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Gift cards no longer seen as presents from the lazy

In a country where so many have so much and don’t really need anything, we should embrace gift cards’ convenience.
In a country where so many have so much and don’t really need anything, we should embrace gift cards’ convenience.

My husband and I were talking with our children about what they wanted for Christmas. All of them are in their teens, and any pretense of Santa has long been gone. The holiday has now become their chance to break down our frugal barriers.

But we do love to hear their squeals of delight at finally getting a coveted item. And then there are the gifts that fail.

Last year, my husband bought our daughter, Jillian, now 14, what he thought was the prettiest sweater. I warned him she wouldn’t like it. But he loved the multicolored design and was convinced she would love it, too.

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When she opened the gift box, she turned to me and said: “Mommy, I think Dad made a mistake. This sweater has to be for you. The pattern on the sweater is something an old person would like.”

She laughed. My husband was crestfallen, although he laughed, too. But I was ready to give her college fund to her brother. I’m not that old.

This year, as the kids were rattling off what they wanted, I whispered “gift cards” to my husband.

He and I no longer have any gift-card guilt. And we are not alone.

Total spending on gift cards is expected to reach $31.74 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Gift cards have been the most requested holiday item eight years in a row. The federation said that total spending on gift cards has increased 83 percent since 2003 when it began tracking people’s intentions to give the cards as holiday presents.

You don’t even have to give folks a plastic card. You can purchase electronic cards that can be delivered to a person’s smartphone. And it saves you the hassle of fighting crowds at the mall.

It used to be that a gift card was seen as the lazy person’s gift of choice. For some, it shows a lack of creativity or thoughtfulness. But in a country where so many have so much and don’t really need anything, we should embrace the truth that gift cards are convenient. They relieve you of the stress of finding gifts for people who are hard to please. They help folks like me who don’t know what’s in or what’s cool. No more sweater slip-ups.

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So if you’re giving a card, here are some guilt-free shopping tips:

■  Do some one-stop shopping.

I love that many supermarket chains and big retailers have large selections of specialty gift cards for restaurants, movie theaters, and other stores. So don’t waste time going from store to store.

■  Keep the receipts. On a few occasions, a gift card wouldn’t register when I tried to redeem it. Unfortunately, the giver hadn’t kept the receipt proving money was loaded on the card.

■  Give more than the card. To personalize the gift card, include a handwritten note. If I’m giving a gift card from a bookstore, I might pair it with a journal, pen, or bookmark and the note. If I’ve ordered an electronic gift card, I’ll get a greeting card and write a note so I can hand the person something.

■  Be creative about how you present the gift card.

I’ve found some really cool cardholders. For a few dollars, you can buy holders that look like tiny purses. Or make your own cardholder. When I was searching for ideas online, I saw a creative idea courtesy of Pinterest in which someone was giving a gift card from Starbucks. The person made the cup look like a mocha frappuccino by taking brown paper and lining the inside of the cup and white tissue paper at the top to make it look like whipped cream. You might use old movie stubs to decorate the wrapping for a movie gift card. On Pinterest, search for “creative gift card wrapping.”

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■  Don’t be embarrassed to give what you can afford. Some folks overspend on a gift card because they believe a low dollar amount makes them look miserly. If you can afford only a $5 or $10 card, give it without shame. You might get recipients who will negatively comment on the amount or show their displeasure in some way. But that’s their issue, not yours. They are showing themselves to be ungrateful, and their bad behavior will save you money next year because you should strike them from your list.


Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary @washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.