campaign. One less than a century old.
Due to their expense, and falling popularity among young people, diamond rings weren’t selling as much as diamond cartel DeBeers would have liked. So they popularised the saying ‘diamonds are forever‘ in 1947, making this year the phrase’s diamond anniversary. It was DeBeers that persuaded the masses that an engagement ring = a diamond ring.
Of course, diamonds, while sturdy, aren’t forever. As the Hydraulic Press Channel documents, you can finish one off in a few seconds with the right tools.
DeBeers also suggested a man should spend a month’s salary on an engagement ring. Later, they increased this figure to two months. According to one ad, “2 months’ salary showed the future Mrs. Smith what the future will be like”.
In Japan, advertisers were more ambitious, promoting three months from the outset. “A diamond engagement ring: worth three months’ salary” read one advertisement according to Russell’s analysis of gender and jewellery.
How much can you afford?
In recent years, some have suggested “as much as you can afford” as a more prudent rule of thumb. This may be better advice if 1-3 months’ salary is unaffordable. But some can afford to spend more.
For example, you might earn $50,000 a year, but have saved $25,000 towards a house deposit. Technically, you could afford to spend $25,000, which is not three but six months’ of your salary.
Or, you might have a credit card with a $20,000 limit. But can you really “afford” something you’re buying on credit?
How much is she worth?
Both of the rules above focus on the man’s financial situation. But Financial Samurai lists some rules floating around that relate to the woman. And not her finances, but her perceived value:
- The ‘Age’ rule: whereby a man should buy his 32-year-old fiancee a 3.2 carat ring, and so on. Bizarrely, this privileges age, which is unusual in considerations of female value.
- The ‘Hotness’ rule: whereby a man should give his fiancee a ring in accordance with her physical attractiveness. A “10/10 woman” by this equation “deserves” a “10/10 ring”.
The Ring Calculator
I’d like to think I don’t need to explain how deeply problematic it is to assess a fellow human being on the basis of their appearance or age.
But it seems some need to learn this. The ‘Ring Calculator’ website, for example, “assists” prospective grooms in the determining the monetary value of their bride-to-be by asking a series of questions.
Maybe you think I am being overly self-righteous. Surely the calculator is not about the value of the person, but the ring.
But consider the following:
- The calculator asks “Is she pregnant?” Answering “yes” decreases the recommended spend by TWO THIRDS. Why spend as much if you have already rendered her less attractive to other men? When she “has” to marry you? Certainly, it’s financially prudent to not spend as much when you have a baby on the way. But note there are no questions about existing children. This decrease is not about providing for your children, but about the perceived value of your fiance.
- If you answer “no” to the questions “Is she good in the kitchen?” or “Is she a wildcat in bed?” the recommended amount also decreases significantly. In case you’re wondering, there are no questions related to other skills or attributes a woman may posses other than cooking and sex.
- Indicating a lower frequency of sex than the survey writer finds acceptable (unless you answer “waiting until marriage”) will HALVE the recommended spend.
- Rating your attractiveness more highly than your partner’s will result not in a suggestion for you to look in a mirror. Instead – you guessed it – it will drastically reduce the amount you should apparently spend.
The ‘Hotness’ rule
This ‘Hotness’ rule, the Financial Samurai characterises as possibly “the most dangerous rule of all for men” because:
Essentially, every man before proposing will say how beautiful his girlfriend is. The problem with showering her with praise such as, “You are the most beautiful woman in the world,” or “Your beauty makes the stars look dim” is that you are setting expectations incredibly high! Your fiancé will rightly think that if she really is the most beautiful woman in the world, she better get the biggest, most beautiful rock in the world!
So what is a man to do? Stop complimenting his fiancee? Tell her she’s of average or below attractiveness in order to lower her expectations? Spend a ridiculous sum to attempt to match his compliments?
Fortunately, not every man focuses his compliments on physical attractiveness. Nor would I recommend it. And not every woman expects strong sentiment to be matched by strong financial irresponsibility.
How ridiculous is this stereotype?
The largest diamond to be given the rare Vivid Pink rating is the Pink Star, currently the world’s most expensive diamond. It sold earlier this year for US$71.2 million, and is currently valued at $83.2 million.
If you were to purchase the Pink Star as a cumbersome, impractical, and frankly tacky-looking engagement ring…
- Spending every last penny you have, you’d need to be in the top 0.0009% of the world to afford it
- At 3 months’ salary, you would need to have an annual income of $332.8 million a year – making you the 20th richest person on earth
- At 1 month’s salary, you would need to have an annual income of $998.4 million a year – making you the 4th richest person on earth
The four richest people in the world are currently Amancio Ortega, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. All are already married, and presumably spent far more rational sums (if any) on engagement rings.
