I’ve been waiting a few weeks to share with you some wonderful news. My boyfriend and I got engaged! My boyfriend (I still feel weird saying fiancé) proposed to me a few weeks ago and I’ve been waiting for the right post to come along to share the news. I knew we would get engaged at some point this year because we’ve been together for over 3.5 years and we had talked about it beforehand, but I didn’t know when exactly it would happen. He did a great job of surprising me.
One of the things we discussed in the months leading up to the proposal was buying an engagement ring. We had talked about my preferences and even gone shopping together earlier this year, but I couldn’t decide on one between the few that we saw and liked. In the end, my boyfriend had a ring made for me, so I didn’t have to decide at all.
One thing we both learned from this process is that buying an engagement ring is serious business. I already had a good understanding of jewelry before shopping, but I learned a lot more once I started ring shopping. My boyfriend, who knew nothing of jewelry, spent hours researching and looking at stones and rings. When I asked if he would like to write this post on ring shopping from a guy’s perspective, he joked that he wanted to forget everything he learned the night after he proposed and fill his mind with “guy” topics.
So I’ll be the one to share with you the many ways there are to get a good deal on an engagement ring. This post is written more for guys who are shopping for their girlfriends. But if you’re a woman reading this, feel free to share this with your guy!
(FYI, very long post ahead)
1) Do your research
Research is key to getting the best deal on an engagement ring. The research extends to two areas: what your girlfriend wants and what makes a good quality ring.
Regarding what your girlfriend wants, there are a number of ways to find out. If you’re open to it, ask her directly. If that’s not an option, talk to her friends and family to see if she’s made any comments to them about what she likes. Take a look at the clothes and jewelry that she wears. Does she like elaborate pieces or is she into more subtle accessories? Does she often wear diamonds or is she into colored stones? Browse her Pinterest board for an idea, although don’t be fooled into thinking she wants exactly what she has pinned. We pin lots of rings for various reasons. The research is key though, because it’s important that the ring is something that your girlfriend (and you) like.
When it comes to the ring, there are a number of things to research.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, so the saying goes. As such, it’s important that the diamond be of good quality. Diamonds are graded using the four C’s, which stand for
- Cut – Cut is the most important of the four C’s because it determines how light interacts with the stone, thereby affecting how much it sparkles. Grading for cut is not uniform. On Blue Nile, a popular jewelry website, cut is rated from Signature to Poor/Fair. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and many other sellers use Excellent to Poor. Whatever grading system you use, a higher grade cut is considered better quality. A stone with good color and clarity may look cloudy if not cut well. Note that cut is different from the shape of a stone (e.g., round, oval, cushion, pear).
- Clarity – Diamonds may have inclusions and blemishes that affect their clarity. Clarity is graded on a scale from Flawless (FL) to Included 3 (I3). The better the clarity, meaning less inclusions and blemishes, the higher the value.
- Color – Diamonds come in a variety of colors including yellow to brown and are graded from D-Z. Colorless diamonds are more highly valued. Blue Nile recommends a getting a diamond grade H or higher to avoid a yellow tint.
- Carat weight – Carat refers to the weight of a diamond. Diamonds can appear very different in size even if they have the same carat weight. This is due to the influence of the other C’s. So consider this factor in conjunction with the others. And note that most women have some idea of the carat size they want in a diamond.
These websites are great resources for more information on diamond quality.
- Blue Nile - education
- Gemological Institute of America - diamond quality factor
- Lumera Diamonds - education
A setting is how the stone is held on the ring and essentially includes the band as well. In general, a basic setting with a plain solid band will cost less than a more intricate setting, especially if it requires additional diamonds or other stones. The material used will also make a difference in the total cost. Platinum costs more than gold, no matter what color of gold. Eighteen carat gold will cost more than 14 carat gold.
You comparison shop for other big purchases in life, so it makes sense to comparison shop for an engagement ring too. Prices may vary drastically depending on where you purchase the ring (e.g., online versus a physical store). More on this below.
Check the return policy before you make a purchase. Some sellers will allow you to return the entire ring within 30 days for a full refund. Others will not accept returns if the ring was customized in any way. Other sellers may offer no return at all. This is important if you purchase a ring without knowledge of your girlfriend’s preferences or if you’re uncertain that she will love the ring and may need to return it.
2) Pick a smaller center stone
The main stone of a ring can be made to look larger than it is. Cut, as mentioned above, is key to a diamond’s quality. A well-cut smaller diamond will appear larger than it really is.
