If you ever want to get into a quick argument, try talking to someone about doing a cash wedding registry. People love to debate the issue, and sometimes it feels like the discussion just goes on, and on, and on. In fact, the New York Times recently published an article by Princeton sociology professor Viviana Zelizer that makes it clear that the debate has been raging for over a 100 years:
[Giving cash] horrifies traditionalists, who see giving cash as the ultimate commodification of a sacred ritual. Money is acceptable for charitable donations or bonuses, but certainly not for friends or family.
In the December 1909 Ladies' Home Journal, for instance, the writer Lou Eleanor Colby said she had found a way to “disguise the money so that it would not seem just like a commercial transaction.”
The historically-respected solution is disguising the cash. These disguises have shifted from hiding cash in art or integrating it into crafts, to gift certificates (like cash, but the giver still controls where it's spent), all the way to the current solution of honeymoon and cash registries. (It's not actually cash because it all happens on the internet, right?)
Despite the methods for “hiding” the gift of money, there are still folks who simply canNOT abide. And if the shrieks of “TACKY!” have been raging for over a century, I certainly don't think Offbeat Bride is going to be able to magically change anything. (Of course this is very much a regional and cultural thing — in some areas and some cultures, cash gifts are totally the standard!)
That said, I feel like part of what goes unexamined in this debate is who generally benefits from non-cash gifts: RETAILERS. I mean yes: the thoughtfulness involved in picking the perfect gift is awesome. I get a little buzz when I manage to catch a loved one mentioning something in conversation (“You know that old wool sweater from college? It finally unraveled passed the point of no return…”) and then surprise them months later with the perfect gift (“Oh my god, how did you know I needed a new Merino sweater!?”) That's an awesome feeling.
But I have to wonder how much of the etiquette around cash gifts being supposedly awful is generated by the retailers and industries that benefit from it. Like the manufactured tradition of diamond engagement rings, how much of the tradition of purchased gifts trumping cash is generated by retailers?
I don't have an answer to the question, but whenever you're considering advice or etiquette or traditions that simply MUST be followed, I find it's helpful to consider who's got the biggest investment in that tradition.