Why Gift Cards?

It’s the day after Christmas and, if you’re like three-quarters of Americans, you either gave or received a gift card. Have you ever asked yourself, “Why?”

I hate stories that start, “When I was a kid,” but indulge me…

When I was a kid, my grandparents would sometimes give me $5 or even $10. As the amount grew, it became more likely that the gift was accompanied by a command, “Don’t spend it all in one place!”

The point was obvious: try to make the newfound wealth last a bit, and spread it around.

Then came gift cards. Other than Visa prepaid cards, gift cards require that we spend all the money in one place! Maybe they come with a whiff of authenticity, as if the giver knew the recipient really enjoyed spending time at Chili’s restaurant, or could ask for nothing more than a $50 credit at Apple.

At least with an Amazon gift card the recipient can shop for that extra special Baby Yoda, or whatever it is they really wanted for Christmas but didn’t tell anyone.

But there is an alternrnative to this practice

Instead of spending 90 seconds desperately searching the gift card rack at the grocery store, or even navigating online to the “Send eGift!” button, we could go to the tried-and-true method of giving when we have no clue what people want. We could gift them cash.

Contrary to forecasts from various cornrners during the Fed’s QE phase, greenbacks still have plenty of value, and they have the advantage of being accepted in every retail location in the nation. Have you ever tried to use a Chili’s card at Ruby Tuesday’s? It’s a faux pas that won’t get you lunch. But the waiter won’t care which regional Federal Reserve bank issued your dollars (it’s printed right there for everyone to see); they still spend just the same.

But cash is not our style. Over the past two decades, gift cards have become “the thing,” as it seems crass to ask for cash. Somehow asking for the plastic intermediary is much more civil.

This year, 59% of Americans asked for a gift card for Christmas, ahead of clothes and accessories at 52%, and well ahead of electronics and games, at 35%. This is the 13th consecutive year that gift cards top the list.

Just over 75% of us gave a gift card this year, up from 72% last year.

Now that we have them, it’s time to do our part.

Take a few minutes and spend all the money. Do your part to give the economy a post-Christmas retail boost that will hopefully push GDP just over 2% for the fourth quarter. It’s not like leaving funds on the cards earnrns you interest, and if you put it off too long, you might just forget the cards exist.

Which is another reason we should just give cash. Can you imagine “forgetting” that you have cash? It’s silly. And yet, many of us have neglected gift cards. Maybe we put them somewhere for safekeeping. Maybe we thought we’d regift them. Or perhaps we simply never made it back to the place of business where the cards were issued.

If you can’t imagine using the card for whatever reason – maybe it’s from a place you don’t frequent, like a punk rock skateboard shop, Home Depot, or Walmart – you can still get some value out of it. Websites like www.cardpool.com specialize in selling and exchanging gift cards, and you can always donate them.

Whatever you do, make sure they get used. There’s no reason the issuer should be given the credit balance.

And if you’re ever of a mind to send me a gift card, I’ll gladly accept it, and even drop you a thank you note. But the truth is, I prefer cash.