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Gift cards: Not so lame anymore

The struggling economy did much to boost the popularity of gift cards, once a last-minute go-to present. For recipients, the cards became licenses to spend on luxuries they had denied themselves.

By Nov 14, 2013 7:08PM

This post comes from Christine DiGangi at on MSN MoneyGift cards have become increasingly popular and acceptable holiday offerings, and shoppers are planning to spend more this year on these little plastic presents than ever before.

Gift card in a gift box © Thinkstock Images, JupiterimagesThere are a lot of reasons for that, starting with the idea that holiday sales will be slightly higher than they were last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The NRF forecasts holiday sales will grow by 3.9% in 2013. In its holiday shopping survey, the NRF determined the average consumer will spend $163.16 on gift cards, a 4% increase from last year.

But the shift in gift-card spending is more than a shift in spending — it was accompanied by a change in attitude.

"For some years, gift cards were kind of a strange gift to give, a strange gift to accept," says Trae Bodge, senior editor of’s Real Deal blog. "People knew how much others spent on them, and gift cards were considered an impersonal alternative to time spent on thoughtful shopping." Then the economy tanked, Bodge says. "People lost the ability to shop for themselves. Gift cards gave them permission to do so."

A RetailMeNot survey from last holiday season found 86% of Americans would be excited to receive a gift card. The NRF’s survey from this year said 60% would like to get gift cards, and it’s the seventh year in a row gift cards have been among the NRF’s list of the most desired gifts.

"Gift cards have become the preferred choice during the past few years," says Nimish Thakkar, founder of comparison shopping site "They are versatile instruments that allow the recipient to invest in a present that would be more suitable to her or his immediate needs."

Popular, but still problematic

In many consumers' eyes, gift cards have transitioned from an impersonal shopping shortcut to an opportunity to treat yourself to a favorite store or restaurant. (Department store and restaurant gift cards are the most commonly purchased around the holidays, according to the NRF survey.)

"What I think is interesting about gift cards is they are popular, but a lot of people don’t use them," Bodge said. It's a common catch: Consumers get cards for their favorite stores but forget to bring them out shopping or don’t remember they have them in their wallets. Sometimes people receive cards to stores they don’t frequent, and that money sits unused.

In that situation, technology helps. A handful of gift card exchange services have popped up, on which people can sell or trade unwanted gift cards -- you lose some value of the card, but it may be worth it to get cash or a card you’ll actually use. Some of Bodge’s favorites for buying and organizing include Gift Card Rescue, Plastic Jungle and Gyft.

Even so, it can be a pain to deal with a gift card for a store you don’t like. Some like to give prepaid debit cards as an alternative to gift cards, but they’re not the same thing. Prepaid cards can come with many fees, and the purchaser often has to pay to activate the card. They’re certainly a useful tool, but it’s important the gift giver and receiver understand how prepaid cards work.

If a gift card sounds like a good idea, but you’re not sure which retailer to choose, there are some general options that will likely be well-received.

"Quite often you feel this pressure to give someone the right gift," Bodge said. "You know they love to shop, but unless you’re really sure what they like, go with a big box store."

More from

Nov 15, 2013 10:35AM

Personally, I prefer that my family skip giving presents all together, but if they are going to get me something, please make it a gift card. I cannot tell you how many gifts are packed away in my closet or have been donated to the goodwill. Unfortunately, my in laws do not understand what I like and that I did not want the pornographic tea cups from Korea, the ugly wreath, or the wooden blocks that spell out "yours" and "mine". 


Gift cards are awesome! What are the worst gifts you have received?

Nov 15, 2013 9:33AM

I have always liked gift cards.

They are always the right size and the right color.

We have never forgotten to cash them in.

Nov 15, 2013 11:39AM
My family and I  love gift cards, you don't get useless crap that sits around collecting dust or going in the garbage or the wrong size. Plus you can take advantage of the after Christmas sales. =-)  
Nov 30, 2013 5:37PM
Too bad city utilities don't have gift cards. Screw The Olive Garden, everyone just buy me gift cards toward the electric bill.
Nov 15, 2013 11:08AM
I have never given gift cards.  I stand by the traditional and infinitely more flexible original ... CASH!
Nov 15, 2013 11:01AM
I was in a partnership that had about 20 employees that worked hard. At the partners meeting we were trying to figure out what we could afford to give the employees as a Christmas bonus. One of the partners knew the owner of one of the best restaurants in town and we were able to double the bonus by buying gift cards at 50% off. The employees were very pleased.
Nov 15, 2013 2:36PM

My husband's family got to where they would each hand every other sibling a gift card for the same denomination.  And, what's the point?  If you're going to give your brother a gift card for $50 and he's going to hand you one for $50 why don't you just not swap gifts?



I have NEVER had a problem with gift cards, sending or receiving,  And for  several reasons.  In receiving one, I never have forgotten I had one, and it's usually mailed to me as a gift from a family member or friend who lives far away, being easier to mail when tucked in a card instead of a big gift in a box.  As it's usually a card to a store within range of me, I am thus guaranteed to be able to get what I want in exactly the right size, color, or item, no returns needed.  In giving a gift card, it's the same set of reasons only from a giver's end:  easy to mail to the recipient, catered to a store or other place near them, and I know they will get exactly what they would like with no fuss about not getting just the right thing or having to make returns.

