I Don’t Understand Why Gift Cards Are So Bad

Shh… I’ve already opened up some of my Christmas gifts. Wait, what is this? A gift card? Nooo!!! Evil!

It’s trendy to bag on gift cards right now. Liz Pulliam Weston says gift cards are not gifts and complains that “holidays have rapidly devolved into what amounts to an exchange of cash. A gift card says nothing about the personality of the recipient — but it says lots about the giver.”. Miss Manners is quoted as saying they are “a pathetic compromise convenient to people who do not trust their judgment about selecting the right present for those whose tastes they ought to know.” Consumer Reports even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with the following message:


Umm… So? How many *gifts* go sitting unused every year?! How many sweaters, handmade widgets, DVDs, scented candles, or whatever sit in your house right now, collecting dust in a closet. How about just saying “Last year, shoppers like you were out $80 billion because of unused, lost, or inappropriate gifts. Easy money for retailers…”

Truth is, converting cash into gifts of any kind creates the potential for waste. If you don’t want that, either (1) don’t buy gifts at all or (2) give cash.

I agree with Mighty Bargain Hunter when he says that gift cards are gifts. And like any gift, it can be good or bad. You know what happens when I receive a gift? I say thank you, and do what I can with it. Even if it’s hideous or not useful to me. I have mine all stored in baseball card sleeves ready to go.

Idea for gift card compromise?
First, pick something (doesn’t have to be perfect) that is in the price range you want. Then figure out the exact price, including sales tax. Buy a gift card in that amount, and attach a card with an explanation. “I thought you might like Rayman Raving Rabbits 2 for the Wii. Here’s a gift card for $54.86 from Best Buy”. There, you put a little thought into it, but they can use it to buy anything without having to “reject” and return your actual gift.

Also, for the curious, I even investigated which gift cards have the highest resale value. The result was that Amazon gift certificates are the most versatile.

What’s so bad about giving cash, anyhow?
Newsflash: In many cultures and households, giving cash is perfectly acceptable and in many cases even preferred. What are we pretending? That gifts don’t cost money?! I give cash gifts all the time. For more formal gifts I go to the bank and request crisp $20 or $100 bills.


  1. Me too — I love gift cards, especially ones to local restaurants or Bath and Body Works. I would much rather have one than something useless that you have to pretend to love. This year I have given cash to the grandkids having become stymied about the whole toy thing. Cash is also green in two ways the latter one being the gift does not have to be packed in boxes — obviously an environmental plus. Personally I do not care for Miss Manners and her stilted literary style. Have a great Christmas and New Year. Love this website and thanks.

  2. I actually prefer a gift card, if it is to a store that I like. That way, I can get exactly what I want. I am sure to use any money of my gift cards so it won’t go to waste.

  3. I think it depends entirely on the context. Giving my wife a gift card – especially only a gift card – I’d consider rude. It would mean I didn’t listen enough to her to actually know a few things she would like. She still gets the occasional gift card, if it’s targeted. (I.e. a certificate for a cooking class, etc)

    On the other hand, giving a gift to the parking attendant at work – yes, cash or a gift card is perfect. I don’t know him that well, chances are, I’d get a gift that’s useless. With cash, I’m sure he’ll be able to put it to use.

    In a nutshell, gift cards/cash say “I don’t know you that well, but I still like you”. As long as that statement is true, gift cards are fine. But if you *do* know somebody, it’s much better to find a more personal gift, or at least personalize the gift card, as you suggested.

    Same goes for cash. It’s OK to give cash to people you know, if you have a good reason for it. I.e. “I know what you really want is that cruise to Hawaii – so here’s a little stepping stone on the way”. (I actually prefer cash over gift cards, for the simple reason that the recipient is free to use it *any* way they like. You’re not tying them to a specific store.)

    The objectionable part is anonymous cash to people you know well. In a way, you’re saying “I didn’t really want to spend time thinking about what you like, but I had to get you a gift anyways”.

