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How To Buy An Engagement Ring Online (And Save Thousands!)

by David Weliver

Learning how to buy an engagement ring is no small thing. You’re going to be dropping some serious cash on something that your future wife will hopefully cherish for the rest of her life. Let’s make sure you get it right.

Why should you trust me?

I’m just some dude on the internet, I know. But when it comes to buying engagement rings, I have some cred: I’ve purchased two myself. More importantly, I’ve been a financial journalist for over 15 years.

I’ve spent my entire career researching personal finance and writing articles that have helped millions of people save money on big financial decisions. I worked at a monthly financial magazine SmartMoney, and I founded the financial website Money Under 30 that now reaches several million readers every month.

This site, Diamond Buying School, is a passion project of mine. I found the process of buying an engagement ring frustrating. It’s full of high-pressure salespeople, bait-and-switch marketing, and poor customer service after the sale.

The industry makes massive profits by selling to uninformed guys who walk through the door and want to buy the biggest ring they can afford (or stretch to afford). Jewelers do everything they can to make buying an engagement ring an emotional decision. And when you make an emotional buying decision, you spend too much.

Below, I’m going to share my experiences buying engagement rings. If you want, you can skip right to the practical tips on how to buy an engagement ring below.

How I screwed up buying my wife’s engagement ring (twice)

I proposed to my wife twice. Both times, I purchased engagement rings from well-known jewelry store chains. Both times, I kind of got screwed. Read my story so it doesn’t happen to you.

In case you’re wondering: No, she didn’t turn me down the first time. We were just too young.

My wife and I are high-school sweethearts. We went to different colleges and did the long distance thing. I proposed the first time before our senior year of college.

It was going to be a long engagement and long engagements are risky things. Long story short, we called off the wedding and ended up “taking some time” and dating other people. It happens.

Turns out, it was a good thing. Five years later, we reconnected. I proposed again, and we’ve been happily married for over a decade.

Engagement ring #1

The summer before our senior year of college, I was living in New York City and making some decent money for the first time in my life. I decided I would propose to my girlfriend at the end of the summer.

Being a naive (at, at the time, financially irresponsible) 21-year old, I decided I would just buy a nice but modest ring and pay for it over time with a credit card. There were no shortage of jewelry stores in manhattan, so I shopped around at all the well-known jewelers like Zales, Kay, Tiffany & Co. I was smart enough, on my budget, to steer clear of Cartier, LOL.

I didn’t do any research on things like the 4Cs of diamonds other than what the salespeople told me.

I was turned off by the rather aggressive salespeople at Zales and ultimately ended up begin drawn to the brand mystique of Tiffany & Co. I put down $2,800 for a small half-carat round solitaire engagement ring in platinum.

It was a small ring, yes, but it was classic and beautiful. But I paid way, way too much for that little blue box.

This was in 2002. After inflation, that ring would’ve cost about $4,000 today. In fact, here’s a similar (slightly lower quality) ring for sale on Tiffany’s website today. It lists for $3,640.

A half-carat solitaire diamond engagement ring from Tiffany & Co. Very pricey!

The cost of buying a similar, nearly identical (and even slightly larger) ring at James Allen? $1,487.

A half-carat solitaire diamond engagement ring James Allen -- half the price of a similar ring at T&C!

The worst part? I ended up selling that Tiffany ring to a jeweler for a measly $750. You can never recoup the retail price of a diamond ring. But you get totally hosed when you pay such a premium for a brand.

Engagement ring #2

You might have thought I learned my lesson from the first ring. And, in one sense, I did — I didn’t go back to Tiffany & Co.!

I knew that more “main street” jewelers offered better bang for your buck, so I ended up at one of today’s most popular stores: Jared.

This time I bought a 3/4-carat princess-cut diamond in a white-gold halo setting (one that is surrounded by little diamonds) for about $4,000 ($4,800 in today’s dollars). Another beautiful ring. But again, I paid too much.

A similar ring with a higher-quality diamond goes for about $3,700 on James Allen.

