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Gift Cards: A great gift or not so hot?

Updated on March 11, 2012

There are a lot of hubs, blogs, and news articles out there debating the worthiness of gift-cards, and millions more comments. While I have decided to throw my hat in the ring of seething opinions, I am, obviously, just expressing my opinion. So here it is:

I come down on the side of gift cards.

Yep. I know, I know. Gift cards are like cash, and cash is just tacky. Well, yes and no. In Western culture, especially depending on the generation, presentation of the cash, and gift-giving situation, a cash gift can seem tacky. Useful, always. Tacky, sometimes. It is definitely still pretty tacky to request cash gifts, I'll admit.

But the thing to realize is that gift cards are not "just like cash." See, cash gifts -- no matter what the giver intends -- generally end up going into a "general fund." One year, I received a $100 bill from my in-laws at Christmas. I really appreciated it -- we used it to pay our electric bill. My husband used his $100 bill to buy groceries. There was a sort of quiet, unacknowledged guilt about doing so -- we knew that money was given to us with the intent to do something nice for ourselves (so said the card). But we were very tight on funds that year, and there was no way we could justify spending $200 in cash on anything except living expenses.

That same year, we also received $25 gift cards from my sister-in-law. Mine was for Starbucks coffee, my husband's for Best Buy. In the normal run of things, while I adore mochas and lattes and frappaccinos, I just can't justify the expense. I feel horribly guilty if I buy one, knowing full well that $5 could buy two gallons of milk, or a tin of coffee and some creamer that would last for a week or so. Likewise, my husband can't bring himself to buy the newest Halo game when we can't really afford it, and he has a perfectly fine Halo game at home. We want them, we just can't justify the expense.

And by giving me a Starbucks card, his sister gave me a gift that I could enjoy for as long as I made it stretch. I could treat myself to one coffee a month for five months, and feel no guilt. I thought of her every time I used that gift card, and I felt pampered and pleased and appreciated.

Put some thought into it.

But just like so-called "regular" gifts, a gift card can be a huge fail. For instance, my dad loves giving gift cards -- to Walmart and Safeway. That's just like giving cash. It's not actually a gift, something that says, "I see you and appreciate you and want you to pamper yourself." It's says more, "Hey, get back in the kitchen. What are you doing, you irresponsible fool! You are not allowed to have likes!"

Think of it this way: A gift card is not a lazy gift. It requires as much thought and care as any normal gift. You can cop out and give someone a generic, safe gift:

  • chocolates
  • candy
  • generic store gift card

You can put thought into it and give them a targeted, thoughtful gift:

  • handmade jewelry
  • signed copy of a favorite book
  • framed print of a favorite artist
  • gift card to a favorite store/ restaurant

Or you can go with the vaguely insulting/ passive aggressive:

  • self-improvement books
  • appliances they do not want/ need
  • weight scales
  • gift cards for stores they never visit and/or frequently complain about

Really. It's not the form of the gift you give -- it's the thought behind it.


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