  4. mhesidence says:

    Amex, Visa, MC, gift cards so you are not limited by store. Still gotta give toys for kids

  5. I love gift cards. I just got two yesterday in the mail and they will be used!

    I used to work at a restaurant and we sold gift certificates. Retailers *do* count on a portion of them not being redeemed, and in essence–is free money for them. I never liked that about my boss.

  6. I think giving gift card to kids and teens is ok since they have little money of their own, but it’s pretty sad if all you can think to give your adult relatives and friends (who generally have money) is a gift card. Maybe if they are on the verge of bankruptcy or otherwise money obsessed, cash/gift cards would be appropriate. Otherwise, just moving chits from your bank account to theirs is pretty lame.
    One exception is gift cards for services…like lessons, massage, etc.

  7. I love the Chinese tradition of giving cash in envelopes. It’s the best gift!! Always appropriate for all tastes! Especially as it’s usually older people giving to younger people, who are more in need of the money.

  8. Cash is the best gift out there. Period. It automatically goes to where it is most needed. If there isn’t an immediate need for it, it will go into savings. Unfortunately, many people don’t get too excited about giving the gift of savings to others. I personally would be thrilled to give the gift of savings to someone.

    Since it doesn’t take much to make me happy, I rarely want/need stuff for presents. My wife hates me for it. I would rather any money spent on me go straight to savings.

    Enter gift cards into the equation. They are slightly better than unwanted gifts, but I, like Jonathan, have sold them for cash. I usually recoup about 80% after shippin/ebay fees. Not horrible, but I hate to see the wasted money. I essentially gave ebay and the buyer 20% of the original amount. Not very efficient.

    And another thing I hate about gift cards….I can’t tell you how many gift cards I own that contain less than 5 dollars on them. What a waste! If you’re buying something at an expensive store, it isn’t too easy to just finish the card.

    I agree with Jonathan in laughing at consumer reports. Sure, 8 billion dollars are wasted every year in gift cards, but the amount of money wasted on unused gifts has got to be at least 10 times more.

  9. I prefer cash over presents sometimes because the cash is much more flexible. Sure, there may not have been as much thought going into giving me cash as opposed to getting a gift, but since cash is much more versatile (deposit into a bank account, pay off bills, buy anything I want within that price range, etc) I think it’s actually a great gift. It doesn’t make the person you buy a gift for feel uncomfortable by getting something – everybody loves cold hard cash.

  10. I love getting gift cards to places I shop or cash. Depending on the person I’ll give cash, or gift check. My retired parents love cash.

  11. I think the rule should be: if you can get the perfect gift in your price range for a particular recipient (obviously that changes if it’s your cube-mate or your wife, etc.), then go with the gift. Has your wife been eying a new diamond pendant? Has your cube-mate been eying… uh… a new DVD? If you can’t hit that sweet spot, think about who you are giving it too, and a responsible choice between cash and a gift-card is fine. (Secretary? cash = no, gift card = ok).

    Overall, I tend to feel that if we are talking in the $50+ range, a thoughtful and non-shitty gift makes me happier when I’m the recipient, unless I’m in dire need for cash (which did happen a couple of times around my birthday in college – luckily my parents were kind enough to stuff the envelope AND give me gifts!).

  12. Gift cards and cash are both fine gifts, in my opinion. If I get cash or a check, it tends to end up in my savings account. That’s good, but a well thought out gift card forces me to spend the money on something I’d enjoy. My brother used your gift card compromise idea when what he really wanted to give me was a dvd that came out the week after Christmas. It was very sweet, and showed a lot of thought.

    Any thoughts on savings bonds as gifts? I have a couple of small cousins for whom I’ve considered buying I Bonds. It might be a good way to get them interested in saving and give them a bit of money for their future educations, cars, etc.

