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Why gift cards work

My dad sends me one every Christmas. Does that bother me? Not particularly. We both get what we want.

By Donna_Freedman Dec 20, 2011 11:04AM

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.

I love looking for the perfect gift, whether it comes from a rummage sale or a department store. But I also realize that a teenage 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 will 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. Post continues below.

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.

I've gotten cheap (or free!) gift cards in other ways, too, including:

  • On personal-finance blog giveaways.
  • 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; for example, recently I spent $5 for a $10 Subway card and took a friend out to lunch.
  • From daily deal sites like Eversave and My Bargain Buddy.

And yes, I've even gotten them 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.

MSN Money columnist Donna Freedman blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

More on MSN Money:

Dec 23, 2011 8:30PM

Giving a lot of gas cards this year.  This one works in all the necessary states for the family and is something no one will want to return.  A free fill-up?  Heck, yeah.

Dec 25, 2011 2:19PM
I love gift cards.  Yes it is nice to get a gift that someone has thought about, went out and shopped and bought, and gift wrapped.  And occasionally it is something I really like.   But on the other hand I like to do my own shopping because I know exactly what I want.  Besides it saves the giver time, gas money, and the hassle of shopping as well as gift wrapping supplies (which can't be recycled - maybe re-used). Hope you all had a great holiday.
Dec 25, 2011 9:04AM
Gift cards are away of getting you in the store because you or someone else spend more than the card value
Dec 26, 2011 11:09AM
I love gift cards.  If I get cash I deposit it and spend it on bills.  What kind of gift is that?  But a gift card...  I can buy new clothes, or get a facial at the spa or this year I got lots cards to my favorite bookstore because I  am an avid reader and told everyone that is what I wanted.  I have that new ereader  just waiting for me and it feels like it is free.  I get what I want and everyone still stayed in the $15 - $20 or less budget we set for gift buying this year.  I will even have enough left over to buy my sister something in the cafe as a thank you for the card. 
Dec 26, 2011 3:09AM
I don't like gift cards because I spend the $ for the card ...give it as a gift and then the person looses the card and only one happy is the store because they just made a killing....I give checks  so I can replace it if it gets lost or ran through the washer.....I give cash if I;m giving the gift directly to the person.
Dec 26, 2011 7:15AM
I Love gift cards and don't receive enough of them! Gas cards, grocery cards, any card, this way I can spend my time after Christmas getting what I need or want not returning what someone thought I needed or wanted! The Visa gift cards are the best, they can be spent just about anywhere. There are some people that don't take the time to use them and I'm not sure why, it's free money! If it's to somewhere you don't shop then sell it to someone who does shop there and go where you'd like to spend the cash! I think they're wonderful my other half doesn't for some reason. He thinks they get lost or just don't get used so I don't always get the joy of buying them for other people. It makes me buy things I'm unsure that the person will will use, wear or if it will even fit! Give me one anyday!!
Feb 1, 2012 7:10AM
I love gift cards!  I use them as a budgeting tool for myself and as gifts for our  kids (students, single mom, first time home buyer).  Not only do I earn special rewards when using one of my four credit cards to buy them but, in essence, my year of expenses is all paid for now.
Dec 26, 2011 11:56AM

That's just completely wrong in giving gift cards.  Your logic fails you in some ways.  The ONLY way it MIGHT be ok, is if you use those other sites that resell, and buying up gift cards at a SIGNIFICANT discount, of course that means someone else who got them is taking a loss, and there is some middle man profiting off of this whole unfortunate situation.


More often then not, people are just simply going into individual stores, or those really annoying "gift card malls" in the supermarket or wherever.  Basically giving a corporation YOUR MONEY long before you ever spend it.  It's pretty much giving a store an advance on a purchase so they can start earning interest on YOUR MONEY.  If stores REALLY want you to give them your money ahead of time, then they ALL should be offering discounts on their value.  After all, like I said, they will get to start earning interest on your money, then there is also the gimmick where they know you'll wind up having to spend EVEN MORE then the value of the gift card in order to use it up (basically a double win for the corporation).


Frankly, if you're going to be doing something so ridiculously impersonal, I'd rather have the cash.  That way I can earn interest on it, as well as actually select the stores where I want to spend it in and not be limited to a particular store.  Those really rare times I'm given any, it feels like such a chore to find something I could really use, not to mention struggle for a while trying to make sure I'm getting a proper bargain and not fall for some ridiculous gimmick, or just "give in" and just buy something to get it over with and out of my pocket and off my mind.


Basically most of you people should actually start to putting some thought behind what you're doing, and not just give up and throw away money on giftcards or whatever.  Do you actually care about these people you're getting "gifts" for?  Or is it just something you feel obligated to do?  If it's the latter, then you really shouldn't be getting them anything, and perhaps you should start thinking about the people you actually care about. If you really sat down and started thinking about the people you REALLY care about, you might actually start to think of some nice things or things you can do for them as a way to show you care. It often doesn't take much to get a nice gift for the people you care about. It's that personal touch that often can mean so much to people who care about you in return.  Not to mention spending loads of times with certain loved ones, when mostly that's all that some want.  Just to be spending loads of good times through out the season, and through out the year as well.


So please, all of you, just stop and think every now and then.

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