Why I Don’t Feel Guilty Giving Gift Cards

Photo (cc) by 401(K) 2012

My friend and fellow MSN Money columnist Liz Weston really, really dislikes gift cards. She despairs of a world in which a shopper grabs a dozen plastic rectangles from the supermarket’s “gift card mall” and does a mental butt dance: Woo hoo! I’m all done with my holiday shopping!

That image bothers me too. Gift-giving should not come down to, “How fast can I get this over with?”

Yes, I know you’re busy. So are a lot of people. But must generosity be reduced to a time trial?

That said, I think that gift cards can make good presents. It’s the intention that matters: Are you taking the easy way out? Or are you really considering the wants and needs of the folks on your list?

I love looking for the perfect gift, whether it comes from a rummage sale or a department store. But I also realize that a teenaged niece might prefer to buy her own clothes, books, or music.

It might feel a little impersonal to hand over $20 worth of scrip to iTunes or Old Navy. But I’d feel worse if I gave her a sweater she would never wear.

Sure, learning to write a thank-you note for a gift you were less-than-thrilled to receive is a useful life skill. But I’d rather give something I know would be used. Like, say, a gift card.

Bonus: She could get a lot more bang for the (plastic) buck by using that card at the post-holiday clearance sales.

Besides, hardly anyone writes thank-you notes these days.

Shopping on someone else’s dime

My dad sends me a gift card every Christmas. We both get what we want: He gets out of wondering what I’d like and then boxing it up and mailing it, and I get to buy at my leisure.

To some people that feels impossibly impersonal. Why not just send a check and be done with it? I can’t explain why, but to me a gift card feels more like a present and less like a cash equivalent. That’s silly, since it’s the same as mailing me $50.

In fact, a check would be more secure. Once deposited it can’t be lost or stolen, whereas both could happen to an unused or partially used gift card. I’m generally pretty careful, but if I got mugged again, the gift cards would be used by some rogue or dumped in the nearest trashcan along with my stripped-of-cash wallet.

All that makes sense. But sometimes my brain doesn’t. This is one of those times: To me, a gift card just feels better than cash.

Maybe that’s because if I got a $50 check I’d deposit it. That’s what you do with checks. A $50 gift card, on the other hand, means my next however-many trips to Walgreens (this year’s choice) are covered.

I could get lots of free-after-rebate items and donate them, or even use some myself. I could treat myself to a bag of chips (on sale, of course), or buy cold medicine and not feel irritated at the price. After all, someone else is buying.

Short form: If gift cards irritate you, don’t give them.

And if receiving them irritates you? Check out Gift Card Exchange Day, during which card resellers promise to pay top rates.

Or just send them to me. I promise not to be irritated. Heck, I’ll even write a thank-you note. By hand.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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