  13. Gift cards are the only gifts I want now — I’m so tired of getting lame gifts like sweaters that people “think” fit my personality. Give me a gift card for the Apple store and I’m happy as can be…

  14. Since Christmas is all about the gifts for most people, gift cards or cash is fine. At least those don’t need wasteful wrapping paper.

  15. Just use Clark Howard’s cash-only gift card here:


  16. Okay unused gift cards have different policies for which state you live in.
    Under the standard accounting practices stores can not record the revenue from gift cards until you use the card. Fees associated with the card such as expired card (worthless) go directly to the store as fees charge. Also depending on which state you live in there are laws on fees and expiration dates for gift cards. In some date it is illegal for cards to expire or charge a fee.
    But simply unused that do not expire do not go to the store as recorded revenue.
    They do how ever get to interest on the money until it is used. Check your states department of commerce there are different law retailing to gift cards and in some cases unused gifts the money goes back to the state used to protect consumers and not give to companies.
    Your thoughts

  17. I totally agree that gift cards are perfectly acceptable as gifts, be it Christmas or any holiday giving season.

    Some argue that gift cards are impersonal but so is saying “I want this exact coat from banana republic…in white only”. There are both really the same in my mind.

    If someone does give me a gift card, I do let them know exactly what I did with it — “Thanks for the gift card, I used it to get the Seinfeld DVD box set” — so they know it went to getting something and didnt just sit unused.

  18. Cheapster Bob says:

    I used to give gift cards as I’m lazy and hate to shop for people fearing they will have different tastes.

    The biggest problem with them is you get a nice whole number like 25 or 50 dollars yet end up spending 48.73 and then throwing the card away.

    This is the best investment the corporations could ever dream of as they are getting free money every year. The stats show their revenue from lost or unused cards in the BILLIONS.

    I’m a capitalist so could care less if companies have figured out a profitable model. Just like selling water in a bottle if people are dumb enough to fall for it then it’s on them.

    However, I no longer give them and ask not to receive them going forward. The best way to give something like that is to give a check and to write on the card “This is for you to enjoy and do with what you want.”

    You can keep giving gift cards if you want though. Consider it charity to the retail sector which will help your portfolio’s earnings in the long run.


  19. You can be creative with your cash giving.

    My mom knows how much I love garage sales so she puts together a thrift shopping kit. In the bag are rolled coins, lots of one’s crinkled up like bows, other dollar bill denominations, and snack food to eat from sale to sale.

    She loves hearing back what I was able to buy and how far I stretched the money.

  20. I’d prefer no gift over a check/cash/gift card. The whole obligated gift giving thing feels so insincere to me, but at least a real item tends to be something fairly personal. Especially for Christmas, cash gifts end up being a near-zero sum game where nobody ends up with anything at the end.

    I appear to be in the minority here, as I’d prefer gifts to be undictated by some holiday or socially prescribed day of celebration. I avoid talking about my birthday and I didn’t send out graduation invitations primarily because I don’t enjoy making other people feel obligated to give me a gift.

  21. ok, all of us want gifts from others. but none of us want to actually to make that gift to someone else to be meaningful.

    I mean, let’s go back to square one of what really gift means.

  22. both my sets of grandparents have been giving my sister and i govt savings bonds for christmas since we were born, usually on top of a $25-$50 check to spend on what we want. at the time i didnt understand the value of the bonds, but when I got into my 20’s and used several thousand dollars worth of the bonds towards for my first car (parents refused to allow me to finance it or cosign on a loan, thus forcing me to spend within my means), i finally got it.

    i agree that gift cards are a perfectly acceptable gift, but have noticed the odd amount of bad press they have gotten lately. for a close relative or significant other, they are much less appropriate… but for the other scenarios described above i think they are perfectly fine.

