Illustration by Jim Cooke.

There comes a time in almost every mature, adult relationship when you think about marriage. You look at your significant other and imagine the future. Maybe it’s the way the sun made their eyes sparkle in that moment, their shameless guffaw at the latest straight-to-Netflix Adam Sandler “comedy,” or maybe they have selflessly dedicated days of their lives to nursing you back from your latest bout of flu, you gigantic baby. This is the person you want to spend every day with from now on, until there are no days left for you.

When the time comes to look for an engagement ring, you just know. Is the actual act of putting a ring on someone to call them yours a sexist, outdated and downright insane remnant of a patriarchal society we are sorely trying to move past? You bet. Are you still going to go through with it? Well, yeah. And you’re going to Instagram the shit out of that ring.

Finding the right one—and presenting it in the most ideal way—will not be easy. It will be the first stress test of many until you finally get you life partner to sign on the line that is dotted and can officially let yourself go, free from the anxiety of having to impress anybody, least of all yourself. So, let’s get you ready for that one last instance of immense effort. Here’s how to get the perfect ring.

First, some perspective:

Shit. This is going to get expensive.

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Well, okay, maybe it will. Without even getting into the insane pomp and circumstance of a wedding, the average engagement ring now costs $4,000. Remember those marketing campaigns telling you to spend two months of salary? They were not fucking around. But you have found someone who will love you, care for you, and put up with your quirks. Soon, your shit will be their shit. Their shit will be your shit. They are worth it.

However, keep your wits about you. You don’t need to keep up with the Joneses, or be a slave to our capitalist society, where one’s value is determined solely by money (you better believe Melania’s ring is fucking spectacular). You are not a cog in the machine. However, it’s also okay to just want to buy nice things—maybe you’ll buy an expensive engagement ring because that’s just a thing you want to do. Whatever.

That’s not to say the old standby of a diamond ring is for everyone. Moissanite rings (a mineral that is rare in nature but easily grown in a lab that looks virtually identical to a diamond) are becoming increasingly popular—and at one-tenth the price of a diamond of equivalent size, it’s not hard to see why. There are also some excellent minimalist designs available on sites like Etsy. Does your partner like Games of Thrones? Give your future Khaleesi a sun and moon design for just $16. Prefer Steampunk? Someone out there has you covered. It’s 2016 and Donald Trump is about to be president. If you want to get weird with the ring, do it before the world ends. No one will judge you.

Budgeting:

Before you even start, figure out exactly how much you are able and willing to spend. I’m a Canadian, so I’m going to get obnoxious here for a second: I graduated with roughly $7,000 worth of student debt, an amount that may get taken even less seriously in the realm of Student Loan Debt in that it’s owed in a currency called the loonie. In 2015, the average American university student will owe $35,000 upon graduation. It is hard for me to relate to, but easy to understand that perhaps adding on to that debt is not the best way to start your life together?

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This ring is a testament to your love, not a financial albatross. There are chances that you’ll want to buy other, important things together later in life—a car? an apartment? a pet?—and budgeting what you are able to contribute to a ring with those things in mind will ultimately pay off ten-fold. Be informed about payment plans, taxes, and any secret fees that may come with the ring, and try to give yourself a hard line on your range.

(Related: If at all possible, you’re going to want to pay cash. A little secret—if you find the right diamond guy (more on that later), cash means no tax. Taxes are for shmucks. Are you a shmuck?)

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Staying away from online vendors will help you shape your spending range, as well. Physical stores have a better range of prices that are truer to market rates. During a recent discussion with a jeweler, he pointed out that two diamonds, similar on paper, were selling at prices that were $10,000 apart. Why? Who knows! Maybe you’d be able to tell the difference if you saw them in person, maybe not. The point being, never buy a diamond site unseen—even one that meets all of your criteria can end up being less sparkly than you’d think.

Another—less than savory option, perhaps—is trying a pawn shop for more affordable options. Of course, going the cheap way has downsides: you likely won’t get the certification of quality that you would with a jeweler. Without the guidance of an expert, you might even end up paying more than you otherwise would, but that’s the risk.

