Related topics

There are many reasons to hate gift cards

December 18, 2017 GMT

Chances are you will give or receive a gift card this holiday season. The total volume of gift cards is projected to be $149 billion last year. That’s a 54 percent increase from 2007.

In other words, gift cards are dominating all other forms of gift purchases. My husband and I have already gotten several this year, and we’ve been asked to chip in on one for my child’s teacher.

However, I really wish we could opt out. Here’s why I am a gift-card Scrooge, for both givers and receivers:

They make the

receiver do the work

Gift cards require very little thought on the part of the giver — that’s why so many people give them. However, I’m at a phase in my life where I have seemingly even less time than money. A gift card places an obligation on the receiver of the gift to figure out where, when and what to spend it on. This takes time, especially if you are a person who likes to research their purchases to make sure the money is spent well. You could resell the gift card on an online marketplace, but that takes time, too. Small wonder that $1 billion in gift cards expire every year.

Cash is equally easy to give as a gift card, but it places absolutely no obligations on the receiver, other than being properly grateful. Of course, it’s worth noting that Visa, MasterCard and American Express gift cards are one of the top categories of gift cards, and those are pretty similar to cash. Maybe they should be an exception to my blanket ban on gift cards.

They may cost more than you are willing to, or can afford to, spend

When you give a gift card, the receiver sees nothing but a dollar figure. You may find yourself pressured to lay out $25, $50 or more just so it seems like a substantial dollar amount. However, it’s possible to be a lot more frugal in your gift buying, especially if you keep your eye out for sales during the year. A handmade gift like bath salts or cookies, a thoughtfully chosen discounted or even used (“vintage”) gift, or one of your own cherished possessions that you are passing along to a family member, can cost far less than an amount that looks stingy when placed on a gift card.

They are impersonal

Again, sometimes that’s the point. You may see gift cards as an easy option for relatives across a generation gap or people you have a primarily professional relationship with. The problem is if you don’t know much about someone, you are likely to make the wrong choice. I receive Starbucks gift cards every year, and I almost never go to Starbucks. You may think iTunes cards are a safe choice for a teen, but I’ve got news for you: While iTunes beats out all other companies for online retail searches for gift cards, sales of online MP3 downloads are in a long decline. Kids are more likely listening to new music on a subscription service.

My advice: Stick with cash and a nice card. Or, hey, maybe take the plunge and get to know your family member and find out what they might want. Maybe hit up one of their close family for some suggestions.

There’s a better option

Consider a donation in the gift recipient’s name. Some charities won’t reveal the amount, which is good if you don’t have a big budget. Others, such as the Heifer Project and the International Rescue Committee, have “gift catalogs” that show where your money is going, which can be a nice touch. If you know a cause the recipient supports, go with that. If you don’t know them as well, pick something uncontroversial like a local food pantry.