As someone who has both given and received her share of gift cards during the holiday season, I think it’s finally time we all admitted that a gift card is a bad gift. With last minute holiday shopping in full swing and the cold sweat of desperation beading on the back of your neck as you wander through the mall, this may not be the news you want to hear right now, but it’s true. I know we’re all pretending that they’re desirable, but that’s only because it’d be rude to react with shock that the best someone could do for you is give you a plastic card with $25 on it. In the hierarchy of disappointing gifts, gift cards easily beat kitchen gadgets but are only marginally better than socks.
There is a time and place for gift cards. Gift cards are perfect for an office grab bag, for the relative whose only interest is sending game requests on Facebook, or for the mail carrier whose unreliable service has only earned the gift of an Olive Garden tummy ache, but gift cards should never be the substantial gift offering for immediate family members or close friends. If you’re wondering if a gift card is appropriate, ask yourself these five questions:
Is A Gift Card Appropriate?
1. Do you exchange more than 6 texts with this individual on an average day (~42 per week)?
2. Have you casually and comfortably seen this person naked (basically in any context other than opening a door and discovering his or her nudity)?
3. Did this person have any part in creating you?
4. Do you have a framed photo of this person anywhere in your home, or is this person tagged in more than 10 photos on your Facebook or Instagram?
5. Do you know more about this person beyond that they sometimes like to spend money at a particular store?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should not be getting th person in question a gift card.
People defend gift cards with the classic, “But they can buy whatever they want with it! It’s just like money!” Sure, except when it comes to money, “like” is an important distinction. Monopoly money is like money; pirate doubloons are like money, too. That doesn’t mean I can go to the bank with a wad of “like” money and deposit it into my savings account. Gift cards trap real money in a sixteen digit spending prison. All gift cards will be used eventually, but unless the person receiving the gift card has something specific in mind that they’ve wanted to buy, that gift card will become an albatross in their wallet, forgotten about only until after they’ve already paid using their real money. They’ll realize hours later that they could’ve used that damn gift card. Now they have to decide if they want to go back, return everything, and buy it again with the gift card, or hold onto that cursed plastic card until the next shopping trip so that they can repeat this futile cycle in the future.
Without sounding too elitist, I would rather get nothing than receive a gift card from someone. That’s a bold statement, but honestly I’d prefer a gift-giver save 20 bucks rather than pass it along to me and make me feel like I have to spend money. When they’re not getting buried behind receipts in a wallet, there’s a sense of urgency about using gift cards. Even though most of them never expire, it feels like you’re carrying a genie lamp in your purse that might disappear if you don’t use it soon. So when someone gives you a McDonalds gift card, even if you had no intention of eating there, you feel obligated to make a special trip to the drive-thru to order yourself a greasy burger topped with cheese that wouldn’t melt even if it was doused with gasoline and set on fire. That’s the gift card mentality.
If I want something and I decide that I can afford it, I buy it with my money. Gift cards sabotage both the “Do I really want this?” and “Can I afford this?” stages of shopping, because for some reason buying something with $50 of someone else’s money makes everything seem like a delightful steal, even if there are still 100 more dollars to pay on top of that. If you really want to give someone the gift of money, give it to them in cash or a check so they can spend it or save it as they see fit. Nothing’s worse than wandering the aisles at Bed Bath & Beyond looking for ways to spend $25 on crap you don’t really need or want.
And finally — and most importantly — gift cards are lazy. L-A-Z-Y lazy. Lazy gifts aren’t always a bad thing — they’re a necessary part of our busy lives — but if you actually spent time considering gift ideas for someone close to you and you ultimately settled on a gift card, you need reevaluate some things, my friend. A gift card isn’t an awful gift, but it’s little more than a package of socks with more possibilities. Gift cards say, “I know you shop somewhere, so here’s some money you can use to figure out for yourself what would make you happy.” Whatever your feelings might be about capitalism, greed, and Starbucks seasonal cups, can we at least agree that gift cards are unequivocally the most evil example of holiday consumerism that there is? Gift cards are literally the gift of future spending. They require no thought and carry no consequences. They’re a Get Out of Holiday Consideration Free card. I think most of us would prefer to receive a gift that costs less money but shows someone thought about us instead of settling on the lowest common denominator of things all human beings have in common: we buy stuff. And if someone tells you they want a gift card, do them a favor and buy them a Groupon for a personality, instead.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money, recreate something from Pinterest, or set a new bar for Best Gift Ever, but at least give it a shot. Even if the recipient hates the gift you pick out for them, that emotion is better than the forced “Oh, it’s a gift card,” smile. Don’t underestimate your gift-giving abilities–you are better than the gift card. And if you really can’t think of anything to give the people you love, consider that perhaps they’re not “sooo hard to shop for” and you’re just not paying enough attention.