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Cash Only, Please

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I have a love/hate relationship with gift cards. When they first came out in the mid-1990’s, I thought they were the definitive answer to the weary and beleaguered, last-minute shopper’s prayers; an easy way to give a gift, in lieu of cash and still look semi-thoughtful. And, of course, to receive one was a ticket to treat yourself to something you otherwise might not.

I’ll never forget getting a $100 gift card to BeBe as a Christmas gift from my boss when I was still in my twenties. This would be no ordinary shopping trip for me. It was the first time I had ever shopped at a store without sales racks in the back and nothing that cost
less than $20. There was no choice but to splurge. I bought a simple, black, cocktail dress that ate up all $100 and was the most divine item of clothing I ever owned.

Giving and receiving plastic has long since lost its’ luster for me.

Now the top holiday gift, we can all expect to get at least one piece of plastic this Christmas that we will never use except to maybe re-gift the following year. I have gift cards in my wallet, my desk drawer, the car and everywhere else except on my person when I finally pass that one store I would never make a special trip to and realize, “now would’ve been a good time to have brought that with me.”

Before I know it, years have passed, we’ve moved across three states and I still have gift cards for stores, restaurants or services I can no longer find. Oh, well. They’ve probably expired anyway.

You know one thing that never expires? CASH. It’s accepted everywhere and you never have to read the fine print. However, sticking a 20-dollar-bill in a Christmas card now seems like a tactless afterthought when you could’ve just as easily picked up any one of dozens of slick gift cards from the display rack at the convenience store or supermarket where you bought the greeting card. You could even buy it its’ own special box so the recipient thinks they’re getting a real gift, instead of just cash dressed up as a flashy, colorful piece of plastic.

If you purchase a gift card at Target this year, the card actually looks like a real gift, too. There’s the peel-and-stick GiftSticker, GiftCoins, a sled-shaped GiftCard with a wind-up pup and even a remote-control GiftCard with a racing mouse toy. Since 1999, Target has led the way in innovative ways to re-package cold, hard cash.

Despite everything I just said, I will likely be giving a gift card this year to at least one difficult-to-buy-for person, and thus, giving in to the plastic. I’m fully aware of what I’m doing. Instead of saying “I gave absolutely no thought to your gift. Here’s twenty bucks,” I’ll be saying, “I thought about your gift and couldn’t come up with anything, so here’s twenty bucks to a store I think you may like, but, really have no clue, however, the card has a picture of flowers on it, and I know you like flowers, so I still get points for being attentive and for making an effort, even though I didn’t actually buy you a gift.”

So, when it comes to gift cards, which is better: to give or to receive?

Guest blogger Chris is a directionally-challenged pilot’s wife in Aurora, CO, navigating motherhood and marriage as a SAHM turned unintended WAHM. She prefers snowboarding in powder, margaritas on the rocks and friends with grit.

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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson December 9, 2010

    Here’s the deal with gift cards: I love love them…so long as they are from somewhere I’d normally shop. However, I have a couple of gift cards in my wallet that I’ve never used because I didn’t care for the stores or they are no where near my house.

    Personally, I’m often on the receiving ends of gifts I never use so for me, gift cards are AWESOME!

  • comment avatar JoAnn December 9, 2010

    I LOVE gift cards! I know you’ll find this to be so shocking, but I keep them in my wallet, and on the back of each one, I’ve written in a Sharpie how much they’re worth. (With the original amount AND the balance if I buy something that doesn’t take the whole amount).

    A lot of recipients on my Gift List have told me what stores they like so that I can get them gift cards. Grocery stores are making this much easier by having those “gift cards from everywhere” kiosks! In the olden days, I had to actually go to the particular restaurant to get the card! (Oh, darn.) 😉

  • comment avatar Tina December 9, 2010

    LOVE ‘EM! and I do exactly the same thing as JoAnn.

    Last week my mother called to ask which stores do I shop at the most and where would I like my gift card to be from. Now I know that takes away some element of surprise but I can get the good bath towels that I would not have spent my own money on and she doesn’t have to lug a bunch of gift thru airport security. This year will be the first time that my little kids will get gift cards from Grandma (after she asked if it was ok). I am using it as a learning experience with the value of money and how much things actually cost. I will not contribute extra money to the item they select.

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz December 9, 2010

    I love to give em and I love to get em (like Amber said, to a place I already patronize).

    But members of my family think they’re tacky. Said members have extra-intuitive abilities to find the perfect gifts and don’t realize that I don’t have those abilities.

  • comment avatar December 9, 2010

    Hmmm…I hate them to give. I can’t stand the idea that we are so lost from the members of our own community that we can’t think of what they actually might like and enjoy. It is just one more ‘check’ in the column of reducing connections. ON THE OTHER HAND, everyone who knows me, knows I love books. And that isn’t something you can really pick out for someone else all the time. Truth be told, if my stocking was full of book store gift cards, I would be a happy camper. lol.


  • comment avatar Mama Bird December 9, 2010

    Amber, JoAnn and Tina, you are all a step ahead of me just by keeping all of yours’ in your wallet. My wallet would resemble George Costanza’s if I carried all of mine with me! LOL!

    And, good point about the traveling gift-giver, Tina. As a yearly Christmas-time flyer, I can relate. Size does matter. 😉 Also like your idea for teaching the kids just how far that “money” will go!

    I can relate to you AND your family members, Lori. There are just some people I never know what to get, so I give gift cards, but always feel guilty about it. I think I just grew up with too much unnecessary pressure at Christmas to always find the “perfect” gift for everyone.

    But, I’d never feel guilty about it for an avid reader – the perfect example of when to give a gift card, Jen. My husband reads a book a week and after I’ve gone through all the new books from the authors I know he likes, I’m stumped! Better to let you and him pick out your own reads! You also make a good point about losing connections with others. Even if the gift I give isn’t the most perfect, whatever happened to “it’s the thought that counts,” right?

    Does anyone else worry about expiration dates? That’s my biggest bugaboo. I’ve even called the number on the back of some of mine that I’ve had for years to make sure they’re still good when and if I ever get around to using them. 😛

  • comment avatar Catherine December 16, 2010

    I love gift cards if they are for a place that I would normally visit. Last year My husband and I received gift cards to two large national chain restaurants. The problem? We tend to eat almost exclusively at local places. We like the food quality more and we like to support businesses in our community.

    I would totally prefer to get cash but a gift card that I will actually use is okay. So often though the people giving the gift don’t take the time to actually find out what you like and or have on your Christmas wish list. We all have this idea that we must figure out what people want without actually asking them. On the flip side we feel like we can’t actually tell people what we really want because that would be greedy and rude. The gift giving portion of Christmas stresses me out. Can you tell? 😉

  • comment avatar Rebecka December 16, 2010

    WOW I wished I received all these gift cards not being used out there lol. I LOVE gift cards, give me a book store gift card and I will LOVE you forever and ever. I am shocked that some find them tacky or whatever, because I find it very considerate to let me pick what I want instead of pretending to like what you thought I’d like. Now I will worry what the recipient of my gift cards really thinks of them. I think teachers really appreciate them and there are targets everywhere, not to mention EVERYONE can find something they can use at Target.