First comes love, then comes marriage … Well, almost. In between those two things comes a pretty big purchase: the ring.
Though it pales in comparison to finding “The One,” finding the right engagement ring is no simple task. Knowing how to buy an engagement ring is a science in itself.
From stones to settings, it can quickly get complicated, overwhelming — and expensive. Worst of all, it’s easy to get duped if you don’t know what you’re doing.
To help you tackle this pre-proposal pursuit, we’ve created a comprehensive guide with everything you need to know before buying an engagement ring.
Note: For simplicity’s sake, we’ve used a man proposing to a woman model — but please know The Penny Hoarder welcomes all love and ring-buying (or abstaining) practices!
5 Need-to-Know Engagement Ring Shopping Tips
Need the basics? Are you sitting in your car outside the jewelry store right now?
If you’re in a rush, just read this section and take a screenshot of the cheat sheet that follows. (But we recommend taking your time.)
1. The “Two Months’ Salary” Guideline is a Myth
You’re supposed to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring, right?
The “rule” is actually the result of a wildly successful diamond industry advertising campaign. (So are diamond engagement rings in general … but that’s another story.)
Before you’re swayed by all the shiny stuff in the jewelry store (and smooth-talking salespeople), set a firm budget.
It shouldn’t be hard to figure out: Look at the amount of money you’ve saved, and don’t go over it.
Borrowing money to purchase an engagement ring isn’t smart. We’d recommend using a credit card to purchase it (so you can earn rewards!), but only spend as much money as you saved. Then pay the full balance when you get the bill.
Remember: You’re going to be together for a lifetime (ideally). You can always upgrade her ring later — or if buying from a local jeweler, trade it in for a bigger stone.
2. It Could Take Six Weeks to Get Your Ring
Think you’re just going to walk into a store, grab the perfect ring and walk out?
Think again, Rico Suave. Depending on the style, setting and level of customization, rings can take from two to six weeks (or more) to be ready to put on her finger.
Make sure you factor that in when you plan your proposal, so you don’t find yourself on one knee with a plastic placeholder in your pocket when you’d rather give her the real deal.
3. Buying Your Stone Online Could Save Money
Want to save money? Don’t buy a ready-to-wear ring. Loose diamonds are a far better value than those already sitting pretty in a setting — and buying them online could save you loads.
However, there’s something to be said for seeing the diamond yourself.
Raju Khiatani owns Barclays Jewelers in Miami, Florida and is a 40-year veteran of the diamond business. He says dealers sell lower-quality diamonds to online jewelers because they know customers will be buying them without seeing the stones. Traditional jewelers handpick each diamond they sell.
“If you look at the certificate … it won’t tell you if the stone looks a little hazy, or is not as bright,” he explains.
Khiatani also notes buying a diamond offline isn’t always more expensive, because you could stumble upon a technically inferior diamond that is stunning in person.
“Sometimes you could buy a lower color diamond that would look as nice as a [better] color because of the way it was cut and sparkled,” Khiatani explains. “You could save maybe a few thousand dollars, a few hundred dollars, depending on what size it was.”
4. Some Women Don’t Want Expensive Diamond Rings
Before dropping a bunch of money on an expensive diamond ring, ask yourself if it’s what your future fiancée really wants.
Some women have family heirlooms they’d rather wear — others prefer specific gemstones. Some think the entire diamond industry is absurd, and would prefer a romantic vacation or down payment on a house instead of a pricey ring.
If you’re not sure what she really wants, you could propose with an inexpensive costume jewelry ring and let her pick one out. (One of my friends got proposed to with a Ring Pop, which I thought was really cute!)
5. Proceed With Caution
There’s no nice way to say it: The diamond industry is notoriously shady.
To help navigate the murky waters, our absolute best advice is to find a jeweler you trust. Avoid big-name chain jewelers. Instead, ask friends for recommendations or look up a local jeweler with excellent Yelp reviews.