  23. I’m divided on the question of gift cards or cash as gifts, but I will point out that it isn’t just a recent thing for such things to be looked down on. Anyone who has ever watched A Charlie Brown Christmas probably remembers the reaction of Charlie Brown to his sister’s letter to Santa, “…make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”

    Sally’s attitude about it was, “All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

  24. I am an established attorney who has all the material things that I need and want. I don’t want any more dust collectors or items that I have to give away or cart to goodwill. If any of my clients give me a gift, I donate it to goodwill or recycle it. I am neat freak and don’t like clutter in my house or office. When my birthday or Christmas comes around, I tell all friends and family who inquire about what I want: “Send me a card or better yet, an ecard so we can save trees and the environment.” When they insist, I say, “I already have everything that I need and I really don’t need any more dust collectors, knick knacks, perfume, clothes, etc. so you would be doing me a favor if you sent a lovely ecard.”

  25. Scott Armstrong says:

    Yeah, I’ll take option #1. I haven’t bought a christmas present in 10 years, and don’t plan to change. I try to discourage others from buying me christmas presents, but I still haven’t convinced my parents.

    It’s not that I’m against gifts or generosity. But I don’t search for excuses to buy shit no one needs because of social pressure.

  26. Cheapster Bob says:

    I wouldn’t say they are a scam. More like a clever invention which is very profitable.

    I need to invent a system where I loan millions of people 50 dollars each and they only spend 48 dollars with me keeping the rest.

    I mean, they voluntarily choose not to spend the money so no fraud charges can be filed.

    One of the more profitable mechanisms recently created in history. Kudos to the suit who dreamed it up.

  27. I don’t have a problem with giving gift cards or people that give me gift cards. My biggest problems are the retailers that put insane rules on the gift cards.

    I read about one gift card that had 6 months to use and then would start charging you a monthly fee until the money was all gone. A gift card a coworker gave me, an AMEX one, I think, would charge money to call up their 800# service to check on the balance of the card. That, to me, is crazy.

    There’s also the problem of fraud. People have been known to keep track of numbers for gift cards from stores (on cards you can see the numbers on because they’re hanging on a shelf out in the open), wait until they’re activated and then use them.

    Gift cards are great, in theory, but in practice, I feel like there’s so much that could go wrong.

  28. Cheapster Bob says:

    I meant millions of people loan me 50 dollars each and I pay them back 48.

    Now it makes more sense.

  29. In California and many other states, gift cards can’t expire. Also, starting in 2008 in California any gift card under $10 can be exchanged for cash. πŸ˜€

  30. attorney – you sound like an awesome person, and I’m sure people love to get gifts for you. Especially when they are all given the generic title of crap that will collect dust even before you receive them.

  31. We dont do gifts in my family… we are so spread around the world and rarely see each other, so the “gift” is meeting up somewhere and having an adventure or just spending time together somewhere interesting at this time of year….

    All of us can buy whatever we need if we dont already have it (we arent rolling in cash, just value different stuff and dont like collecting crap).

    However, incidentally, gift cards/vouchers are still frowned upon as they are lame cop outs to actually finding out what the recipient would like… πŸ˜›

  32. I agree, they are a very clever invention. But their success is due to the fact that $2 out of every $50 is worth it to the people who buy gift or receive gift cards.

    For a $50 gift card, just think of it as a $45 gift and a $5 tax paid by the giver. I know, I can’t think like that either…

    Just got some more presents today, and gave some out. Lots of gift cards from the sizes of the packages πŸ™‚

  33. I worked at a retail store last year that sold gift cards. While I both ask for and give gift cards at places I know money will be spent anyway, I absolutely DESPISE “universal” gift cards that require an “activation” fee. When customers wanted to purchase a dozen or so $25 cards requiring some $30 in fees, I wanted to puke. The only thing worse was customers trying to purchase several $100 cards with an out-of-state check and no ID…

    And if your store has a rack with several gift cards on display, be aware that there could very easily be criminals with the gift card numbers just WAITING for you to activate one…

  34. I prefer cash, even though my parents would agree more with that Liz Pulliam Weston

  35. I think the biggest thing to note is that when a gift card is unused the economic trickle down stops with the retailer. (Did I just use a Reaganomics term?) When you buy an item and it sits unused in the closet, it goes from the retailer, to the distributor, to the manufacture, to the raw material supplier. I’d say unused gift cards hurt more to the econ then an unused item.

