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Engagement Rings vs. Promise Rings

by Chante Walker
Last updated on October 13, 2023
Engagement Rings vs. Promise Rings

The traditions and etiquette around engagement rings vs. promise rings have relaxed over time, giving couples more flexibility in deciding which ritual gift best fits their particular circumstances. Engagement and promise rings are two traditions that have become popular ways for couples to express their commitment.

While they bear some similarities – the giving of a ring as a symbol of devotion – these two ritual gifts actually carry quite different meanings and expectations. The question often arises: which is the right choice for a couple madly in love?

Some couples today prefer promise rings, as they allow them to demonstrate their commitment without the pressures that can come with an engagement. Others see engagement as the ultimate expression of devotion and leap straight to rings meant to lead to marriage.

Below, we delve into the key differences between engagement rings and promise rings. We’ll explore the history, meaning, costs, and etiquette distinct to each tradition. While the choice relies on each couple’s specific relationship and values, this guide will arm you with information to confidently classify a promise ring vs. an engagement ring.

Definition and History of Engagement and Promise Rings

Model wearing 6 different center stone rings stacked on one finger.

An engagement ring is defined as a ring indicating the promise to marry. Engagement rings date back to ancient Rome when betrothal rings made of iron and later gold were given as a pledge to wed.

The first diamond engagement ring is thought to have been commissioned by Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477 for his betrothal to Mary of Burgundy. This sparked a tradition still followed today of gifting diamond rings to signify engagement.

A promise ring signifies a commitment to a monogamous relationship without an automatic assumption of engagement. It represents a pre-engagement promise to be faithful and build a future together.

The promise ring tradition is less defined in history, but some sources cite promise rings being used in Europe as early as the 16th century, originally coined ‘Posy rings.’ They were sometimes engraved with romantic phrases like “amour fou,” meaning crazy love.

Promise rings rose in popularity in the 20th century as social norms relaxed around intimacy before engagement. They allowed couples to demonstrate devotion without having to commit to marriage.

If an Engagement Ring is Not a Promise Ring… What’s The Difference?

Lab Grown Diamond Jewelry: Necklace, Bracelet, Bridal Set

Meanings and Symbolism

Engagement and promise rings tend to appear similar on the surface, but the depth of meaning behind each ring is quite distinct.

The Symbolism of an Engagement Ring

The engagement ring symbolizes a commitment to marry the person who gave the ring. By accepting an engagement ring, a person agrees to be affianced to their partner and enter into marriage with them in the future.

An engagement ring solidifies plans to wed and represents the first step on the road to marriage. It announces to the world that the wearer is no longer single but spoken for.

The diamond engagement ring, in particular, has come to singularly represent a promise of the forthcoming marriage.

The Symbolism of a Promise Ring

A promise ring, on the other hand, symbolizes devotion and commitment to the relationship without the automatic expectation of engagement or marriage. It represents a promise of fidelity, exclusivity, and continuation of the relationship into the future.

A promise ring demonstrates the giver views the relationship as serious, long-term, and monogamous. But unlike an engagement ring, it stops short of announcing imminent plans to be wed.

A promise ring recipient is not considered engaged or affianced. The ring signifies a pledge to love and loyalty within an exclusive dating relationship without obligations for marriage. For some couples, love exceeds marriage, and a promise ring aptly seals their devotion.


The expectations that come along with engagement rings differ for promise rings, which sheds further light on the distinct meanings behind each.

The Expectations of an Engagement Ring

An engagement ring comes with the expectation that the couple intends to get married within a reasonable timeframe after the proposal.

Engagement is the period between the time of the proposal and the wedding ceremony. It is expected to be a relatively short phase dedicated to planning the details of the upcoming nuptials.

Upon donning an engagement ring, a couple signals they are officially betrothed, and active preparations for their marriage can commence.

While no universal timeline dictates how quickly a couple must wed after engagement, there is an anticipation the wedding will follow within months or up to 2 years.

The Expectations of a Promise Ring

A promise ring brings with it fewer preset expectations around marriage.

The pledge to a committed relationship through a promise ring does not necessarily come with a timeline for future engagement or marriage. A promise ring simply seals the intention to be devoted partners as boyfriend and girlfriend.

There is no automatic assumption that marriage is imminent or even definitely planned. The promise ring allows a couple to demonstrate current commitment without having to predict if or when their relationship might lead to wedded matrimony down the road.

A promise ring preserves flexibility to let the relationship unfold gradually and organically over time. It represents devotion in the present without pressure for lifelong marriage decisions quite yet.

The Cost of Promise Rings and Engagement Rings

Three Stone Lab Grown Diamond Engagement Ring in Yellow Gold on top of a book with a flower drawing.

One significant practical difference between engagement rings and promise rings is usually the cost. Due to the expectation of diamonds and precious metals, engagement rings tend to be a more expensive purchase. Promise rings have a wider range of less costly options.

How Much is an Engagement Ring?

The traditional engagement ring is set with a diamond or other gemstone in a precious metal band like gold or platinum. Larger, higher-quality diamonds dramatically increase the cost.

The average price for an engagement ring in the U.S. is around $5,000, but it’s not uncommon to spend $10,000 or more. Even budget diamond rings usually start around $1,000.

The substantial cost of engagement rings is due to their role as a prestigious marker of commitment and marriage ahead.

Sustainable options can even the cost discrepancy between promise rings and engagement rings due to their sourcing. For example, lab grown diamond engagement rings can be an affordable alternative. The presence of harm and other extensive polluting production costs of mined diamond jewelry are not incurred with its creation.

