Why gift cards don’t reflect holiday spirit


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This year, Americans will spend $42 billion on gift cards.

Max Beard, Staff Writer

When it comes to buying gifts this holiday season, our go-to choice is often a no-brainer. Whether it’s for Christmas, Hanukkah, a birthday, a thank-you card, a wedding, a white elephant party or a Secret Santa, we’re giving and receiving more gift cards than ever before. This year, Americans will spend $42 billion on gift cards. It’s easy to see why—they’re convenient, considerate and flexible. Unfortunately, they’re none of these things, and the real gift you’re giving is to the company associated with the card. This holiday season, I would urge you to drop gift cards as a staple gift in favor of several other options.

Gift cards are inherently limiting. The whole point is that they can just be used at one store, creating a big problem if you end up guessing wrong. While I wouldn’t mind a gift card to Bed Bath and Beyond, there are many other stores that I’d prefer to shop at. By buying someone a gift card, you run the risk of forcing them to shop at a store they wouldn’t choose to go to otherwise. Even worse, they might not even use it because you picked something so unusual that they don’t even bother going: we’ve all got that drawer full of unused gift cards to some “hip” café or independent bookstore.

Even more problematic than gift cards’ inflexibility is that they present a lose-lose situation every time they’re used. Purchases never add up to exactly the amount on the gift card, especially when you include fees, taxes and discounts. This causes two problematic scenarios: on one hand, you could have a small amount left on the card. It’s not enough to buy something else, but it is enough to make you feel guilty for wasting the giver’s money. How would you feel if the $25 gift card you gave was only worth $19? 

The alternative is just as bad: the gift recipient goes to a store to spend the money you gave them and ends up being tempted to buy an item worth more than the price of the gift card. In essence, you’ve given them the gift of paying for something they didn’t necessarily want before. 

Finally, let’s address the idea that gift cards are just classier than cash. Imagine giving your friend or family member cold, hard cash this holiday season. Unthinkable! Cash is too direct, cash feels transactional, cash feels impersonal. It exudes a sentiment of “I didn’t feel like getting you anything meaningful, so here’s a few bucks to buy your satisfaction.” Gift cards, on the other hand, are the opposite. They’re sleek. They’re dignified. They come in a nice envelope or presentation box. Gift cards are the opposite of cash. But are they really? 

In reality, they’re just fancy money. We pat ourselves on the back for giving such a meaningful gift as a gift card, but they’re just as unthoughtful as paper money. Just because they’re in a different physical form and only work in one place doesn’t mean that they’re any different for the recipient.  If you wouldn’t give cash, you shouldn’t give a gift card either.

If gift cards are inflexible, costly and unthoughtful, what should we do instead? It’s easy: replace gift cards with cash or a gift. For people you don’t know as well, everyone wants more money. If the mere thought of handing over cold hard cash makes you cringe, remember gift cards aren’t any better. Unlike gift cards, bills can be spent anywhere, and it doesn’t create a pressure to spend more money than the recipient would have wanted. For people you know better, show them your appreciation with an actual gift. While it may seem like buying your outdoorsy friend a gift card to Bass Pro Shop or your gaming-obsessed relative a GameStop gift card is thoughtful, actual merchandise shows that much more care went into the gift.

None of this is to say that gift cards are inherently bad. In fact, gift cards to Amazon, Ebay or a Visa gift card are essentially cash and are a wonderfully versatile gift for anyone. All I ask is that this holiday season, everyone should deliberately and thoughtfully choose their gifts instead of just reaching for that ubiquitous gift card.