Editorial Policy

A defense of gift cards

Kristin McGrath

December 21, 2012

Would you rather have a gift worth $50 — or a $25 gift card? According to a December 2012 survey by First Data, about half of all consumers would take the gift card over the more expensive $50 gift. When the worth of the gift falls to $25, nearly all of the 1,700 consumers surveyed would go for the gift card.

The reasoning behind these preferences is pretty clear — a gift card is essentially money in your pocket, and who would turn that down? Yet that very benefit may be what’s given gift cards a reputation as being less thoughtful than moderately priced presents. There’s a cliche about cash — it’s cold and hard. I’d like to figure out a way to make gift cards less cold and impersonal.

I’ve given and received many gift cards over the years, and I admit I’m a fan. Many in the anti-gift-card camp say they buy physical gifts because they like to give people unique things they wouldn’t buy for themselves. What fun is it to give your loved ones a gift card to Target so they can buy groceries and cleaning supplies?

I think the trick in giving a thoughtful gift card is to take that philosophy and choose a gift card that prompts splurging. In other words, make sure the gift card is tied to a memorable experience — dance lessons, a meal at a nice restaurant, an evening at a comedy club or a shopping trip to a normally out-of-budget store.

One of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever gotten was a generous gift card to a high-end cosmetics shop. As someone who had never ventured beyond drug store makeup, I had a ball getting a makeover from the in-store make-up artists and then being able to buy all the pricey stuff they put on my face.

Even “generic” store gift cards can be thoughtful, too. If you’ve ever seen a college student’s face light up upon opening a grocery store gift card, you know what I mean. A boring supermarket gift card to one person is a special treat to someone who has been living on freeze-dried cuisine.

That’s not to say I don’t like “real” presents. I love getting accessories that my more stylish family members know would look great on me, scented candles that brighten my apartment and books from those whose tastes I admire. Yet I do think that the same creativity and care can be applied to gift cards.

Need some gift card inspiration? Check out our 2012 gift card package.

If holiday budgeting inspiration is what you’re after, check out some of my favorite blog posts of the week.

My University Money shares some tips for making your apartment look festive on the cheap.

My Alternate Life suggests some minimalist holiday gifts.

Ready for Zero stresses the importance of recalibrating your budget right after the holiday rush.

Sweating the Big Stuff asks what you’d do with your money if the world really were about to end.

Money Life and More has some tips for preparing your finances for the new year.

Financial Highway provides some ideas for keeping New Year’s Eve affordable.