What prospective groom hasn't secretly shuddered at the old saying an engagement ring should cost at least two months' salary? Let's be honest: Even in robust financial times, this is an extravagant idea. But when the economy is fragile -- and the price of gold and diamonds astronomical -- spending up to 16% of your income on a ring can give new meaning to the words "crazy in love."
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You don't have to break the bank to find a good engagement ring, says Robert Bates, senior editor of Jewelry Circular Keystone, a leading trade magazine in the jewelry industry. "People get hung up on the numbers," he says, "but it's really about finding (a ring) you like and making your fiance happy."
Start your marriage on the right financial footing by buying an engagement ring with love -- and wisdom. Here are five ways to save money on the perfect ring.
It may not be as romantic as entering a brick-and-mortar store to buy an engagement ring, but buying online can save you enough cash for many romantic nights. Thousands of couples seem to agree. According to The Wedding Report, more than $1 billion of the $9.64 billion spent on engagement and wedding rings in 2010 came from online purchases.
"The customer gets far more value for the money buying online," says jeweler L.G. Landau of DiamondIdeals.com. Because an online retailer has more competition than a traditional store and less overhead, prices are naturally lower, he says.
Consumers should be especially discerning when selecting an online jeweler. Landau recommends seeking retailers whose jewelry has been evaluated by gemologists, who can provide digital images of the stones and who have multiple channels of communication, from email to online chat capabilities.
Subtract a Fraction of a Carat
Although buying a 1-carat diamond is a benchmark for many couples, the truth is very few people can distinguish between a 1-carat stone and a 0.9- or 0.8-carat stone. That's good news for engaged couples since this minuscule difference in weight makes a major difference in price.
There's about a 30% price difference between a 0.9-carat and a 1-carat stone, says jewelry designer Sylvie Levine, co-owner of The Sylvie Collection, an engagement ring line. The same difference is found between 1.4 and 1.5 carats, and 1.9 and 2 carats. Couples on a budget should stay just under the half-carat mark, she says.
Be Practical About Clarity and Color
Couples can also save money by choosing diamonds with a lower grade of color and clarity. This may strike some as skimping on quality, but be realistic. If you can't detect the difference with your naked eye, then paying a premium for a higher grade makes little sense.
Consider the main purpose of the stone, says diamond expert Ira Weissman of TruthAboutDiamonds.com, a website about savvy diamond buying. The point of an engagement ring diamond isn't to produce a return on investment, he says, but to look fantastic. "You don't need very high clarity to get (a diamond) that looks great." If the diamond has imperceptible imperfections, no one will know except you.
When it comes to color, Weissman recommends saving money by selecting the diamond with the lowest color grade that still appears white. Gemologists grade color by comparing each diamond to a master diamond, he says. While a diamond may receive a lower grade because it has more color than the master, standing alone, it may still appear sparkling white.
Skip the Diamond
Brides who aren't wedded to tradition may be happy to forgo a diamond ring altogether. They'd be in good company. "Gemstones made a big comeback after Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton with Princess Diana's sapphire engagement ring," says Levine.
Ruth Batson, executive director of the American Gem Society, says sapphires and rubies make particularly good choices for engagement rings. "They are high on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, just under diamonds," she says. "Because an engagement ring is worn daily, you need a gemstone that is hard."
Brides favoring white stones have nondiamond options as well. For her engagement ring, photographer Sara Meynardie chose a white sapphire that "cost a fraction of the price of a diamond and looks just as stunning." And LeeAnn Shattuck, co-owner of Women's Automotive Solutions, opted for a synthetic diamond, choosing to invest the money saved in starting her business.
Consider a Nontraditional Setting or Shape
A large center stone can ratchet up the cost of a ring. Levine suggests trimming costs by using a smaller center stone with a setting that increases its visual impact. A "halo" setting, for example, is one where the center stone is encircled with diamonds, adding sparks and flare. "Halos always make the center stone look bigger," says Levine.
Avoiding conventional shapes can also reduce costs. Traditional round brilliant diamonds usually cost more because they require high cutting skill, says American Gem Society's Batson. She recommends opting for a less-expensive shape, such as a square-shaped diamond. "(They) retain a lot of sparkle, which not only helps make a diamond look larger but more beautiful."