Please, don’t cop out and buy a gift card, unless you put some thought in first

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums shared this photo of a Christmas window at the Woods store in South Shields in 1962 on Flickr under Creative Commons.

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums shared this photo of a Christmas window at the Woods store in South Shields in 1962 on Flickr under Creative Commons.

Since the world didn’t end Dec. 21, that leaves a lot of us finishing up last-minute Christmas shopping.

(The Saturday before Christmas is actually busier than Black Friday, often mistakenly called the biggest shopping day of the year.)

Maybe you’re worn out from too many holiday parties or panicking because you realize how little time is left before you leave to visit your family, so you’re tempted to just buy a few gift certificates to someplace that sells everything the recipient could want, maybe Target or Macy’s or Amazon.

Before you do, might I implore you to reconsider?

First, think about your experience receiving a gift card. You take it to a store and play your own Price is Right, trying to use the value on the card without going too far over. Chances are you either leave some of the gift giver’s money sitting on the card or you spend some of your own.  Or maybe you never use the card at all.

Research says some $41 billion in gift card value has gone unclaimed since 2005.

Consumer Reports will also launch a holiday shopping hub on that will offer tips on how to avoid gift card snags and provides a place for consumers to share their stories about problems with gift cards.

Consumer Reports is also releasing its latest survey, which finds that 27 percent of gift card recipients have not used one or more of these cards, up from 19 percent at the same time last year. And among consumers with unredeemed cards from last season, 51 percent have 2 or more.

Not wanting to waste your money is one good reason to skip gift cards — but that is a side benefit.

I think giving a gift is primarily an opportunity to show love and affection for others. It is not a simple financial transaction like sliding a 20 across the counter at a fast food restaurant.

To me, a gift card says, “I know I’m supposed to give you something, but I can’t be bothered to spend the time or effort to understand what you might like, so here’s some cash so you can do the shopping I didn’t do.”

My husband is an excellent gift giver — because he pays attention to what I like and to what his family and friends like.

One year he gave me a pretty silver ring. I cooed about how much I liked it. Of course, he said, you picked it out. I didn’t remember having admired it in a store window, but he did. He’d gone back and bought it, safe in the knowledge I’d like it because I’d already said so.

My dad takes a more direct route. Every year he asks directly what we’d like for Christmas. John and I confer on something we think Dad might like to get us — electronics and appliances are in his sweet spot — then I relay our request with an explanation of why we want the thing and how we’ll use it. He learns something about what we like, and we think of him every time we use our new TV or stove.

Time is short, so what can you do to buy a last-minute gift that conveys thoughtfulness for the recipient?

Think about what you know about him or her. Can you think of any hobbies or special interests?

Let’s say your brother loves to bike. If you go to your local bike shop and ask for good gift ideas in your price range, they can steer you to something that shows you know biking is an important part of his life.

Baking? Playing music? Fishing? If you’re stumped, spend five minutes looking at Facebook photos and you might find loads of inspiration.

(I will add, I’m a fan of including a gift receipt, because the truth is that getting size, style, brand, etc. right isn’t always easy, and once you’ve made that thoughtful gesture, it doesn’t hurt to let the recipient tweak your choice a bit.)

But, you might rightly protest, Christmas is only a few days away and the time for doing such thoughtful, time-consuming shopping has long since passed.

Here’s my exception to gift card opposition: when it’s done with thought.

For example, when I was working full-time in a Manhattan high rise, John would occasionally mail me Starbucks gift cards. We had a Starbucks in the lobby, and it was his way of encouraging me to get up from my desk to take a coffee break.

One year, my dad asked for the names of some of our favorite restaurants. He went online, looked at their menus, estimated what he thought dinner would cost, then sent us a check with instructions that we were to spend this much at this restaurant, that much at that one. It was like a Dad-funded food scavenger hunt. He knew we love to go out to eat, and made the effort to connect up his cash gift to specific use.

A Psychology Today article headlined, “Can’t Think of a Good Holiday Gift? Give a Bad One,” quotes Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College:

A gift card erases much of what a gift says. It does not affirm our connection. It does not show how much I understand your desires. It is not something to be kept and cherished, something that derives meaning and worth beyond the material value because it was a gift from me.

Of course, this is not always the case.  One of the best gifts my wife and I have ever received was a packet of gift cards from my parents. They were for local restaurants and came with a promise to babysit our very young children. These were not just gift cards, but the possibility for a couple to spend valuable “us time” together, something that my folks knew was scarce in our busy lives.

Similarly, a gift card can be a very thoughtful gift if the hunting for the thing is a part of the joy the person receives. As our son has grown, he has become an avid baseball card collector. A gift card for an online auction site gave him not only the opportunity to acquire a few new cards he would not have had the money to afford, but also gave him hours and hours of fun trying to find bargains and win cards in auctions with nail-biting finishes that rivaled the bottom of the ninth inning in the best games played by the players pictured.

So *if* you’re buying a hardware store gift card because your kids are renovating their house, and you say in the card “Go buy yourself that saw we talked about,” it can be thoughtful — and you don’t have to worry it won’t arrive by Tuesday.

If you’re thinking of buying gift cards, let me point out CardNap, the gift card resale site started by one of our San Francisco roommates, Lachy Groom.


Categories: home and family, lifestyle

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1 reply


  1. Once the time for shopping has passed, it’s time to be thankful « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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