In short, I doubt any woman expects a statement about her beauty will be followed by the production of “the world’s biggest, most beautiful rock”.
The Car Rule
The Financial Samurai suggests an alternate rule. It’s based on the theory that “most guys like cars”:
If a guy making $80,000 a year is dumb enough to buy a $50,000 Cadillac Escalade (78% of his net after tax income) you should most definitely demand he spend $50,000 on a 2 carat, Tiffany Novo ring that is an E color with VVS1 clarity! Blow up his finances with glee!
But isn’t expecting someone “dumb” enough to spend $50,000 on a car when they earn $80,000 to then spend $50,000 on a ring is also “dumb”?
Congratulations, you’re now both dumb and likely in debt.
Conversely, if your man is fortunate enough to make $300,000 a year like Lyndon, but drives a 10 year old Honda Civic he bought for $3,000 8 years ago, then all you can really hope for is that he buys you a nice 0.25 carat, H color, VS2 ring from Jarrod’s. Unless you live in New York City, Boston, or Los Angeles where the average carat size is 1.8-2.0, the national average carat size is only 0.4, so stop being greedy!
And isn’t a man who earns $300,000 a year but drives a $3,000 car very unlikely to like cars?
What you feel for cars and for your fiancee is hardly correlated. In fact, the opposite may be true: some claim that spending money on things like sports cars is a key behaviour divorced men have in common.
How much do people actually spend?
According to marketing professor Dr. Melewar, men tend to pay whatever is expected for this “highly emotive” purchase.
But, as is often the case, this isn’t quite true. Despite the advertising hype, most men do not spend even one month’s salary on an engagement ring for their fiancee.
In my view, this is to be commended. After all, an engagement ring is a symbol, not an investment.
While precious metals and gemstones frequently appreciate in value, the resale value of an engagement ring is often significantly lower. Browse your local pawn shop if you need evidence.
Jewellery is also sold at hugely inflated prices. That’s the reason they can afford to make such ‘insane’ sales of 50% or 70% off.
And interestingly, some statistics suggest that the more you spend on an engagement ring, the more likely your engagement may be to fail.
With all that said and done…
Should you even buy an engagement ring at all?
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of engagement rings is the inherent sexism involved. In most countries, men only give and never receive or wear engagement rings.
An engagement ring is not a symbol of commitment. Wedding rings, exchanged and worn by both partners, may be. But a ring given by one to another is a very one-sided commitment.
An engagement ring is a strange sort of “gift”
Most presents are – culturally and legally – unconditional. If you give someone something, you can’t normally ask for it back. Not so with engagement rings.
When a man breaks off an engagement, traditionally, the woman is allowed to keep the ring. Not because it was a gift, but because it is a form of compensation for her “damaged reputation”. And as we’ve seen, DeBeers has valued a woman’s reputation at 3 months’ of her fiancé‘s salary.
When a woman breaks off an engagement, however, the fiancé is frequently entitled to receive the ring back. One woman in Australia, despite being told by her former fiancé that she could keep the ring, was ordered by a court to pay over $15,000 to her ex after she threw the ring away.
Let’s retire this outdated, invented “tradition”
As DeBeers advertisements demonstrate, an engagement ring is better understood a demonstration of a man’s financial readiness to support a wife. The ability to spare X month’s salary is meant to prove his capacities and give her a taste of the “future”.
Surely, it’s time to retire this invented “tradition”.
- Today, there are almost as many women (49%) as men (51%) in the workforce.
- In most middle and higher income households, both partners work.
- Around the world, there are more and more relationships in which women are the primary breadwinner.
- Women in their 20s without children (the primary recipients of engagement rings) in particular now out-earn their male counterparts in many places.
Demonstrations of a man’s financial readiness to support a wife are irrelevant and outdated at best.
It’s symbolically dated too
At least the purchase of a stereotypical diamond by a man to be presented to a woman:
“The ceremony of giving a diamond engagement ring is an exhibition in traditional gender roles, namely of ownership and control. The male spends thousands of dollars to show the world that the woman is his… While we may not see it in this sense so much anymore, that only women bear a public sign of their engaged status up until the wedding day is problematic.” says Mic.
Mic refers to a Salon article which exposes the engagement ring’s barbaric past. Rings functioned as a way for men to “rent a womb” and “try the goods” before going through with a legally binding marriage.
As countries around the world legalise marriage between same-sex partners, these stereotyped roles are cast into an even clearer light.
Largely thanks to better (although still flawed) laws and decreased (although still prevalent) discrimination, the reported number of same sex couples in Australia has tripled between 1996-2011. It’s estimated that 1.7% children born in Australia are intersex – not transgender, but “born with physical, hormonal or genetic features that are neither wholly female nor wholly male, or a combination of female and male, or neither female nor male”. And around 11% Australians are “of diverse sexual orientation sex, or gender identity”.