  36. I’m gonna be a George Banks (party pooper) πŸ˜‰

    Gift cards are lame. And, yes, I agree that we’re just getting closer & closer to a financial exchange. And then what do you do w/ peer gifting?? $50 vs. $75. The psychological floor & ceiling both explode.

    In fact……think about it…….despite CR’s argument about whether it’s fiscally responsible…….consider that we’re even TALKING about it here on this forum.

    It’s obviously fiscally irresponsible. It’s a retailer’s dream.

    Psychologically, it’s the next evolutionary step toward $$ exchange & then maybe we’ll forego it altogether.

    The new ways to celebrate holidays will be “Just keep it”.

    Or maybe it’ll be cyclical. It’ll get all the way back to something handmade, like a piece of paper with thoughts written on it (a la ‘card’) and then it’ll start all over again.


  37. Cheapster Bob says:

    It helps the retail sector as it adds billions of dollars of profit that costs them nothing. It reminds me of the lottery scam the State governments run. You give them hard earned cash and they give you back nothing. Great deal for them and I guess the part that isn’t wasted/stolen is put to good use.

    The retailer keeps his inventory that would have been lost to the gift card purchase and sells it anyway to other customers.

    Another great bonus is the card draws people into stores they might otherwise never have visited.

    There is nothing but advantages to gift cards for the retail sector and since that is such a crap sector for earnings usually they need that leg up.

    I can’t fault genius inventions even though it borders on the shady. I’m simply amazed that people actually lose or do not use them. This is a spender society and that is taught from birth.

    I think those billions come from the extra dollars unused on those cards versus them being lost or unused.

  38. Sunday, I don’t know whether you meant to be sarcastic in your note to Attorney. Let me clarify: Clients, family and colleagues give me many, many items that I never use: coffee mugs, gourmet coffee (I don’t drink coffee), sweaters, scarves, plaques, fountain pens, watches, etc. that someone else spent good money for. What good does it do me if I don’t use them? So I have to take the time to give these things to someone else. I earn $250 an hour and prefer not to spend hours boxing away gifts that I never use. And yes, if I don’t use them, eventually they all become dust collectors regardless of how much they cost. I can afford to get what I want when I want. I don’t want gifts because they usually do not suit my tastes. A gift card would be better, but I would never be so presumptuous as to ask for one. A gift card just means that I have to use it to buy more items that I don’t need.

  39. Hey Jonathan here’s a “pingback” that I wrote last week on the same topic.

    The “taxes in” GC idea is just excellent, but I think you’ve hit a good spot with this question: What are we pretending? That gifts don?t cost money?! I’d say that we’re pretending to be affluent enough that the price of the gift is irrelevant, but that’s just a guess, there’s definitely a lot of angles there.

    As to Attorney vs. Sunday, I think that we’ve hit the fundamental “thoughtful gift question”. Attorney clearly doesn’t really “need” for any gifts, but at $250/hour his time is really valuable. If you look at the list he drew out, most of it isn’t stuff that recognizes that he makes more in an hour than many people make in a day.

    For a guy like attorney, you get thoughtful disposables, donations in their name or you buy someone else’s time. If he likes to drink you buy him a bottle, if he likes theatre you get him tickets with an open date. He’s probably a busy guy, so even a GC for a restaurant may be kind of useless. Instead, buy him a catered lunch (add the staff if it’s not a large), instead of a $200 fountain pen he won’t use, he gets a free lunch and a staff morale booster (organize it with his assistant). Or set up a chef to do an in-office habachi-style meal on a portable grill, lawyer’s offices tend to be bigger and that’s probably less than $100. Also think about “getting it delivered” in January when life is slower and the gift will more likely be noticed.

