The Gift Card Conundrum

Stores love gift cards, and according to a recent New York Times article, they’re pulling out all the stops to get you to buy them. With fees, restricted spending and the ability to get your money in advance, why not?

But why would you buy them?

Many people buy gift cards for people they feel they “ought” to buy presents for but whom they don’t really know. Others buy them because they’ve “run out of ideas.” Neither is a good reason. Isn’t the point of giving a gift about acknowledging the recipient and celebrating your relationship? Ideally, yes. And even dressing cash up as plastic can’t change the fact that you’re essentially swapping cash. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to pick my own presents; I like that someone has thought about me enough to take the risk of buying something that I may or may not like. (I do highly advocate the gift receipt, however, for duplicates, wrong sizes, etc. Mistakes can happen, but better a mistake than a lack of thought in the first place.)

Here are a couple of situations where gift cards can work:

  • A friend loves fancy coffee drinks, but his or her budget doesn’t allow for them very often. A gift card for 4 or 5 allows the treat to be spread out over time.
  • A child loves downloading music and loves a particular artist, but may not buy an entire album. iTunes gift cards are perfect for that.
  • A child is saving up for a computer or game system, and that’s beyond the means of individual gift givers. Everyone teams up to give gift cards. (Though if the gifts will cover the item, you might consider buying that.)

Of course, there is no right or wrong in this, really. Every family is different and every situation is different. Do, however, check fees, restrictions and expirations carefully. You want to give the person the gift—not the retailer.

The point is: when the gift card is the right gift, have at it. But don’t do it automatically. Give yourself the gift—and the pleasure—of thinking about the recipient and make it part of your celebration of that person and your relationship. Those are the gifts that mean the most to receive—and to give.

In the last days leading up to the holiday, remember one thing above all: This is supposed to be fun!

Happy holidays!

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