Gift Cards: the good and bad

There’s been a lot of hating on gift cards lately: the big news back in November that $8 billion worth of gift cards sold in 2006 were never used, and accompanying ad campaign; Lifehack’s popular 10 Reasons Gift Certificates Make Horrible Gifts article; and arguments on the depersonalization and commercialization of gift-giving.

I’m the owner of probably about $100 of unspent gift cards, mostly for Panera Bread and Bertucci’s, where I very rarely go because they aren’t convenient for me to get to. They were, two apartments ago when my mom went online to find out what places were walkable from where I lived (that is smart; do that). My boyfriend has about $300 worth of unspent Target and Ikea gift cards, because living in a city without a car, it’s difficult for him to get to any suburban big-box store. He once held onto a Starbucks gift card for over two years (til I came along) because he prefers Dunkin Donuts and never drinks Starbucks. And they are so easily lost if not quickly used: I was heartbroken a few years back when I realized my Sephora giftcard had utterly vanished unspent.

It’s really hard to go wrong with movie passes. Or an iTunes gift card—unless the person you’re shopping for doesn’t have an mp3 player (in which case, buy them one). Or go with Newbury Comics or whatever your local music/movie store may be: everyone thinks that only they have the best taste in this stuff anyway. I’ve long given up trying to buy cds or dvds for anyone, and prefer to make a mix cd if I absolutely have to introduce someone to a singer or band (the coda is that I got my sister the second season of Punky Brewster on dvd for Christmas this year, because we grew up together on that show). I am a huge reader, and so received two gift cards for Barnes & Noble. There aren’t any close to where I live, but the Harvard Coop (and, actually, the majority of college bookstores) are franchised by B&N, so that’s how I’ll buy my books for next semester’s classes. Another universal crowd pleaser: salon or spa certificates. I don’t care how tough a guy is, he’ll appreciate a massage, and every gal loves a mani/pedi. But make sure the place is nice first: about a year ago, my good friend ended up with a gift certificate—purchased online from across the country—for a bikini wax (she and her sister are very close) at what turned out to be a pretty skeezy place.

However, gift cards CAN be done right, universally. Did you know that supermarkets offer gift cards? No, seriously! Everyone has to eat. The best presents I regularly get from my mom are Shaw’s gift cards, especially exciting when they come unexpectedly in the mail. This year, I got two $25 Whole Foods gift cards, which will involve lugging groceries two stops on the T, but will be totally worth it, because I usually can’t afford to go there unless I’m special-occasion shopping, but oh! I love their meats and cheeses and bakery so much. If you have a kid away at college or 20-something living on their own, nothing says I love you, and eat something, better than a gift of groceries. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a practical gift, and it’s incredibly pleasant to have your necessities taken care of. Additionally, this negates the conundrum of making your loved ones spend their own money in order to spend the full amount on the card, because they would spend money on the basics anyway. So yes to CVS giftcards, and groceries, and coffeeshops, hardware stores, and the like.

My sister and I take the exact opposite tact in giftgiving, though. It’s all about luxuries we would never treat ourselves to: for her birthday I got her a lush assortment of Bobbi Brown eye and lip colors packaged in a vintage gold clutch purse from History; for Christmas she got me a Christian Dior 5 Couleurs eyeshadow palette and Godiva hot cocoa with handmade chocolate marshmallows. In addition to the dvd box set (which she would never have bought for herself), I also selected chocolate-dipped marshmallows and Oreos for her.

In any event, the same rules apply when buying gift certificates as when buying gifts: you have to know the person you’re getting something for. Be observant and inquisitive. You need to discover their tastes, their likes, their needs and wants. If you don’t know, don’t spend your money on something they may never use: it’s better to ask, even if circumspectly. My trick is that when I see something that I want badly and can’t justify purchasing for me, there is usually someone I know who would love it just as much.

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