    And if none of this stuff works, just find a charity he likes and give it some money. But hey, to quote my own blog: Bad gifts are bad gifts, cash, cash-equivalent or wrapped in a big box.

  40. It looks like we are luckier in our part of the world.

    We give only cash. That, too, only to the youngsters. Once you are married, you are out of the cash receiving pool. This takes out the headache of figuring out exactly what the right gift would be.

    The only innovation that I can think off is, these few years the money is put into neat little packets. Many companies, even banks print them (the packets, I mean) and distribute them around our festive seasons.

  41. As a receipient of GCs, I love it coming from almost anyone except from a boyfriend/husband. It just totally shows that they don’t want to put the effort to get me something nice, but that I am a child that needs to be “shut up” with a GC. I may be overly sensitive, but for sure I don’t want it coming from a significant other. As a GC giver, I only give it when I don’t want to put much thought into it or it’s easier. Personally I’m a good bargain hunter. I find a $20 gift for $10, but if I got it in a GC, $10 would look too cheap.

  42. In a way, I’m not big on gift cards, but I know they have their place. I feel like gift cards or gift certificates are best when they are from a place that you know the recipient likes, but that they consider a “luxury” or “indulgence.” If you buy them a Walmart gift card, that’s unthoughtful to me. At that point, just give them cash. But if there is a local restaurant that they love, a gift certificate there could be a very thoughtful gift, depending on the recipient.

  43. Tom Miller says:

    Our family has not done gifts for the past few years as a way of saving money. This year we did decide to do gifts. We did draw names this year so we do not have to spend to much, plus we gave each other lists of things wanted. This way we get what we want.

    I really do not like gift cards due to the fact of the even amounts. If I purchase something for less than the worth of the card, you have left over amount. In order to use that amount, you are forcing the person to spend more money, or to purchase something more expensive to get the most out of it. Give cash instead.

  44. Thank You! I am so over these columnists hating on gift cards. I posted a question about this on Yahoo! Answers a while back, and the overwhelming majority of answerers were pro-card. I’m not sure what has brought on this wave of gift-card-hatred among the finance writers; maybe they’d rather we were buying copies of their latest books for everyone on our list!
    P.S. – I got two gift cards as early Xmas presents yesterday, and they are already spent!

  45. Cheapster Bob says:

    Attorney, I think I might have a solution to your dreaded problem. Simply let everyone you know buy you the dust collectors and then mail each one to my address. I am an avid dust collector and have been for some time. I hope to make it a career some day so I think we can help each other here.

    Thanks pal,


    To the other guy who draws names for gifts. I thought that was a great idea and my ex-wifes family did it last year. I went there with a very nice gift for the person I drew. Then sat there and witnessed everyone giving “token” gifts to everyone else including me.

    In other words they gave gifts anyway and I ended up looking cheap…which I am, but still…

  46. well, I have a different take on gift cards…during the month of December, I notice a lot of retailers try to sell them with various bonuses…like the Jamba card with a free smoothie, or $5 extra bonus on a Chili’s card…what I do is look for gift cards that *I* would use over the year, buy it on a 5% cash back credit card and pay off in full. The Jamba deal is great, since it’s for a *product* it’s automatically inflation adjusted, same with movie vouchers. The other way it works for me is I keep a “check file” to organize my coupons/gift cards so I will actually pull them out when appropriate.

  47. I would rather receive a gift card than almost anything. I get exactly what I want that way.

  48. Elliot Lee says:

    I agree with you. However, home-made gifts are really the best. Whether it’s a personalized card, a clay sculpture, or some other unique creation– these are the best gifts of all. They are priceless.