“A lot of these chain stores, they advertise a one carat diamond for say, $2,900,” Khiatani says. “It probably looks like a 0.85 or 0.90 [carat]. It’s not cut as well, but because the customer is not aware of that, and is just looking at the total weight, they think they’re getting a good deal.”
He suggests looking for “a jeweler in your hometown, who has been there for a while, who has a reputation, who would be happy to take back whatever they sell you — because they know what they’re selling you is good stuff.”
If you can’t find a good local option, try a well-respected online retailer like Blue Nile (they even have an app!)
Cheat Sheet: How to Buy a Good Engagement Ring
Round: They offer the most sparkle and are by far the most popular. When in doubt, go round.
Princess: The second most popular cut — sparkly and modern at a lower price than round.
Marquise, pear and oval: These can create the illusion of slimmer fingers — and more carats.
Cushion, emerald, asscher and radiant: If she has vintage or romantic tastes and wants to stand out in a crowd of rounds.
CHOOSING A DIAMOND: THE 4Cs
In order of importance, here’s what you should consider when buying a diamond:
Cut: Get the best cut you can afford — stick to Ideal (preferable) or Very Good.
Clarity: SI1 or SI2 are the best value.
Color: Choose G, H, or I (with G being the best).
Carat: To save a bundle, “buy shy”: Choose a diamond just under one carat (0.9, for example).
RING STYLE & SETTING
Think about her taste and style. Is it funky, romantic, modern, classic? Does she wear jewelry that is gold in color, or silver? Is she more comfortable at a luxury hotel, or a tent?
These questions can help you figure out the style, setting and metal of her ideal ring.
Most women are between size 5 and 7, with 6 being the average. If you have no clue what size she is, get a 7 and purchase a ring guard to go with it (a plastic tube that makes the ring smaller). You can always get it resized later.
If you have the time (and energy) to research and plan your ring purchase, here are seven steps for picking out the perfect engagement ring.
1. Start Sleuthin’
Before you even drive to the store, don your detective cap. The right woman may say “yes” to whatever is in the box, you want your ring to show you really know what she likes.
If you haven’t talked about a ring, here are a few ways to figure out what she might like:
Listen for Hints
If your girlfriend wants you to propose, she’s probably going to drop hints her dream ring.
Next time one of her friends gets engaged, listen to what she says about the ring. Beautiful? Too big? Too plain? Just vintage enough?
Ask Her Friends and Family
Her inner circle probably knows what kind of ring she wants. Get her sister or best friend in on it; they’re almost certain to share good advice — and if you’re lucky, photos.
Does your girlfriend care about social issues? She may want a conflict-free (read: non-blood) diamond.
At least make sure your diamond has been vetted by the Kimberley Process; it’s not perfect, but better than nothing.
2. Figure Out Her Size
When secretly buying an engagement ring, this is the trickiest part.
Her friends and family may know her size. But if they don’t (or you don’t want to ask), you’re not totally out of luck. You can print out a ring-sizing guide and compare one of her rings to it — just keep in mind her fingers may be different sizes.
“The average ring size in the US is 6 (based on the ‘average’ US female being 5’4″ tall and weighing 140 lbs.),” according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) guidelines.
“If she’s more slender, or fine boned, her ring size is probably in the 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 range. If she is heavier, larger boned or taller, her ring size is probably in the 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 range.”
When in doubt, choose a size 7 and buy a ring guard in case it’s too big. She’ll be able to wear the ring for all the “Yay! We’re engaged!” photos, and you can get it resized later. Some jewelers — Blue Nile included — resize for free.
3. Choose a Shape
A diamond’s shape is one of the most important aesthetics of your ring.
Round is most popular because it catches the most light — it’s the sparkliest.
Princess is second most popular. It offers much of the shininess of round — in a more modern style. Another bonus? It’s cheaper.
Marquise, oval and pear are long and slender, which can have a slimming effect on fingers. Because almost the entirety of these stones appear in the setting, they can also appear larger.
Other less-common shapes include cushion, emerald, asscher, radiant and heart-shaped. These are great options if your fiancée has romantic or vintage tastes, or dreams of a unique ring none of her friends are wearing.