Gift cards are an excellent solution to giving a gift, because it removes a lot of the hassle, is cheaper to send if the recipient is far away (much cheaper than mailing a big box!), and if there is a family, the parents and older kids can have gift cards while the younger ones get the toy, again reducing the amount of cost to mail...and there's no whining about how "auntie" is out of touch with what is wanted for the occasion a gift is needed, or got "ugly clothes" for the receiver. 

When it comes down to it, gift cards are just as good as a check; have about the same amount of danger in being mailed if done right; and are the perfect solution for giving a gift to a family member who lives far away when the giver is on a budget.

Nov 15, 2013 10:43PM
Gift cards have a very good purpose. With so many people living far away from each other, they can send gift cards without piling on the postage they would need for presents.
Nov 30, 2013 5:44PM
I received $200 iTunes gift cards from my coworkers in 2008 when I left for an overseas assignment.  While overseas, my son tried to use them but couldn't; not knowing there is a fine print statement saying they are only good in the US.  We tried again when we returned home in 2011 but was still unsuccessful.  I contacted iTunes with the serial numbers of the cards and they were nice enough to track them down and informed me the cards were bought from Best Buy and I need to work with them.  Sounds reasonable.  I went to Best Buy, explained the situation and showed them the email from iTunes.  Best Buy's response?  I need to show them RECEIPTS before they can give me a refund!!  HELLO, these are GIFT CARDS!!  I was so mad and still am.  I have not spent a single penny in Best Buy since then and never will.
Nov 15, 2013 8:24PM
I always give gift cards. Especially to my mother. To put it nicely, mom is a real crabby whiner. She always complains about her gifts. So, why bother hunting for the "perfect" gift only to hear her moan about it. She still moans, but at least I didn't put days worth of effort into it.
Nov 27, 2013 12:13PM
If someone was going to get me a gift card, I prefer it be a Walmart least I can use it to stock up on extra garbage bags, baking soda, canning jars, or other useful items.
Nov 15, 2013 1:58PM
Just give cash! wayyyyyy better then a stupid Applebee's gift card! 
Nov 30, 2013 4:39PM
I love gifting and getting gift cards. Just know where the person likes to shop. I have a friend who buys me clothes based on their style and the size they think I am ad after it needs to be returned.  I tell them if they want to get a gift I  would like  a gift card  for pet food , does not matter the amount.  I get gift cards for my friends to stores they shop at example food stores everyone eats food. I have a friends who loves the lottery And friends who I ? get cash ..And it's big time saver.
Nov 15, 2013 8:22AM
Retailers love gift cards because people usually forget they have them and they end up in a box or the garbage. 100% profit for the retailer. You literally just handed them cash and walked away.
Nov 30, 2013 6:13PM
My mom used to be on this kick about giving me clothes as a christmas present. I love my mom but her idea of style is funny. I ended up with a bunch of clothes that i would never wear in a million years. I never said anything because it's the thought that counts but thank god my sister was there one year when she gave me this god awful sweater. My sister, never being one to hold her tongue, said "Mom. Please stop getting him clothes for x-mas. He'll never wear them." Since then she gets Visa debit cards from her credit union that only charge a fee after 1 year. Best gift ever. I can't count how many times I've been short on cash in an emergency and was able to pull that card out to save my butt. 
Nov 30, 2013 6:32PM

I would just like to get a Christmas gift sometime, even a birthday gift would be nice.  Some of you are lucky to get something instead of nothing.  Yet a lot of people complain.

Nov 15, 2013 4:49PM
I have given gift cards before for certain reasons. Though every year I give money at Christmas. To all my children and my wife.
Nov 16, 2013 12:36AM
Love to give & receive gift cards.  We have family & dear friends alllll over the place.  I used to send big gift boxes but that has become more & more expensive.  Much more economical to send a gift card in a greeting card. 

One thing that has always concerned me.  It hasn't yet happened to me, but I'm sure one day it will.  It seems relatively simple to feel that a gift card is in an envelope with a greeting card.  We certainly wouldn't think of sending cash in the mail inside of a card.  Although years ago, that is what our grandmas & aunties would do.  But a gift card is really no different.  Anyone got any ideas on how to send one safely??  Maybe in a small box...

Nov 30, 2013 7:38PM
After many years of buying things for my wife I thought she would like and getting that look of "dear I just love this" I bought gift cards in different amounts to many of her favorite stores. Thinking as she opened them I was going to get that look again. She smiled at me and told me how thoughtful I was. I thought to myself I screwed up again until on day the following June. She was going through her drawer singing to herself "Merry Christmas to me Merry Christmas to me" with a big smile on her face. Ever since then that is all she wants. Now that is all my daughter also prefers. This way she buy exactly what she wants. Not only that but she can go to the same store when the item is on sale and get more or the same amount. I no longer get the " I love it " look. My Christmas is a lot less worrisome now. 
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