Am I supposed to bring a gift to an engagement party? If so, what? The couple has already registered, but if I get them something from the registry, what do I do for the wedding itself? And doesn't this seem like a lot of gifts for essentially the same occasion?
My short answers, in order of unhelpfulness, are as follows: 1) Engagement parties are dumb. 2) It sure is a lot of gifts for the same occasion. 3) Yes, you have to get them something. But don't worry, I'll elaborate.
1) If a couple wants to get their friends together to celebrate, I'm all for that. I'm picturing a bar, maybe a dinner party, maybe even a house party. If a couple's parents want to get their friends together to celebrate, I understand it a little bit less, but it's still in the realm of understandable. What I don't get is elaborate bordering-on-formal engagement parties where everyone who's going to be at the wedding has to celebrate the fact that they're all going to get back together to celebrate again in a few months.
2) Between engagement parties, showers, bachelor/bachelorette parties, the actual wedding and traveling to all of these events, it pays not to be invited to friends' nuptials. It's sad to say that, but it's also sad that a friend getting married can translate into a pretty serious financial setback. It's really important only to do what you can afford, both in terms of time and money. My friends who got married when I was 23 got less expensive gifts than friends who got married this year. I've adjusted what I give based on what fits my budget, and I think it's unrealistic to do otherwise.
3) Your gift for the engagement party should be smaller and more personal than your gift for the wedding. You can get something off the registry for both, but they should be of a different scale. You could do kitchen gadgets and a recipe box filled with some personal favorites for the engagement party and a place setting for the wedding, or margarita glasses and drink mix for the engagement party and...a place setting for the wedding. Depending on how well you know the couple, you can get them something even more interesting and quirky for the engagement party, such as a restaurant gift card, theater tickets, a coffee table book or a piece of art.
In general, I advocate giving either something from the registry or a check for the actual wedding gift. Whether you agree with it or not, many couples rely on those gifts to set up their post-wedding life and/or home. Years of working at Crate and Barrel, though, taught me that many couples register for far more than they need with the expectation that they'll return much of it for cash. If you want to skip that middle step, wherein a Crate and Barrel employee has to unwrap and restock each of the dozen red wine glasses you lovingly picked out, then go with the check. On the flip side, my husband and I registered (yes, at Crate and Barrel), and I actually remember who gave us what. So while some people feel that buying registry gifts is generic, for me, it ended up feeling personal.
Go to the party, try to enjoy yourself. If possible, bring a date so you have someone to roll your eyes at. And don't forget to wish the couple all the best at this party and all the parties, I mean, years, to come.