Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

Gift cards are not gifts

Holidays have rapidly devolved into what amounts to an exchange of cash. A gift card says nothing about the personality of the recipient -- but it says lots about the giver.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Gift cards are incredibly popular. They're also an oxymoron.

A gift, ideally, says, "I thought about you. I considered your likes and dislikes, your needs and wants, your dreams and desires, and found you this token of my esteem that I hope will delight you."

A gift card says, "There! Checked you off my list."

It's not just me that says so. Judith Martin, the doyenne of etiquette known to millions as Miss Manners, dismisses gift certificates -- and, by extension, gift cards -- as "a pathetic compromise convenient to people who do not trust their judgment about selecting the right present for those whose tastes they ought to know."

Think about it. Would a lover, in the flush of romance, lean close to the object of his affection and present . . . a gift card? Would proud grandparents present the latest addition to the family with . . . a gift card? Would your best and closest friend, the one you've known for years, who's stuck with you through the roller-coaster ride of life, walk into your hospital room and give you . . . a gift card?

(If the answer to any of those questions is yes, by the way, you need to start hanging with a better class of people.)

Yet gift cards continue their relentless spread:

  • Earlier this month, 57.7% of respondents told a National Retail Federation survey they plan to buy at least one gift card -- and 19% of those planned to buy six.

  • Consumers will spend $26.3 billion on gift cards this year, the NRF estimates, up from $24.8 billion last year.

  • Half of respondents (53.8%) said they would like to receive a gift card, up from 50.2% two years earlier.

The death of shame

Young people, especially, are so enamored of gift cards, with being "empowered to make their own choices," as one retailer laughably put it, that they don't even realize what they're missing.

Older people might, but hey, they're busy and cards are convenient, so what's the harm?

The harm is that the art of gift-giving is quickly devolving into an entirely commercial exchange. How much longer until we simply start thrusting wads of dollar bills at each other?

Some people, apparently, would be delighted with that prospect. While researching party themes for my daughter's upcoming celebration, I stumbled across a posting by a woman who proudly included the horrifying words "monetary gifts would be much appreciated" on her 3-year-old child's invitations. She went on to explain that "I wanted money as gifts for my daughter's savings and for us to buy bigger toys, like a big kitchen and a Barbie Jeep that she wanted, instead of guests giving her small toys."

Video on MSN Money

Christmas cards © Tom Grill/Corbis
Gift cards going unused
Is your gift going to waste? Consumer Reports' Greg Daugherty talks about the magazine's story that $8 billion worth of gift cards went unused last year.

It's official. Shame is dead.

Heaven forbid that givers use their own judgment and spend a little time picking out small items that might give the recipients pleasure. Just give us the cash and get out of the way.

A real gift brings you closer

It's not that I've never given a gift card. I have, three times that I can remember. But I viewed these cards as what they were: a cop-out, an admission that I had grown so out of touch with the recipients that I didn't know what would please them. In two cases, I used the experience as a prod to spend more time with the giftees and get to know them better. In the third instance, I finally decided that what had been a close friendship no longer was and ended the gift exchange -- to mutual relief.

Continued: Mourning the loss of a tradition

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