  49. And think of the money they make on the fees! I picked up some GC’s at the mall this weekend. There was a $2 fee per GC. These were VISA GC’s so they can be used anywhere so why not just give the person the cash and skip the $2 fee per GC.

  50. Cheapster Bob says:

    I always hear the “home made gifts are the best” line whenever this comes up. Like your grandma’s pea green scarf she knitted you or the “hand crafted” card is the best of the best.

    I understand the person took time and was thoughtful. Still, come on, be honest those gifts go in the closet and the blu-ray player is put to use.


    I’m cheap but I don’t even try to pull that racket.

  51. Elliot Lee says:

    I don’t watch movies often, and when I do, they are almost certainly not hi-def.

    On the other hand, I indeed have a knitted scarf which was a gift from a friend last year, and use it to this day. Wore it yesterday when we went Christmas caroling, in fact πŸ™‚

    That’s the honest truth. Doesn’t usually take money to make me happy, and when it does, it’s always possible to work to earn it myself. (No way I could knit a scarf, though :-P)

  52. I have to say that I am against giving gift cards as a gift. They show minimal thought and effort and lest we all forget:

    “It is the thought that counts”

    Do I need to elaborate more?

    Gift cards are just a cop out of spending any real effort understanding the person you are buying a gift for. I would also include alcohol gifts into this category unless it is a really special bottle.

  53. John, I agree with you for the most part, however I think that alcohol is only given as a gift to either a) hosts of a party/gathering or b) someone who is an aficionado.

    I find it ok in both cases since the first one isn’t really a I-thought-about-you kind of situation, more just a token of thanks for the invitation (and possibly an addition to the tasting menu), and the second, well, obviously if a sane person were getting a bottle for someone because they know he/she likes to drink wine or whatever, they would get a nicer bottle, which they’d have to think about a little.

  54. Or another possibility is to spend the money on a donation to a charity in another person’s name to support social change and inspire awareness. It would be something that would go towards helping people who don’t have the social capital as we have been fortunate enough to have: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/20061217.htm .

  55. Janet: As a receipient of GCs, I love it coming from almost anyone except from a boyfriend/husband.

    Hear, hear! Of course, receiving a GC from your life partner is basically just stupid. It’s all “your money” at that point anyways. If he wants to buy you “something” but he’s not quite sure, the least he can do is write down an amount and take you shopping.

    Elliot Lee:: home-made gifts are really the best…they are priceless…I indeed have a knitted scarf which was a gift from a friend last year, and use it to this day…

    Which is really cute, but not really true. Home-made gifts are not the panacea. What if three of your friends just decided to make you a new scarf every year? Bad gift right? Home-made gifts are not inherently better or worse, bad gifts are bad gifts whether they’re made or purchased. If you had 20 people with which you exchanged gifts annually and they all gave you mitts and scarves and custom coasters and hot plates and oven mitts and tree decorations… It wouldn’t take long before you’d have duplicates and excesses.

    If I gave you a hand-made wooden Monopoly board and you’d never played Monopoly (or worse yet, didn’t even like the game), then that’s just a bad gift. Especially over the course of 20 years when I thoughtlessly decide to make you a new “priceless” wooden board game every year. It’s not priceless, it’s just a waste of your space.

    John: Gift cards are just a cop out of spending any real effort understanding the person you are buying a gift for.

    And blanket generalizations are just a cop out for making any effort towards understanding the complexity of the situation. You’re not really giving much of an argument to support your case here. It’s basically just a statement with no references.

    All I can say is that I’m sorry that you feel this way.

  56. Gift cards are appropriate and appreciated in a variety of circumstances.

    For co-workers, employees, kids’ teachers, and others you don’t know well, a small gift card can be an appreciated and better gift than the trinket you might otherwise buy those individuals.

    For stocking stuffers, specific gift cards you know will be appreciated–like for Itunes, Starbucks, or Borders–are a perfect addition for your children or spouse.