To keep it simple: figure out a timeline for when you’re going to pop the question, look at how much money you can reasonably save within that time period, set your budget and don’t go over it, come hell or high water. Your partner will like the ring but love your financial responsibility. This is why Alan Greenspan is regarded universally as a sex symbol.

Know what your partner likes:

You may be tempted to surprise your future spouse with a proposal. That’s romantic enough, assuming you have time travelled to 1955 and sure are looking forward to making an honest woman out of your best gal over at the soda shoppe. But, alas, it’s 2016. Calm down, buckaroo. You’re about to make a major life decision and you’re also about to spend a ton of money. Perhaps a reasonable, adult conversation is in order?

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Whether your partner has spent hours poring over Pinterest boards of rings with their friends or has given this as little thought as you have, you’re going to want to do some research. Sit down with your beloved and really talk this out. What kind of setting, if any, do they like? What about the band itself? Does they prefer wide or thin? Plain or coated in diamond chips? Maybe they finds the standard diamond stupid (and lord knows they’d be justified): perhaps something a bit more unconventional is in order? Google is your friend, so take the time to brush up on the latest styles, because they are legion and subtly different. Is your partner a Princess Cut, or more of a solitaire? If you’re not quite able to get the big-ass rock that Kanye or Kobe gets to show their love/apologize, a halo is a good way to make a diamond look bigger.

If you’re insistent on going into this with them being unaware, ask their friends for help. Don’t be shy—chances are they like you. (Unless you’re a dick, in which case, good luck.)

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Don’t stop there: you probably know several people who have gone through this before you. Confess your ignorance and ask for help. What you are aiming for is a ring that says as little about you and your wallet as possible and as much about the person who is wearing it—as something that weighs less than a pound—can convey. Are they loud and extroverted? Do they prefer subtlety and grace? Are they really into cereal and decoding things? Know your lover and the basics of the ring should soon become obvious.

Picking a diamond, if that’s your thing:

The problem with your average retailer is, what you see is what you get. You might be able to negotiate a little on price, but their stock is their stock. Much easier, flexible and cheaper is to find an independent diamond dealer who will guide you through picking a rock and then customize your perfect ring. Oval cut diamonds are becoming more popular thanks to Kim Kardashian. While they’re usually cheaper than the ordinary round-cut rocks, they can be tricker to find. A jeweler can track these down for you, whether you’re willing to spend $2,000 on a diamond or $8 million. (Fuck you, Kanye. Seriously.)

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In choosing a diamond, you’re going to hear a lot about the four C’s of the stone—cut, carat, clarity and color.

  • Cut: This is the actual shape of the diamond. A diamond with a great cut will bounce light around its interior, making it appear even more sparkly. A lousy cut will come across as dull. If you’re with an experienced jeweler, they should be able to guide you towards a diamond that has been cut properly.
  • Carat: Here’s the size of the diamond, according to its weight. This is where price can drastically differ - going up a carat can drastically change price with all other things being equal. Still, this is what impresses people. Sacrifice a bit on the other three C’s if it means getting a weightier stone.
  • Clarity: When a diamond forms, other minerals can form within it. These flaws are bad, but are often only seen under magnification. A few flaws should be acceptable for your purposes, especially as they drive the price down.
  • Color: You want a nice, clear diamond, rather than one with a yellowish tint. Still, most shifts on the scale will be undetectable to an untrained eye.

This can all get very overwhelming extremely quickly, especially as many pros aren’t shy about diving into the most technical elements of what they do. In lieu of a gemologist’s advice, I’m going to give you some from an expert I trust more than any other—my mom.

Here’s her advice:

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Nobody notices flaws. Sacrifice a bit of quality to get something larger. If you need to sacrifice somewhere to get a noticeable upgrade in quality on the rock, remember: nobody cares about the band.” Take a lesson from Jeffrey Loria and his Marlins Park: nobody gives a shit about a garish monstrosity if you’ve built it around a shitty product on the diamond itself.

Popping the question:

As every person is different, I have no advice for you on this, just a few rules of thumb: flash mobs are played out, destination proposals are gauche and everyone already hates your happiness enough, so no need to go nuts on social media.

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Happy hunting, and a hearty congrats to you both.