Another way to achieve this effect is by placing a smaller stone in a halo setting. This is where the center stone is surrounded by a number of smaller accent diamonds, making the center stone look larger and giving the ring more sparkle.
A third way is to pick a shape with better spread, meaning that it faces up or looks larger than it actually is. Typically, stones with shapes such as round, pear, and oval will look larger than cushion or emerald shaped stones given the same carat weight. Blue Nile provides a Diamond Carat Size Chart on this page to show how various diamonds will appear when viewed from above.
You might also want to think about your girlfriend’s hand size and finger size. If she has small hands, a smaller stone may look very nice on her finger proportionally. Alternately, if she has large hands, she may want a larger stone or design to fit in proportion to her hand.
3) Go under the carat mark
After getting engaged, my boyfriend’s friend asked if I’m in the carat club, meaning if my center stone is over 1 carat. At some point in time, someone decided that one carat is the perfect size stone. It’s now often considered the benchmark for a ring.
One way around this though is to buy a stone just under the carat mark. To the naked eye, there’s not much difference between a diamond that’s 0.95 carats and 1.00 carats. But there can be big difference in price, setting aside other factors of quality. The same is true for buying under the other marks such as 0.5 carats or 2 carats.
4) Choose an alternative stone
Although diamonds are the most popular stone for engagement rings, plenty of other stones make for great rings too. Make sure your girlfriend is okay with an alternative stone before you go this route as many women want diamonds.
Mossanites are a great alternative to a diamond if you’re looking for a colorless stone. Read up here on the details of diamonds vs moissanites. You’ll see that moissanites are much cheaper, meaning you can get a larger stone for less. Some women prefer mossanites for a similar look to a diamond but without all the ethical issues surrounding diamond mining.
In the above picture, the stone on the left is the mossanite and the one on the right is diamond. The diamond's color is E and clarity is VVS2.
Other alternatives are colored stones such as sapphires and rubies. Both of these stones are hard enough to last everyday wear for years. Pearls and other softer stones are generally not recommended for use in engagement rings because they cannot stand wear and tear over time.
Or you could go completely alternative. A friend of my got engaged with a wood ring. She’s from the West Coast and he’s from the East Coast. They both love nature. He proposed with a ring made of wood from two trees, one native to his region and one native to hers.
5) Buy second-hand
When I first started looking for rings, I immediately went to brick-and-mortar stores and online shops to look for an antique ring. I love antique jewelry. Some people won’t wear second-hand jewelry due to having superstitions or qualms about it. I like to think that the person who had it before would be happy for me love their ring and take such good care of it.
There are a lot of pre-used rings out there! People have engagement rings from broken engagements, divorce, inheritances, etc. You may find the prices to be much cheaper than buying new, although not all pieces will be deeply discounted. Pieces from highly sought-after brands (think Cartier or Tiffany & Co.) retain much of their value. But you may get lucky and find something you want for less than retail. You’ll be benefiting society and the earth too by reusing something already in existence. You also have more ability to negotiate price when buying second-hand.
Just be careful because buying second-hand often means sales are final. And again, make sure your girlfriend is comfortable with wearing second-hand jewelry. I should mention that second-hand doesn’t necessarily mean an old or vintage ring. You’ll find modern style rings being sold as well.
Below are some of my favorite websites for second-hand jewelry. There are many more websites and physical shops out there.
6) Family heirloom
If you’re lucky, you may have a family member who wants to give you an engagement ring. My grandmother had a ring that she passed down to my brother. He gave it to his now wife when they got engaged. The ring didn’t fit her exactly and it may not have even been her style. If you find that to be the case with your family heirloom, a jeweler can help to reset the stone or stones into a different setting more to your girlfriend’s liking.
7) Shop trade shows
Every few months, the International Gem & Jewelry Show comes to the SF Bay Area. I’ve been to it several times over the years, including earlier this year when I started looking for my engagement ring. You wouldn’t believe the great deals they have on rings there!
When I attended in March, I spent about two hours walking up and down the many rows of jewelers. They had rings that retail for $800 going for less than $200 because you can bargain with sellers and get further discounts by paying in cash. If you go on Sunday close to closing, some sellers will discount their goods even further to make a sale before the show closes.
The show travels around the US. Note that not every show has the same amount or quality of vendors. If you don’t find something the first time around, you might want to go back when the show comes around again. Some vendors sell more costume jewelry. Other vendors have really high-quality pieces. You can find a vendor you like to make a custom ring for you too.
