Society appears to present us with fixed rules that we must follow. Some are immutable laws that will never change. Time will move forward and gravity will pull us down to Earth. Others are governing laws—if you steal you will be punished.
Finally, there are customs. Unlike gravity, these customs can be influenced, generally by those with the most to gain. This can take years or even decades and eventually it feels like it has always been this way. Which is how we arrive at rules such as engagement rings are deserved and must have a large, sparkly diamond, preferably a carat or more, and cost a lot of money.
How much should you buy an engagement ring?
After some research, two months’ salary appears to be the consensus amount.
Is that after tax? After paying rent? If it’s how much you get paid for two months work it’s going to take a lot longer than two months to put aside that much cash.
And who says that we should spend this much? It turns out that this advice can be traced back to the diamond industry.
Even the concept of engagement rings featuring a diamond arose from this marketing campaign; a text-book example of conflict of interest.
I vividly remember the day I bought my wife’s engagement ring, just over five years ago. When the time came I was happy to hand over the money, and if I had to do it again I wouldn’t change a thing.
I had been inspired one day when I noticed that when she wore a blue top in just the right shade it brought out the blue in her eyes and she looked radiant. I decided I wanted a ring featuring a blue stone.
A friend of mine had worked in a jewelry shop and suggested I look for an aquamarine stone. When I started browsing I realized that aqua-marine wasn’t the right shade of blue, too light and too much green. Many rings had sapphires but they were too dark; I needed a bit of help.
I entered a shop and told the lady behind the glass counter my requirements. “Oh no, an engagement ring must have a diamond”, she said. I exited swiftly. The next shop had more of an exotic feel. It was busy so I was able to browse unobserved.
I didn’t have a specific budget in mind but I wasn’t going to spend five or ten grand as is common. My eyes quickly fell on a ring with a stone the perfect shade of blue; a topaz, surrounded by four small diamonds. It cost a thousand dollars.
I asked the salesman if he could put it aside for half-an-hour while I went for a walk to think it over. I hadn’t expected to find the ring so quickly, and he agreed with an understanding smile.
I started walking but deep down I knew that I was going to buy that ring. I went back into the shop and discovered that the ring was on special, it was half-price.
I had missed the sign, so engrossed had I been in my search for the blue stone (I’m still not sure if my wife believes this part of the story!).
I was so nervous bringing the ring home. I held it in my pocket for reassurance. I kept it in a drawer and checked on it regularly to ensure it was still there. Had it cost a million dollars I would have been just as nervous.
I decided to spend the $500 that I had saved on making the night I gave my wife the ring an extra special one. I created a ruse to bring her to a beautiful old hotel where we stayed the night.
We had a wonderful dinner in one of the best restaurants in town and breakfast at the hotel the next morning. These memories remain packaged within the symbolism of the ring forever.
If you are at that wonderful stage in life, then the following principles will help guide your purchase:
Guiding Principles for buying an engagement ring
- Part of what makes an engagement ring special should be its uniqueness. Ironically, by following societal norms most people end up buying similar looking rings, even if they are expensive.
- Before looking at rings in a shop, spend some time observing them on people’s hands. Rings shine and sparkle only when they are regularly cleaned. The sparkle will slowly fade, but other characteristics won’t.
- At risk of sounding unromantic, think about how practical the ring will be for your partner to wear for life. Large solitaire rings catch on clothing, can cause the ring to rotate and are a hazard with young children.
- Look for something timeless. Think about how the ring will look 50 years from now on wrinkled fingers.
- Even though the goal is to economize, the quality must still be there. The band should be made of a precious metal such as gold or platinum. Most of the cost is in the stone, not the ring itself; the cost of the metal is surprisingly reasonable.
- It needs to be beautiful to your eye. Not because of its size or clarity or color or any other variable that needs to be explained. (A carat is simply 200mg or 0.007oz. 1 carat sounds far more impressive than 0.007oz but they are equivalent.) It needs to be authentic, and from a reputable source, but it shouldn’t require a trained jeweler with a magnifying glass to tell you why it’s good, it should be obvious to you.
- Avoid branded shops that advertise on TV or in magazines and billboards. Part of the price of their products needs to cover the cost of marketing. Instead, find a small jeweler close to home, ideally from a recommendation. You want your money to go towards precious metals, stones, and craftsmanship.
- Finally, instead of money, put your heart and soul into this decision. Build it into the story of your relationship, not a story invented by marketers that is common to everyone. Maybe the stone could come from the country that you and your partner went to on your first overseas holiday together. Come up with an idea unique to you and your relationship.
Decades from now you will look back on this time with fond memories. Not because of how hard you worked to save for an engagement ring, but because of how much thought you put into what really matters, your relationship.