Furthermore, you may also factor in an assumed cost for the wedding rings due to the nature of an engagement. If one is to propose marriage and successfully get engaged, the presumed idea is that a wedding follows. So, with the engagement ring, there is also the option to purchase the wedding ring at the same time.

Bridal sets are sometimes the better option in the end, with a combined price that is lower than the two rings sold separately. In addition to lab grown diamonds, find a budget-friendly option for both the engagement ring and wedding rings, so the nuptials are not a cost to regret.

How Much is a Promise Ring?

Promise rings can provide a similar romantic gesture for significantly less money.

A promise ring does not require precious gemstones or metals. Many promise rings feature birthstones, synthetic stones, or no stone at all. Simple band styles in silver, tungsten, titanium, or steel keep costs low. Engraving a promise ring adds sentimental value without a premium price tag.

Affordable promise rings can be found for under $500, sometimes just $100. The lower cost fits the meaning of promise rings as a symbol of ongoing affection before major investments for weddings and lifelong marriages.

With that, there are really no specific limitations to what counts as a fitting promise ring in the way a stunning engagement ring is perceived.

Finger Worn On

Model wearing a stack of rings on the right hand, ring finger.

Engagement rings and promise rings follow different unspoken traditions about which finger to wear each style on.

How to Wear an Engagement Ring

In the United States and many other Western cultures, engagement rings are worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, also known as the ring finger. This tradition stems back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, where people believed a vein of love ran directly from that finger to the heart. Wearing an engagement ring on the left ring finger signifies the heart has been “captured” or claimed in preparation for marriage. The prominent left-hand placement announces the wearer’s upcoming change in marital status.

How to Wear Promise Rings

Promise rings have more flexibility when it comes to placement. A promise ring is commonly worn on the left ring finger, mirroring an engagement ring. But it’s also acceptable to wear a promise ring on any finger, including the right hand. Some couples prefer the right hand to underscore the promise ring, which does not signify actual engagement. Others opt for the middle finger as a playful way to flout tradition.

If a promise ring is accompanied by a future engagement ring, another finger leaves open the traditional left ring finger. The key is finding the finger that feels most meaningful and comfortable for both people. Unlike engagement rings confined to the left hand, promise rings allow for creative, personal expression through ring placement.

No matter which finger a couple chooses, the true significance lies in what the ring symbolizes about their relationship.

Considerations in Choosing Between the Two

Model wearing lab grown diamond halo earrings and engagement ring.

When trying to decide between an engagement ring or a promise ring, there are several important factors for couples to contemplate:

The level of commitment each person feels ready for is key.

A promise to marry signifies greater commitment than a general pledge of fidelity and exclusivity. Couples should have open conversations about their readiness for marriage before rushing into engagement. Those who want to demonstrate devotion but aren’t quite ready for imminent matrimony may feel more comfortable starting with a promise ring.

The financial situation plays a practical role in ring choice.

Budget-conscious couples may want to delay pricey engagement rings until they are on stronger financial footing. The lower cost of promise rings can allow couples to enjoy the symbolism of exchanging rings without breaking the bank.

Personal preferences and values also steer couples toward one option or the other.

Traditional, marriage-minded pairs may gravitate toward engagement rings to signify old-fashioned courtship. More modern couples focused on relationship growth may prefer promise rings without old-fashioned marriage pressure.

The length and stage of the relationship guide some couples.

Those dating only a short time may want a promise ring as they continue getting to know each other. Long-term couples in their late 20s and beyond often feel ready for the maturity of engagement. But any couple can choose the right ring for them regardless of age or dating duration.

Advice for Picking Out a Ring

Two models: Left wearing a lab grown diamond engagement ring and bracelet. Right wearing lab created diamond and recycled metal wedding band.

Choosing the perfect engagement or promise ring may seem daunting. Keep the following tips in mind to make the process meaningful, not stressful.

  1. Establish a clear budget you both feel comfortable with and pick a ring within those parameters. Splurging into debt defeats the purpose of what the ring should represent. Go for sincerity oversize.
  2. Make sure the ring’s style suits their personal tastes. Pay attention to the jewelry she currently wears to understand her preferences. It’s about celebrating her unique identity. If unsure, propose a placeholder ring and shop for the permanent one together.
  3. Focus more on the symbolism than size or cost. An engagement ring doesn’t need to be gigantic or break the bank to represent true love. The gesture and joy are what matters most, not carat size.
  4. Remember, the ring is about so much more than jewelry. Its real value is the meaning it carries about your relationship. Let the ring represent the care, communication, and commitment you’ll carry forward as a team.
  5. Approach ring shopping with an eye toward understanding your partner and building on what connects you as a couple. The ring marks a milestone, but the relationship itself is the real treasure.

Do What You Are Ready For

Three brilliant engagement rings dangling on a rope.  Oval center stone ring in white gold, Emerald center stone in yellow gold, Round brilliant center stone in platinum diamond studded band.

While different in tradition, both engagement rings and promise rings carry beauty and significance. Neither is intrinsically better or more romantic.

An engagement ring is a time-honored way to solidify an upcoming marriage. A promise ring lovingly nurtures relationships marching to their own beat.

In the end, each couple must decide which ring, if any, has the meaning they wish to symbolize right now. No one path or tradition dictates the appropriate way to nurture love.

The choice to give and receive a certain ring should simply reflect what feels like the perfect fit for both people as unique individuals coming together to create a shared future.