Gift Card Smack Down!

It’s holiday time, and that means one thing above all others: time for the fights to begin!  And this year, on top of the usual arguments about whether the holiday season is getting too commercialized (yes) and whether there is a war being waged on Christmas by secular elements and retailers (no), there’s a new battle looming: Whether gift cards or actual gifts are the best type of presents to get.

In the pro-gift card column, you have Joel Waldfogel, Wharton School Economist, who makes an argument about economic efficiency.  By giving gift cards, you enable the recipient to choose their own preferred gift, rather than getting something they may not want.  In this way, you can maximize the value of the gift they finally choose.

On the other hand, Liz Weston (among others), makes the argument that gift cards aren’t gifts.  A gift shows that you thought about a person and their needs and desires, as she points out, while a gift card sends the message of ‘There, I checked you off my list!’  For her, and others who share her view, gift cards are a cop-out, an admission that you don’t know someone well enough (or don’t trust that knowledge enough) to actually buy a gift without resorting to using a gift card.

My Judgment

One Good Gift Idea
One Good Gift Idea

As with most arguments, both sides have a point.  Mr. Waldfogel is right that gift cards are a better way to ensure that the recipient gets something they want (to say nothing of easier to buy when nobody in your family gives you decent gift ideas, as is my usual situation with my family), and Ms. Weston is correct that they are much less personal and intimate than a carefully chosen, well thought out gift.

How do you balance out these two sides?  The best way I can see is to know when to use gift cards, and when it would be better to rely on good, old-fashioned hand-chosen gifts.  While far from complete, I’ve assembled a rough set of guidelines to help you out:

DON’T buy gift cards for children under 12: Unlike adults, children tend to be much more into making holiday lists (and generally don’t have money for their own things that working people have).  Add in the fact that they will be less excited when tear open their presents only to find a… card, and getting a real present for the young ones is almost a no brainer.

DO consider gift cards for coworkers: If you are buying gifts for the other members of your office, (whether as part of an official gift exchange or just because you want to shower them with gifts), you might be hard pressed to know what they’d like.  This is especially true for a Secret Santa style arrangement, where you might be giving gifts to someone with whom you’ve barely spoken.  Any situation like this is just perfect for a gift card.

DO give gift cards if the recipient asks: It might not be the most festive holiday gift, but if that’s what the recipient wants, why try to argue?  It might not be the most tactful gift to request, but when you can’t think of anything else (or don’t want to micromanage your list to ensure that you get something that you want and don’t already have), it makes a pretty handy alternative.  (Although, perhaps that just shows my age, as Ms. Weston points out we young people are ‘especially enamored of gift cards.’)

DON’T give gift cards to immediate family and close friends: Where you draw the line about who is close enough that you SHOULD know what to get them is up to you, but I’d say that parents, siblings, the closest of your friends, and your romantic interest should get an actual, physical present.  (Unless they belong to the last category and ask for a card, or simply don’t give you any ideas; I’ll give you a mulligan to gift cards in either of those situations.)  The further you get from this core group, the more acceptable a gift card becomes; if you find yourself struggling to get a gift for a distant cousin you only see once a year, a gift card sounds like the perfect alternative to weeks of racking your brain.

DO attempt to make the gift fit the person: Ideally, this means using your knowledge of the person and their interests to choose a non-gift-card gift.  If that’s impossible, do try to make sure the gift card reflects their personality; rather than a mall-wide gift card (or one of the ones that act like debit cards and can be used everywhere), opt for a more narrow card for a specialty shop.  A book store gift card for the bibliophile in your family, a craft store card for your friend who makes her own clothes, a Hot Topic card for the one angry goth cousin you have; a little bit of personalization can go a long way in making a gift more special, even if it is a card.

Again, this is just a short list; there are plenty of situations and people I haven’t covered, where you’ll need to use your own judgment.  The best advice I can give for those situations is to use your own judgment; if you would be offended by getting a gift card rather than an actual present from that person, you should probably give them an actual present.  (Of course, if you, like me, have no problem with getting a gift card from anyone on your gift list, you might want to be a bit more exacting in your standard.)  Aim to get everyone something they will love, and your gift giving should come out fine.

2 Responses to Gift Card Smack Down!

    • FS, you could be right. Although, there’s always the risk that you’ll end up giving away a ticket that could be worth thousands, even millions of dollars, and then feel like a fool. In fact, Scott Adams (the guy who does the Dilbert comic) told the story of how his brother bought him (Scott) a lottery ticket, and bought himself (the brother) two tickets with identical numbers. The reason his brother gave? So whatever Scott won, the brother would get twice as much! 😉

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