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jca's avatar

Why are gift cards so popular when they have some major disadvantages compared to plain old cash or checks?

Asked by jca (29281 points ) December 16th, 2012

Everyone gives gift cards now (including myself, sometimes). A friend of mine describes it as “holidays have become the exchanging of the gift cards.” However, when you think about it, gift cards have a few major disadvantages: you have to keep track of them (where you keep them, how much is left on them, if and when they expire), if you lose them you’re totally shit out of luck, and they’re only good for the store/restaurant/establishment that they’re specified for, unless you get a credit card gift card (I saw Master Card gift cards in a supermarket the other day, and when I read the fine print, it said ”$4.95 activation fee” which to me means “never mind.”).

When you just give cash/check as a gift, it can be used anywhere, any time, simple. However, cash and checks are given infrequently now, while gift cards are so very popular. Why do you think that is so?

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18 Answers

wildpotato's avatar

They have some advantages, too. When I get straight money, I just put it into the pool for bills and food and such. I feel guilty not doing that, because I live chronically in debt. It’s still a very welcome gift, because it helps me take the load off. But if I get a gift card, I’m usually “forced” to spend it on something that’s not a basic need or debts, and then it is more of a tangible, “real” gift.

Maybe they are becoming more popular because more and more folks are having money troubles?

Jeruba's avatar

They involve at least a modicum of thought. The giver has to actually make a trip out somewhere and exercise some small amount of choice. That entails a quantity of personalization, however slight, more than reaching into a wallet for some legal tender or writing an order and sending the recipient to the bank to get it himself.

That, at any rate, is how it seems to me.

The only people I give such gifts to are my own children, who, I know, will enjoy many trips to Starbucks through the year or perhaps purchase craft items or tools or materials of their choice as projects come along, and will remember the card and think of it as a gift from me. But these are always something “extra” and never the main item.

These days I try not to be in a gift-giving relationship with anyone I don’t know well enough or care enough about to make an actual choice for.

JLeslie's avatar

They are popular because a bunch of people find it in bad taste to give cash. Something about the gift card just feels more “gifty” especially when needing to give something to someone who is not a close relative. It’s a little weird to give $10 as a token gift to someone, but $10 Starbuck’s card, all good.

Since I am Jewish cash is pretty common as a gift in my family. But, money usually goes down, meaning to the kinder, even grown children, but odd to give a gift of money to someone older than ourselves. I would feel very odd giving my MIL cash, but have on occasion given her a gift card when I knew for sure she needed the gift card.

To my neices and nephews almost always cash, unless I know exactly what they want. Same for weddings, always cash to the bride and groom, or something off the registry.

I have given friends gift cards to Home Depot or Bed Bath and Beyond when they bought a new home. And, I have given Gift cards to clients when I worked in real estate to celebrate their purchase. A mom of a friend of mine did a lot of work for me to trace my family and would not let me pay her. I sent her a gift card to her favorite restaurant, my dad sent her a gift card to Walmart.

Oh, if you do give me a gift card, I like it to be a supermarket, or somewhere for sure I will spend it fast. I really don’t want it in my wallet for long. I don’t care about an intense amount of thought, just the idea you thought to give me anything was nice. And, actually, if you know me well, you know I don’t like keeping track of all those cards, so being able to spend it fast is thoughtful. But, I think people like to be able to say, “I bought my blender with your gift card! I love it!” Saying, “I bought my groceries last week with your gift card,” just doesn’t thrill most people I guess. I remember a friend telling me she didn’t want to buy something on my wedding registry, because she wanted to give me something unique. I find that strange.

wundayatta's avatar

My daughter likes them because if she gets a gift card, she has to spend it or get nothing. If she gets cash, she will save it.

JLeslie's avatar

@wundayatta That’s why I like cash.

wundayatta's avatar

@JLeslie You don’t like presents? You’d rather save the money? That’s not very much in the spirit of gift giving.

Although, between you and me, that’s what I want, too. Then again, I’m about as big a scrooge as you can find. Not big into gifts. Give money, I say. Then the person can be sure to get something they want. Or just take the money.

JLeslie's avatar

@wundayatta Big fat savings account is to me, what I guess a big box with a bow on it is to others. I never am saving up for something, I just save period. I don’t just shop aimlessly usually, so if a gift card is in my wallet, it isn’t like I am going to go to that store just to spend it because I can. To me it feels like throwing money on the street. I’m not a scrooge, but it did take me until my 30’s to really like giving and getting gifts.

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_Whitetigress's avatar

Well it does give direction in a sense. It points out a place where it can be used and that’s pretty exclusive. Club cash…

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jrpowell's avatar

I’m old and have money. If I need something I will simply buy it. It takes the fun out of seeing how well people know me when I get gift cards. If someone bought me a soldering iron for Christmas it would show that they actually paid attention to me over the last couple of months.

And I bought my mum a chair for Christmas since hers was shit.

iphigeneia's avatar

I love receiving cash as a present, but I hate giving it, because it feels so thoughtless. Similar deal with gift cards, except I like receiving them a little less (because there’s usually a time limit, and I’m a very picky person so I might not love anything in the shop), and like giving them a little more (because there’s a tiny bit of effort required). Besides, I generally feel a revulsion towards giving any gift with a specific dollar amount attached.

Echoing what @JLeslie said: gifting cash is often considered bad taste, so with gift cards what you’re really gifting is the consequential purchase. Paying off debts is not in the spirit of the season.

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JLeslie's avatar

@iphigeneia Interestingly, I wasn’t only thinking of this “season” as you can see I mentioned weddings, new houses, and in my head was thinking all gift giving in general. Christmas seems to have added pressure to give a “gift.” While in my religion it os very customary on Chanukah to give money, Chanukah gelt is part of the tradition, we even give and eat Chanukah chocoalte money as part of the tradition. This was part of the reason I was so uncomfortable with Christmas and gifts I think. As I mentioned to at @wundayatta it took me until my 30’s to really relax more about the whole thing. I used to get so uptight about what to buy someone, wanted to make sure it was something they would like, and I wasn’t great with receiving something I did not expect, or faking a “I love it.” I got used to it, and I decided if they don’t like it they can exchange it or just too bad I am not going to shorten my life with stress over giving a gift. Luckily we don’t have to buy many gifts in my family most years for Christmas, so it isn’t a big deal.

ScottyMcGeester's avatar

That’s weird. I never felt like gift cards were getting popular. Where I live with the people I know, they hate gift cards. They say the same things you do. I’ve always gotten checks and cash for as long as I remember. Once and a while I get the occasional Barnes and Nobles card. But yeah, I find it not so much a gift as it is a “I didn’t know what to get you so I got you this and now you can only use it at this store” thing.

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