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Engagement ring shopping guide

Long before couples stand before an officiant and say, "I do," many make another pledge to each other by getting engaged and agreeing to begin a new life together.

In a 2011 survey by from XO Group, Inc., formerly The Knot Inc., the average engagement ring costs Americans $5,200. Canadians spend around $5,000 as well. Considering an engagement ring is typically a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, many men say the high cost is warranted and are even willing to finance the purchase or push their budgets to procure a beautiful ring.

Many engagement rings feature a 1-carat center stone with some smaller stones surrounding, accounting for a 1.4 total carat weight on average. It can take a groom-to-be around three months to find his (and her) ideal ring, sometimes longer. Considering a ring is such a significant investment, it pays to have some knowledge in gem selection.

Start by answering a few questions

Having an idea of what you want can help anyone get a better deal, whether one is shopping for a new sofa or an engagement ring. An informed shopper can avoid being taken advantage of or buying something that really isn't worth the asking price.

The 4 Cs is a good place for shoppers to get started. Various attributes affect the value, quality and beauty of a diamond. The 4 Cs stand forcut, color, clarity, and carat weight. The cut refers to the shape of the stone as well as the skill involved in achieving the shape of the facets so that it reflects the light brilliantly. The color is designated by the International Gemological Institute. The grading color in a diamond determines how closely a diamond's color approaches colorlessness.The diamond will be assigned a letter grade. The lower the letter in the alphabet, the whiter the stone. Clarity refers to the amount, size, type, and location of internal flaws in a diamond, also known as inclusions. The cost of the diamond increases when there are fewer inclusions in the stone. Finally, the carat weight is the size and weight of the stone. The larger the stone, the more pricey it can be.

Another question to ask is which style of ring your girlfriend prefers? Your fiancee-to-be may have a certain setting style and diamond shape preference. It pays to know what she wants, including the type of setting the stone will be encased in. You should also know whether she will be happy with a larger stone that may have some imperfections not easily seen to the naked eye or a smaller, flawless stone.

Know your budget

Many expenses are associated with planning a wedding, and some couples may not want to begin their lives together in debt. This may need to be factored in to the decision-making process. You should go to jewelry stores to price out different styles and see how diamonds compare. This way you will have an accurate idea of just how much rings cost.

Carefully consider your options. Having an intimate knowledge of what your girlfriend will want can help you to narrow down something that is reasonable.

It also pays to understand a jeweler's return policy. Even if you may know what she likes, in the event that the ring doesn't work out, find out if the style can be changed or if you can get a refund or make an exchange.

Other tips for savings success

There are ways to maximize your budget and still end up with a beautiful stone.

* Ask for a stone that is slightly less than the next carat, for example 0.9 instead of one carat. This nearly indiscernible difference can add up to substantial savings. Experts say the price difference between a 1.90 carat diamond and a 2.0 carat diamond can be as much as $5,000. Also, choose a stone that has more surface area, which will make it appear larger even if it does not have as much sparkle.

* If she prefers the look of platinum, realize white gold, silver or tungsten are more affordable options and will still give off that silvery hue she desires. Mixed gold colors, including white, pink and yellow, can be unique.

* Try to buy a loose diamond. You can inspect the entire stone and then shop around for an acceptable setting. This can save you money in the long run by buying the ring elements separately.

* Get a part-time job at a jewelry store. This way you may be eligible for an employee discount and can put the savings toward the ring.

* Don't shy away from a warehouse store for a good deal on rings. As long as the diamond is to your liking and follows the requirements of the 4 Cs that you desire, it should not matter where the ring was purchased.

* Make sure the store is accredited by the Jewelers of America or is a member of the Gemological Institute of America. This way you know you are buying from a reputable source and the diamonds were acquired ethically.

* Negotiate the price. Just because it is jewelry doesn't mean you can't comparison shop and find out if another jeweler will match a competitor's offer. Many stores will be willing to negotiate if it means making a sale.

An engagement ring is a large purchase that requires ample forethought. Following some guidelines can yield the results couples desire.