This is one of the rings I tried on at the trade show I attended. The ring is advertised as retailing for $6450 and selling in the seller's physical store and on Etsy for $3200. At the show, it was marked down to $2400. I would have tried to negotiate further if I had decided to buy it.
8) Shop wholesalers and ethnic businesses vs. chain stores
Here in San Francisco, there are several specialty locations to buy quality engagement rings. One place is the San Francisco Gift Center & Jewelry Mart. The market is made up of jewelry wholesalers. Not every one of them specializes in engagement rings, but some will have rings already made for you to look at. Many will tell you that they can work with you to design the ring that you want, including obtaining the quality of stone you want. These businesses will give you a much better deal than shopping at mall chain stores such as Kay Jewelers or Jared. Don’t forget that you can negotiate on price with these sellers.
I stated ethic businesses above because several of the sellers at the Jewelry Mart are Chinese or of other Asian descent. My family is of Chinese descent, so sometimes shopping at other Asian-run businesses results in an even better deal on whatever it is we are buying. If you have the advantage of buying from someone that you find trust-worthy within your own community, whatever that community may be, consider it because they may be willing to give you an even better price than the average buyer would get.
9) Use referrals
As with many other types of businesses, jeweler referrals for can do wonders to ensure that you get good service and a great product. When my cousin was shopping for an engagement ring, my mom referred him to a reputable jeweler that she knows. The jeweler was appreciative of the referral and my cousin received a ring of high quality at a great price.
If you know someone knowledgeable about jewelry, ask him or her for a referral. It doesn’t have to be a family member. Ask a friend or a co-worker where he or she bought an engagement ring and if he or she could refer you. There’s no harm in going and taking a look or talking to the jeweler.
10) Shop online
As mentioned above, I prefer to shop specific specialty stores or ethnic businesses when it comes to buying jewelry. On par with that is buying jewelry online. At some online stores, you can customize your ring with a stone and setting to fit your budget. You’ll find that online stores are generally cheaper and have more selection than chain jewelry stores. The two below are commonly mentioned. I've had good experiences buying off of eBay as well. I only buy online when returns are allowed.
11) Buy what you can afford now and upgrade later
In my research, I read about many women who married young or without much money so they received a small stone. As they passed anniversaries and they and their husbands made more money, they were able to upgrade to larger stones or more elaborate settings.
I find the idea a bit strange for myself. But I understand that many women have a strong idea about what they would like in a ring, whether it comes now or someday in the future. I’ve even read that upgrading rings is considered the norm among the young in some cultures now. If your girlfriend is open to this idea, this is an easy way to save on a ring now.
Along with that, I should mention that it’s best to set a budget early in the search and stick to it. Don’t buy an engagement ring on credit. You’ll end up paying interest on the ring and there are many more expenses that come up after a ring (e.g., the wedding, honeymoon, down payment on a house, a family). Then you definitely won’t be saving money!
12) No engagement ring
I can hear the jaws drop right now, but honestly, several people I know have no engagement rings and only have wedding bands. I suggested this option to my boyfriend. My reasons were several:
- I work in a medical setting where I handle food every day. I wouldn’t wear the ring at work because I didn’t want it getting dirty or damaged. That means I’d only wear it a few hours on evenings and during the weekends.
- Jewelry can be expensive, particularly quality diamonds, which make up most engagement rings.
- Jewelry has no practical value. You don’t eat it like food or sleep in it like a house. Jewelry is not a car that drives you somewhere, although it can cost much more than one.
- I would feel our relationship is unequal if I received a ring and got him nothing in return. We’d be equal in wearing just wedding bands. Most guys I know are not interested in wearing anything more than a wedding band anyway.
In the end, my boyfriend wouldn’t have it. He encouraged me to pick out a ring, and when I couldn’t decide, he had a ring made for me. I would’ve been happy with a ring or no ring, stone or no stone. Mostly I’m happy to be engaged and thankful for such a beautiful present.
All in all, what makes the perfect engagement ring is unique and personal to each individual. For the women, she will be wearing this ring the rest of her life and may even pass it on to a family member one day. She’ll want the ring to be one she loves. But the ring that she loves can be more affordable than you think by keeping in mind some of the above tips.
Now that I’m engaged, I plan to write occasionally about wedding topics as they relate to frugal living and personal finance here on the blog. I already have a post on budget wedding dress shopping in the works and more brewing in my mind. So stay tuned!
Dear Readers, what has your experience been while shopping for an engagement ring? Did you manage to stay within your budget if you had one? What are some qualities or features of a ring that you prioritized when deciding on one? What other tips would you recommend to someone who is looking to buy an engagement ring?