Optimising the wedding list

18th February, 2006

Dear Economist,
How many gifts should I register on my wedding list to optimise my total utility?
Claire Song, via e-mail

Dear Claire,

The wedding list reflects a rare piece of honesty in our social dealings: the admission that you do not expect your guests to choose particularly apt gifts. If only we could adopt the same candour when it comes to Christmas and birthdays the world would surely be a better place.

Nevertheless, the wedding list remains fraught with potential inefficiencies and you have evidently been thinking about that. If the list is too expansive you risk guests choosing the least preferred options: you will get the frilly lavatory roll holders while the quality saucepan set will go unpurchased. (I was married not so very long ago – I feel your pain.)

On the other hand, if the wedding list is too small you may find that the gifts run out and the guests decide to pick something a bit more “original” – obviously a disaster. Equally bad, you may find that willing guests don’t buy a gift at all.

The solution is a little labour-intensive but probably worth the effort. You need to release your wedding list in several tranches. Start with a selection of high-priority stuff and keep an eye on progress. When the choice is starting to wear a little thin, add the B-list gifts. If they, too, start to be snapped up, then unveil the C-list. Modern technology makes this fairly easy to do.

Of course, this is still a hassle. For my own wedding I planned to dispense with the gift list and instead charge for admission. That seemed much simpler all round, but my fiancee vetoed the idea.

I am not sure why.

Also published at ft.com.

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