At the time, online jewelers weren’t as popular as they are today. Many shoppers (myself included) were dubious about buying something so expensive sight-unseen. You could argue that the experience of browsing in a jewelry store and seeing the ring in person was worth the premium. Maybe.

But what really soured me to Jared, in particular, was they way the handled (or didn’t handle) a problem with the ring after the sale. I won’t get into the details here, but the setting on my wife’s ring had a rough edge that constantly caught on her clothing.

When we returned to the store (less than a year after purchase) they wouldn’t do anything but try to sell us (not exchange for) a new ring. We ended up having a local jeweler fix it instead.

What I learned (the hard way) about buying engagement rings

If you buy an engagement ring from a big-name brick-and-mortar jewelry store, you’re going to overpay by hundreds or thousands of dollars. The bigger the brand, the more the markup.

Diamonds are, to some extent, rare. But they are also a commodity. At any given time, a diamond of certain characteristics has a certain value that jewelers around the world can agree upon. It’s no different than an ounce of gold, except that a diamond’s value doesn’t appreciate anywhere near the rate of gold.

The entire jewelry business is about using branding to get you to pay more for the same diamond you can buy elsewhere for less.

If you want to buy a breathtaking engagement ring and keep money in your pocket — buy from a reputable online jeweler like the ones we review here.

If you want a highly-customized ring (beyond what you can design on these online sites), find a local independent jeweler to design the ring for you. And even in this case, you may want to buy a loose diamond online to use in the setting the jeweler designs.

How to buy an engagement ring (the right way)

If you want to buy an engagement ring your fiancée will love at the lowest price possible, first figure out: 1) What kind of rings she likes, 2) Her ring size, 3) Your budget and 4) how to compare diamonds using the four Cs. Then, visit top online jewelers to build her ring at a price you can feel good about.

How to find out what kind of rings your girlfriend likes

By all means browse local jewelry stores with your girlfriend. Ask her friends — or even playfully ask her to point out pictures of rings she likes.

Maybe all diamond rings look the same to you. But I guarantee you she has an opinion.

Your girl probably has a very specific idea of what kind of ring she wants in mind, and unless you ask her, you’ll never know. Now, this is hard without giving away that you’re shopping for a ring (and the last thing you want to do is to make her think you’re going to propose any day when you’re not ready!)

My recommendation is this: The next time you and her are walking by a jewelry store, say you want to go in and look around. (Lie and say you’re looking at watches if you have to.)

Then, as you’re passing the rings, jokingly ask, “Oh, which one do you like?” If you’re light enough, she won’t know you’re serious, but you’ll still get brownie points and, hopefully, a few clues into her taste.

Here are some specifics to find out:

  • Does she like yellow gold or white gold/platinum?
  • Does she like rings with one diamond (solitaires) or rings with little diamonds on the band or around the large gem (pavé or halo settings)?
  • What diamond shape does she like? Round is the most classic and also the shape that sparkles most, but there are many diamond shapes to choose from.
  • Would she prefer a colored gemstone like an emerald or sapphire to a diamond?
  • Does she have strong feelings about ensuring her diamond is ethically-sourced? In other words, that the diamond is certified to be conflict free and ethically responsible. Brilliant Earth is an online jeweler that is dedicated to responsibly-sourced jewelry and home of Beyond Conflict Free Diamonds™.

Hopefully, you will be able to get a good sense of what kind of ring your girlfriend prefers. If she’s very particular (and hopefully you know this before you ask her to marry you) — this may have to be a joint shopping trip. If you’re not sure, talk to her friends. Trust me.

How to find her ring size

Find her ring size with a ring sizing tool, tape measure, or a piece of string and a ruler. You can also measure one of her existing rings.

Finding your girlfriend’s ring size can be a challenge if you don’t want her to know you’re getting ready to propose. Although the easiest way to find her size is with an inexpensive ring sizer or tape measure, you may have to result to measuring her finger in her sleep or digging around her jewelry drawer.

More: Read our complete guide to finding a woman’s ring size.

