Plastic ISN'T Fantastic

Whether they’re on your wish list or not, it is almost certain you will receive at least one gift card over the holiday season. According to the National Retail Federation’s 2016 survey, 56% of shoppers plan to give at least one this year, and it is estimated that 95% of American households have either bought or received them in the past. The golden rule of giving is that it’s the thought that counts. During the busy holiday shopping season, gift certificates are a convenient option. What’s important is that they not become a thoughtless fallback.

The value of a gift is far more important than its price. Gift cards are the only gifts, besides cash, that have a “face value”. In fact, for that reason many government employees such as teachers and postal workers cannot accept them. While there should be no shame in the fact that people gift differently according to their means, in a situation where multiple gift cards are being given and opened, this can lead to awkward situations. I recall a gift exchange I attended during which everyone revealed their gifts. Three of the five were – you guessed it – gift cards, ranging from $25 to $40. With tangible gifts, such a difference in price would not necessarily be as obvious, but those with the $25 cards couldn’t help but feel Scrooge’d.

There are certain situations in which convenient gifts are useful: when gifting to someone you do not know well or spare gifts set aside for unexpected guests. When giving to anyone more than an acquaintance, however, convenient is polite speak for lazy. When it comes to friends or family, plastic is fantastic if:

  • The recipient has previously spoken of financial distress, and you know a prepaid debit card or grocery card would help.
  • It is logistically more practical to give a gift card (ex. a gift sent in the mail)
  • Intended gift requires customization/sizing (ex. clothing)

Whenever you give a gift card, it is essential to attach a handwritten note, in which you may explain what the card is intended for. Gift cards can also be a great complement to a gift. For example, you can give a certificate to your favorite photofinishing store along with a nice picture frame. When purchasing a card, instead of revealing its dollar value, note a suggested use. For example, a $20 gift card to a $10 movie can read “Movie for two”.  Get familiar with a store’s prices before you decide what amount to load onto a card.

Think hard before you give a card. Given the increasing prevalence of gift cards, the gift of plastic is less likely to make an impact in 2016. Part of the value of a gift is the time the giver put into finding it and/or preparing it. For a gift that is guaranteed to end up in the trash sooner or later, gift cards sure are overrated. That being said, they should always be graciously accepted.