4. Learn Your 4 Cs
If you haven’t figured it out yet, finding the right diamond is the most important piece of the engagement ring puzzle.
You need to know your 4 Cs: cut, color, clarity and carat.
These metrics are used to rate every diamond. Not only will they give you an idea of a stone’s quality — they’ll also help you estimate the cost.
“The cut of your diamond typically has the biggest impact on its price — about 25% to 50%. Carat weight will influence about 10% to 20% and color and clarity each make up the last 10% to 15% of the price,” Forbes reports.
(If you really want inside info, order Rapaport Magazine — it lists the market value for different diamonds.)
Make sure the diamond you buy is officially rated by the GIA — not the jeweler. Your stone should also come with a certificate detailing its C scores.
Here’s what else you need to know about the 4 Cs:
Cut describes the diamond’s proportions and symmetry. It’s the most important factor to consider. “It affects the sparkle of the stone,” Khiatani explains.
Don’t skimp here. Go for the best cut your budget allows: Very Good, or if possible, Ideal.
Diamonds are rated on a scale from D (colorless) to Z (yellow). The less color, the more expensive the diamond.
If you want a stunning diamond that won’t blow your budget, we recommend ratings G, H or I.
Clarity refers to the stone’s number of imperfections, called “inclusions.”
Stick to diamonds rated SI1 or SI2. These may have small inclusions, but not visible to the naked eye.
The C you’ve probably heard most about actually is the least important. Carat refers to the weight of your diamond: 142 carats per ounce.
If choosing between quality and quantity, go with the former. Buy a small sparkly diamond, not a big dull one.
We also recommend “buying shy.” Purchase a diamond that’s just under the carat you’d like.
If you want a one-carat diamond, get one that’s 0.95 — it’ll look nearly identical and could save you as much as 30%.
The 4 Cs are great guidelines for diamond shopping, but don’t let them trump what you think of a stone.
“It’s like looking at girls,” Khiatani explains. “To me, she might look beautiful; to somebody else, they don’t like what she looks like. I find some diamonds of lower quality — in terms of what the certificate says — and the diamond just sparkles.”
5. Pick a Setting She’ll Love
The diamond may be the most important part of an engagement ring, but you should also take time to ensure the style is up her alley. This is where the sleuthing comes in handy — hopefully you have some idea what she likes.
Settings include solitaire, sidestone, three-stone and pave (where the main stone is surrounded by tiny diamonds). Bezel and halo settings push the diamond up, which make it look bigger. If you need more guidance, Brilliant Earth has an excellent guide.
Choose a metal, too. The most common colors are yellow, white and rose gold and platinum. If she normally wears silver-colored jewelry, she’d probably prefer a white gold or platinum ring. The former is cheaper, but the latter’s more durable.
Totally stumped? Turn to the experts. Snap a few sneaky pics of her jewelry collection and show your jeweler. If you don’t know what her collection says about her tastes, they might.
Or, propose with just a diamond and let your future fiancée choose the setting. We recommend putting it in a basic setting (don’t just hand her a box with a rock) so she has something to flaunt for Facebook once she’s said yes.
6. Purchase Insurance
You’ve spent all this time reading about an expensive ring — the last thing you probably want to think about is losing it.
It’s always a possibility, so be sure to purchase ring insurance. Most people can get coverage as an add-on (or “rider”) on their homeowners or renters insurance.
“The yearly cost to insure your ring is $1 to $2 for every $100 that it would cost to replace,” The Knot reports. So if you buy a $3,000 ring, insurance will cost between $30 and $60 per year.
“A good policy will cover every potential ring-threatening situation, from theft and damage to accidentally dropping it in the garbage disposal.”
The most important thing is to read the fine print, The Knot says.
Alright, you’re ready! Now all you have to do is… plan a proposal. And a wedding.
No big deal.
Your Turn: Have you purchased an engagement ring? Any tips to share?
Disclosure: We appreciate you letting us include affiliate links in this post. It helps keep the beer fridge stocked in the Penny Hoarder break room.
Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.