How to determine your budget for a ring

The old line that you need to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring was invented as a marketing campaign for a diamond company. Ignore i. Spend what you can afford.

How much you should spend on an engagement ring is a personal decision.

If you have the cash to spend two or three month’s salary on a ring and it’s important to you to do so, then by all means, spend that much. Whatever you do, don’t buy a ring you can’t afford.

Personally, I wouldn’t go into debt to buy an engagement ring. I did that once and I ended up selling it for 1/4 of what I paid for it. Idiotic.

You don’t want to be paying 20% interest on a credit card even after the wedding is over. If you need to finance the ring, get a new card that has a 0% teaser rate for 12 or 18 months and spread the cost of the ring over a few months. Just make sure you pay it off before the no-interest period expires.

Better yet, just save up the money first.

Yes, a diamond engagement ring is a symbol of your commitment to your fiancé. In an old-fashioned way, I suppose it’s also proof that you will be able to provide for her financially (or at least be an equal partner financially). But the size or value of the ring you give her is not a measure of how much you love her, etc.

In my opinion, if two people are in love and ready for marriage, how much the ring cost should not matter one bit. If it does, somebody’s not ready for marriage.

That said, women like diamonds. They dream of having a sparkling reminder of their man’s love and commitment and showing it off to all of their single friends. So unless you are 100% confident that your girlfriend doesn’t want a traditional engagement ring, or is cool with another type of gemstone, stick to the traditional diamond ring to avoid any potential disappointment.

Fortunately, although the sky is the limit on how much you can spend on an engagement ring, there are rings available to fit every budget, even one of just a few hundred dollars.

More: How much should you spend on an engagement ring?

How to compare diamond engagement rings

The price of an engagement ring is determined by two things: The characteristics (4 Cs) of the diamond(s) and the style and material of the setting (the ring itself).

Comparing engagement rings can feel like comparing apples and oranges. Every diamond is unique and there are thousands of individual styles of ring settings.

When it comes to the setting itself, the metal used will have a big impact on the price: 14-carat gold is usually the least expensive followed by 18-carat gold and platinum.

From there, a simple solitaire setting will be the least expensive, costing a couple hundred dollars in 14-carat gold. Prices for settings can reach into the thousands for settings with sidestones or many small diamonds around the center stone.

The largest driver of the cost of your ring will be the diamond itself. To compare diamonds, you need to educate yourself on the 4C’s: Carat, color, clarity and cut.

After learning about the four C’s, you’ll likely determine which one or two traits are most important in your diamond. Carat is a weight measurement that corresponds with a diamond’s size and is often important to most buyers, for example.

Online jewelers make it easy to filter and compare diamonds by each of the four Cs, shape, and price. The only downside to this is that you might be overwhelmed by just how many diamonds there are to choose from in your price range!

More: Read my diamond buying guide to learn everything you need to know about shopping for diamonds

Where is best place to buy an engagement ring?

Aside from getting the best price on your diamond engagement ring, different jewelers don’t always carry the same styles of rings.

I’ve already shared my experiences and why I think you should seriously consider buying an engagement ring online. But, to be fair, I’m going to cover the pros and cons of all types of jewelers here.

You can buy your engagement ring:

Every one of these has pros and cons. Let’s break them down.

National jewelers

Chances are the chain jewelry stores at your local malls will be the easiest place to browse diamond rings, and you should certain start there. On the upside, national jeweler stores have reputations so you know you’ll be getting the diamond you pay for and, if anything goes wrong with the transaction, you have a big company backing the transaction.

On the downside, national jewelry stores prices are the highest. Even those that announce crazy 40% off sales are still charging more for their diamonds than you can find elsewhere.

Lastly, you have limited ability to customize your ring. Although most stores will let you change settings and choose between platinum or yellow gold, you’re limited to the diamonds and settings they carry.

Independent jewelers

With an independent jeweler, you may have more unique choices in styles and settings, as well as the ability to customize the setting if your jeweler does bespoke rings. Your local jeweler can, for example, reset a diamond you buy elsewhere or have in the family. It also feels good to support a local business.

