Why gift cards work
My dad sends me one every Christmas. Does that bother me? Not particularly. We both get what we want.
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.
More on MSN Money:
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.
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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Editor Bev O'Shea lives and works in the foothills of the Appalachians. A former copy editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Orlando Sentinel, she joined MSN Money in 2007. She's a fan of sunsets, college football and free shipping, among other things.
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A writer for MSN Money since January 2007, Donna Freedman won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. She also writes about smart money tactics for magazines and on her own site, Surviving and Thriving.
Mitch Lipka has been warning people about scams and shining light on questionable business practices for more than 20 years. Mitch, the consumer columnist for The Boston Globe, has also been a reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Consumer Reports, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and AOL. He won the 2010 New York Press Club award for best consumer reporting online and was honored in 2011 for his reporting on child product safety.
Marilyn Lewis is an award-winning writer with a passion for getting readers clear, straight information that helps them stay out of financial trouble. A former reporter for The San Jose Mercury News, she works from her home in Port Townsend, Wash. Contact her at MarilynLewis@Outlook.com.
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