Throughout this article, I’ve referred to men and their fiancées, women and their fiancés. This is, after all, what the advertisers refer to. And engagement rings are, after all, a construction of advertisers. But, of course, these terms don’t work for everyone. I don’t mean to imply men cannot buy rings for other men, or that women cannot buy rings for other women. Or, for that matter, for men.
But should any of us be buying engagement rings, regardless of sex, gender, or sexuality?
Some – like my husband and myself – choose to forego engagement rings and wear only wedding rings. We view marriage as the actual commitment, and engagement as merely a commitment to make a commitment.
Reports from the US suggest that millennials increasingly choose to save their money, or spend it on their wedding or honeymoon rather than a ring. Prioritising experiences together over a material thing for one person.
In some countries, such as Argentina, both couples wear an engagement ring. In Brazil, couples each wear rings on one hand while engaged, then move them to the other during the wedding ceremony.
These rings are often plainer than engagement rings that are given solely to the female. Again, there are reports that young couples who do buy rings these days are more likely to choose ones that suit their individual tastes rather than the diamond company’s dictates.
“Show me the ring!”
Both of the above options are far more equal and in my view, reflect a commitment made by two people.
However, if you live in a society in which the majority of proposals include a diamond ring, these options are not without their challenges.
Ways to say I love you…
Many people these days don’t announce their engagement in person or a newspaper notice. It’s a social media post of their ring photo.
In other words, we’ve moved from a verbal or written announcement to a visual one.
And that can be hard if you don’t have an appropriate image to share. Even when we got engaged over a decade ago, most cards we received depicted rings.
I’m glad I don’t have a “so-called” traditional engagement ring. It wouldn’t reflect my values or those of our relationship. However, it was always disappointing to see the interest of some people evaporate when I told them there was no ring. (It is, however, a convenient way to assess who is genuinely interested in your life, and who just enjoys gawking at pretty things).
If you care about what others think, are planning to be engaged for a long time, and want to wear rings that reflect your unique relationship, following the Brazilian or Argentinian tradition may be another option.
- Talk openly with your partner about your expectations and budget. Long in advance. Sure, surprising someone or being surprised may seem romantic, but economic stress, including from purchasing expensive engagement rings, appears associated with marriage dissolution.
- Consider the real meaning of an engagement ring. Dispense with the rubbish spun by advertisers. If you are looking for an equal relationship, define it that way from the outset. You may discover you’ll be much happier putting the money towards something you’ll both enjoy. Or, if you do decide to buy a ring or rings, you should pick something that is meaningful and beautiful to you both – not something a diamond company has told you to buy.
- Remember engagement rings are not traditional at all. What little “tradition” is associated with them is manufactured for sexist and capitalistic purposes. Human beings aren’t claimable, tagable, ownable objects. Nor can you restore their reputation with a bit of metal and rock. We are all – regardless of sex or gender – worth more than that.
- Remember the real meaning of marriage. Just like words, which undergo semantic change, traditions change too. But the core meaning of marriage is more than some fancy clothes and a party. It’s a lifelong commitment between two people. I’d prefer to start married life debt free, or with a house deposit, than with a bunch of debt for a useless object.
Whose opinion matters most?
Marriage (and engagement) should be about what is personal and meaningful to you and your partner, not what society (read: large companies and gossipy people) dictate.
Ideally, engagement rings represent a commitment to marry, and marriage represents a partnership between equals.
If you believe the style and cost of one of the most meaningful and potentially expensive purchases you will make should be dictated by not your or your fiancee’s tastes or means, but by a company that tried to obtain immunity from prosecution by bribing the US with diamonds, has been accused of price-fixing and monopolization, and reported to have forcefully relocated indigenous people in Botswana in order to mine, then you’ll love diamond engagement rings.
On the other hand, if you believe that gifts should take into account the tastes of the recipient, and your financial status, then I’d recommend not worrying about how much you “should” spend.
Marriage is about love, not fertility. Engagements should be too.
In my view, changing the law to permit marriage equality will strengthen the definition of marriage in Australia by removing some of the dated, sexist, offensive stereotypes related to gender roles. And engagement ring traditions are pretty clear evidence of their persistence.
This doesn’t mean someone who wants to buy a ring for their partner shouldn’t. Rather, we should stop viewing engagement rings as a necessity or a contract, but as a real gift, and an expression of love.
After all, I’d like to think that, as a society, we’ve moved beyond viewing marriage as merely about gaining legal access to a fertile womb. That we see it as about love.
What are your thoughts on engagement rings? Let me know in the comments below!
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