Home > Personal Finance > 5 Ways to Avoid Going Into Debt for an Engagement Ring

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Katherine Schreiber, 26, has twice been engaged to the same man, and neither time involved an expensive trip to the jewelry store. The first time, in September 2013, her fiancé proposed with a ring that had been in his family. Schreiber says that though she’s never been much of a jewelry person, she dutifully wore the ring, “but I felt like the only reason I wore it was to show to other people.” The engagement was called off when the couple had mutual doubts about their readiness for marriage, and then it was on again in May — and this time she proposed. In November, she had her fiancé’s initials tattooed on the ring finger of her left hand — and posted that on Facebook.

Most couples think “diamond” when they think of engagement rings, though that may be due more to good marketing than actual traditions. And yet it is, to some, a symbol of everlasting love, and an engagement without a diamond ring seems unimaginable. According to TheKnot.com, the average engagement ring cost $5,598 in 2013. The average wedding (including engagement ring) totaled $29,858.

But there’s another interesting statistic about the cost of engagement rings, this one from researchers at Emory University: Men who spent $2,000 to $4,000 on an engagement ring were 30% more likely to get divorced than those who spent $500 to $2,000 (the odds of divorce for men spending less than $500 were also higher). And lavish spending on a wedding was associated with a higher divorce rate as well. “We find that marriage duration is either not associated or inversely associated with spending on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony,” the authors wrote. (It’s worth noting that correlation is not the same as causation; nonetheless, inexpensive — but large — weddings and modestly priced rings correlate with more successful marriages.)

Clearly, spending major cash for a big rock won’t necessarily make the relationship more stable. But a lot of grooms-to-be feel pressured to give one, even if they can’t really afford it. And we live in a world where, when a woman says she’s engaged, friends and co-workers take a quick look at her left hand. If you do not happen to have several thousand dollars lying around, and don’t want to go into debt for an engagement ring, but know your Facebook friends will want to see the ring when your engagement is Facebook-official, what can you do?

We asked, and got some creative responses.

1. Give a Family Heirloom 

It’s possible a relative has a ring that is just waiting for someone to ask for it. Or perhaps a ring already in the family can be resized or reset. You won’t know unless you ask. And what better way is there to celebrate a new family than to use a ring that is already part of family history?

2. Buy a ‘Starter’ Ring

You can buy an affordable ring, with a quality setting the bride-to-be likes. You can buy a small stone now (or a lookalike — more on that in a moment) and upgrade when you can pay cash, perhaps as an anniversary gift. Or, you can decide you like it as is, or that you’d rather take a vacation.

katherine schreiber

3. Have Your Ring Finger Tattooed

Body art now includes engagement and wedding rings. We will assume that if you’re open to the idea of tattooed rings, you’re not exactly wedded to tradition. Schreiber said she never wanted her fiancé to “shell out several times our monthly rent” on something she didn’t really want to wear and might lose. Nor are they at a place where they can afford to spend lavishly. She is finishing up a master’s degree in creative nonfiction (and co-wrote the upcoming The Truth About Exercise Addiction), and he recently started his own business. Reaction from friends and family to her finger tattoo has been positive.

4. Color Outside the Lines

More couples are choosing colored stones for engagement rings. While that is not necessarily a less expensive choice than a diamond, it very often is. You could go with the bride’s birthstone, the groom’s — or perhaps incorporate both. And if the bride-to-be has never been one to do what’s expected, why start now?

5. Fake It

Lab-created white sapphire and moissanite often bear a striking resemblance to diamonds, and they can be a compromise between paying thousands for a diamond and paying much less. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a diamond and an impostor; that’s why you’ll see websites explaining to consumers how to tell if what they are buying is really a diamond. It isn’t easy, and let’s just say friends admiring your ring are very unlikely to whip out a jeweler’s loupe to be sure. An engagement ring with a stone of about 0.75 carat can be had for under $1,000 (and in the Emory study’s sweet spot).

Cubic zirconia is a diamond simulant that is older and less expensive than moissanite, its biggest competitor. You can find it in settings ranging from “simulated gold” all the way up to platinum, and at prices starting under $20 and rising past $1,000. And if you think you can easily tell the difference between it and a diamond, you are probably not looking at the highest-grade CZ. Actually, some women wear both CZ and diamonds.

Big spending can mean big debt, and having to live on a restrictive budget can be tough. So before you assume a $5,000 ring is as necessary as a marriage license — and especially if you don’t have $5,000 — take a look at whether doing what you think is expected is worth it. And if you’re considering taking out a loan or charging the engagement ring to a credit card, both parties should know as much about each other’s credit as possible. If you haven’t shared that part of yourself with your spouse-to-be, engagement is high time. (You and your future spouse can get free annual credit reports from each of the credit reporting agencies. You can also get a free credit report summary, updated monthly, from Credit.com.)

In the end, the choice — and the knowledge of what the ring’s monetary value is — is up to the couple and needn’t be shared with anyone other than, perhaps, an insurance agent. Rings worth upwards of $5,000 should be insured (another expense). But for people who are worried they will lose a ring (or who already have), those who want to declare their independence from one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever, or those who’d rather use their good credit to go snorkeling together in the Caribbean than for a three-year financing plan, there are options out there.

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Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy Katherine Schreiber

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  • heavyw8t

    I remember as time when the rule of thumb said that you are supposed to spend 3 months salary on the engagement ring,

    I don’t care who the girl is. I’m not spending $450 on ANY ring!!!

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