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 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.
I love looking for the perfect gift, whether it comes from a rummage sale or a department store. But I also realize that a teen-aged 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.
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.
Bonus: She could get a lot more bang for the (albeit plastic) buck by using that card at the post-holiday clearance sales.
Besides, hardly anyone writes thank-you notes these days.
A frugal approach?
Gift cards can be had at a discount. Companies like Cardpool, Plastic Jungle and Swap A Gift sell gift cards at discounts of 3% to 50%. This creates an additional layer of savings on top of discounted prices and/or coupons. Some of those resellers can be accessed through cash-back shopping sites like MrRebates.com and Extrabux.com, for rebates of up to 5%.
I’ve gotten cheap (or free!) gift cards in other ways, too, including:
- As blog giveaway prizes
- Through other online incentives. For example, I recently took part in a live chat and won (among other things) a $100 Target gift card and a $25 prepaid Visa. Both came in handy for my holiday shopping, including my midnight Black Friday jaunt.
- From rewards credit cards and also from rewards programs like My Coke Rewards and Swagbucks.
- From social buying sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. For example, recently I spent $5 for a $10 Subway card and took a friend out to lunch. Again: Groupon and Living Social can both be accessed from some cash-back sites (see above) for an additional discount.
- From daily deal sites like Eversave and My Bargain Buddy.
And yes, I’ve even gotten gift cards as actual presents. My dad sends me one every Christmas. Does that bother me? Not particularly. 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.
Shopping on someone else’s dime
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.
If gift cards bother you, don’t give them. And if receiving them bothers you? Check out Gift Card Exchange Day on Dec. 26, 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.