    Obviously I wouldn’t want my only gift from a close family member or friend to be a gift card–however if an aunt or uncle wanted to send on in leiu of a randomly chosen item they would otherwise purchase for me, I’d appreciate that.

    And as for cash, all 4 of my grandparents have been giving that to their children AND grandchildren for years, and those envelopes are greatly appreciated by all. It’s exciting for kids to get *some* Christmas money to spend freely, and that’s the only cash we ever get anymore. Besides, my family is quite large and scattered across the country; my grandparents can’t possibly keep up with our changing interests and wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to get for us.

  57. Mr. Nickle says:

    I am trying very hard to declutter my life, and stop accumulating **things**. Things take up space, which costs money (bigger house = higher price + more expense to heat/cool that space). When people give me dishes, home decorations, or clothes (all of which I have too much of already), they aren’t really doing me a favor.

    I personally would much rather receive a restaurant gift card as a gift than more **stuff** I don’t need, and spend a nice evening out with my wife, toasting the giver.

  58. Gift card merchants should keep the card and give the consumer change back when the card gets down to a certain point, like less than two dollars. All too often, I have a gift card with less than two dollars on it. I prefer to give or receive cash than gift cards.

  59. Why gift cards suck:

    Pull out a dollar bill and on it you see something to the affect of “legal tender for all debts public and private”

    Doesn’t say that on a gift card. I give a store hard earned cash, they hand me back a plastic card….I don’t think so. I’d rather give someone cash than a gift card.

  60. ProfessorB: Gift card merchants should keep the card and give the consumer change back when the card gets down to a certain point, like less than two dollars

    I’ve actually done this before. In fact I used to program Point of Sale systems that supported this feature. However, accountants don’t like (changing tenders can be annoying to track) it and business owners would rather that you spend more than the card’s value not less.

    Really though, it wouldn’t be hard to legislate that all GCs provide cash after a certain point, you’d just need to lean on the right politicos. Personally, I’d just ask the cashier to ask the manager, most software systems will actually let them cash out the rest.

  61. “How many sweaters, handmade widgets, DVDs, scented candles, or whatever sit in your house right now, collecting dust in a closet.”

    I suppose the difference is that you’d actually have a sweater collecting dust in your closet instead of the “promise” of a sweater collecting dust in your closet, which is what unused gift cards amount to. πŸ™‚

    My personal philosophy is that if I’m clueless as to what to get someone (which is most of the time!), I just get them cash instead of a GC. The message a GC sends to me is contradictory: “I don’t know what to get you, and I’m also going to limit your gift to this store.”

  62. I love getting gift cards to places I enjoy shopping at. I do not feel that it’s the lazy way out – I understand that the giver knows they may not perfectly know my tastes. I have an aunt and uncle who give my sister clothes because her tastes are all over the map and she loves everything. They know I have more limited tastes and therefore give me a gift card to find something I will like. Clearly they’re not trying to take the easy way out since they put in effort for my sister.

    I am a huge fan of the compromise Jonathan mentioned. I think it’s silly to give my mom a gift card (because I should know her better, and because she has money), but I have done so 3 times with a specific item in mind. I know she will like these items, but thought she might like to pick the specific features or size. These were well received, and she used them to buy the exact models she wanted.

    I even did this once with my wife, for this Christmas. I know everyone has said that is awful, but I think it was rather nice in this case – just listen. Her parents had given us this big (really big) wooden “decorative” sign to hang in our home. Unfortunately, she really really didn’t like it and was rather conflicted about it. I gave her a gift card to buy something decorative and nice for the house — whatever she wanted — to make up for the tacky gift. The gift card had a very specific purpose, but it gave her the freedom to pick out the exact picture frame or candle or whatever she wanted that day. She thought it was very sweet.


  1. The Honest Dollar | Gift Cards Round-up says:

    […] My Money Blog, “I Don’t Understand Why Gift Cards Are So Bad“ […]

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