In general, it is customary to buy a wedding gift for a wedding you plan to attend. The gift can either be mailed before the wedding or it can be brought to the reception. However, some find themselves in an ethical bind if they cannot afford a gift but would still like to attend the wedding.
A dip in your finances may simply mean that you're unable to afford a wedding gift on the bridal couple’s wedding registry. A registry is usually a means to provide guests with ideas on potential gifts; it should never be a demand for certain gifts. In fact, strict etiquette demands that the bridal couple not expect gifts, even if they would very much like to receive them.
A wedding gift is not payment for the pleasure of attending a wedding or compensation for how much the bride and groom are paying for the wedding reception meal. Rather, it's an expression of regard for the couple. Therefore, if you can't purchase a wedding gift on a bridal registry, you might want to get creative and provide a gift within your means.
If you don't have the means to provide even a small gift, then you should analyze how failing to receive a gift might be received by the bridal couple. A very close friend or close relative may realize that some of the “dearly beloved” are in tight financial circumstances. Simply providing a card may satisfy the demands of etiquette, especially if the card includes a special note or poem about how dear the couple is to your heart.
Unfortunately, some bridal couples are less concerned with etiquette and fully expect a gift of some value or of a specific value. Sometimes the best option in these cases is to not attend a wedding where the lack of a wedding gift will be perceived as a deliberate snub. Especially if you want to keep the more materialistic of friends, then not attending the wedding due to lack of funds for a gift is an acceptable means of getting out of this etiquette mess.
However, some brides and grooms expect a gift regardless of whether or not a invitee actually attends the wedding. You should not feel guilty if you cannot provide a gift. The bride and groom are acting against etiquette by expecting a gift from anyone. Therefore, failing to provide a gift for a couple whose wedding you won't attend does not violate etiquette. A greedy bride or groom may still take this personally. When this is the case, you might want to consider shopping not for a gift, but for friends with greater empathy.