As a precaution, you should do your homework on business before you buy. Ninety nine percent of jewelers are honest but you don’t want to risk buying from one of the one percent who isn’t. Also, ask about the jeweler’s return policy before you buy.

Prices at a local jeweler may be high as well, but you also may be able to talk the price down. Many independent jewelers are business owners with the power to negotiate to close the deal. That’s not always true of the sales clerks at the mall stores.

Online jewelers

As e-commerce has become more familiar, people buy everything online, including diamonds!

Sites like James Allen, Brilliant Earth and Blue Nile feature a wide variety of diamond engagement rings and the ability to build a custom ring by matching a loose diamond and setting. Like national chain jewelers, these sites have a spotless reputation so you can have 100% confidence in your transaction (no questions asked return policy, insured shipping, etc.)

The big difference? Diamonds at some online jewelers cost almost HALF what they do at the mall. Don’t believe me? Go find an engagement ring at the mall and note the “Four Cs”. Then build a comparable ring on Blue Nile and note the price difference.

How can they do it? Pretty simple: By not paying for 1,000 stores across the country. The rent at your local mall is not cheap. Nor is it cheap to pay a staff to sell the jeweler. The result? Near-wholesale prices on diamonds.

The downside to buying online is that you can’t see the ring immediately, but no cost two-way shipping solves that problem in case you don’t like the ring you buy.

Second-hand engagement rings

There are two ways to beat the diamond prices you can get from an online retailer: buy wholesale or buy used.

I’ve omitted buying wholesale because few people are able to…you either have to know somebody in the business and/or live near the diamond district in a major city like New York. But anybody can buy a used diamond ring if you know what you’re doing. Sadly, these things are in pawn shops across the country and on auction sites like eBay at a fraction of the cost of retail pieces.

If you’re going to buy used, you want to either know how to inspect a diamond or be confident of an iron-clad return policy so you can get the ring checked out by an independent jeweler (most will do quick appraisals either free or for a small fee).

Some last tips for buying an engagement ring

Now that you’ve identified a) the style ring your girl likes b) your budget and c) where you’ll buy the ring, it’s time to pick a rock.

One you get an understanding of the 4 Cs and what you’re looking for, have some fun!

Depending on where you buy your diamond, you may be offered some kind of “protection plan” at an additional cost, often several hundred dollars. This plan will offer free repairs and adjustments (ring settings loosen over time and should be tightened as needed so the stone doesn’t fall out!)

Personally I would skip these plans and simply pay a local jeweler when the ring needs adjusting. If the ring is valuable, however, I would add the ring to my homeowner’s insurance policy or renter’s insurance.

And you thought buying the ring was the hard part? Now it’s time to ask her. I could give you lots of corny ideas on how to pop the question, but in my opinion it’s best to plan a nice evening doing something she loves and then ask her, in private, when the moment is right. But to each his own.

Good luck!

Recommended Jewelers

James Allen

James Allen logo

James Allen is the most competitive diamond vendor with more than 150,000 loose diamonds in inventory. They have been a leader in selling diamonds online and pioneered 3D imaging so you can see the exact diamond you're buying in exquisite detail. You'll find it hard to beat James Allen in terms of price or selection. Read our James Allen review.

Shop James Allen »

Brilliant Earth

Brilliant Earth logo

Brilliant Earth is the global leader in ethically-sourced jewelry. Brilliant Earth goes above and beyond existing standards to offer “Beyond Conflict Free Diamonds” that they select for their ethical and environmentally-responsible origins. With over 120,000 diamonds in inventory, you can be sure to find your perfect diamond and feel good knowing it was responsibly-sourced. Read our Brilliant Earth review.

Shop Brilliant Earth »

Blue Nile

Blue Nile logo

Blue Nile is the world's largest online jeweler. Their reputation for quality and customer service is unparalleled in the industry. Blue Nile offers free shipping, a 30-day return policy and satisfaction guarantee. Read our Blue Nile review.

Shop Blue Nile »