What’s easier than a gift card, for both the gifter and the giftee? It’s never the wrong size, it’s never the wrong color, and it never goes out of style. A gift card enables people to replace their old kitchen gadgets, when it wouldn’t have occurred to them to ask for measuring spoons and a pastry brush. It’s hard to ask in December for a bathing suit for your July vacation, but a gift card enables people to buy what they want when they need it. Ultimately, these cards provide an easy way to give many people what they truly desire—the ability to pick out their own presents—but some purists feel that the cards can be highly impersonal, and that a piece of plastic (no matter how much it’s worth) couldn’t possibly be as meaningful as a gift that’s been chosen especially for the recipient. Miss Manners writes that they are “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.” Ouch. It seems that gift cards, like many of life’s greatest inventions, are best when used sparingly and wisely.
Sending the Right Message
Although some etiquette experts bemoan the rise of the cards as a death knell for thoughtful present-giving, Lizzie Post, author of How Do You Work This Life Thing? and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, views them as a perfectly acceptable modern convention. “I don’t look at them as taboo,” she says. “I look at them as convenient—in the right place.” She has advice for givers leaning toward gift cards: “Know who you’re giving the gift to,” she says. Depending on the recipient, the card can send one of a few different messages. It can say, “I wanted to do something for you,” it can say, “I wanted you to pick something you’d like,” or it can say, “I really didn’t know what to get you.”
If you know your wife values your tastes in hand-selected gifts, or if you’ve heard your mother describe gift cards as a cop-out, these people may not be the best candidates for receiving them. On the other hand, many people like having the opportunity to pick out their gifts themselves, so for them, these cards can be thrilling. “Know what a person values and appreciates in a gift,” Post says. “Some people really are hard to buy for, and it’s better to let them choose.”
If you know that your recipient would like and appreciate a gift card, a good way to make the gift feel more thoughtful is to add small personal touches. “The more you can personalize it, the better,” Post says. Take it out of the cardboard holder and put it into a card with a note, attach it to a bouquet of flowers, or include a small item from the store where you purchased the gift card. “Do anything you can to help it look and feel more special,” says Post. When you take the time to write a message, the recipient can hear the intentions behind the gift.
Obviously, any gift card you give should cater to both the interests and the convenience of the recipient. A card from a store your friend already enjoys shopping at or a restaurant she’s expressed interest in trying is more meaningful than a generic card that can be used anywhere. It’s usually possible to order cards online or over the phone if the recipient’s favorite store doesn’t have a location in your area.
When You’re on the Receiving End
The Emily Post Institute advises that when you receive a gift card as a present, use it as a present. Although it can be tempting to use it to pay bills or put it toward some other utilitarian purpose, buy yourself a real gift. How would your grandmother feel if she knew you used her holiday gift to pay your cable bill? Treat yourself to something fun or nice, and think of the recipient whenever you use it. “It also gives you the opportunity to say what you bought in your thank-you note,” Post reminds us.
Despite protests from gift-giving and etiquette Luddites, gift cards are here to stay, and they are a fabulous invention, both for givers with more good intentions than time and for recipients who enjoy the gift of shopping. As long as you know that a person would like and appreciate the chance to pick out her own presents, there’s no shame in giving her a gift card. Many far-flung relatives prefer them for holidays, instead of forcing people to travel with cumbersome boxes, and many engaged couples appreciate the cards, too, especially if they don’t live in the town where they’re getting married. Gift cards are a great way to show appreciation for favors and kindnesses, as well as for business associates and coworkers, who might find a personal gifts awkward. It’s also acceptable to request a card for yourself, but only if someone asks you what you’d like, and only if you truly can’t think of anything else you want.
Remember, though, that some people still appreciate the sentiment of a gift chosen just for them, and may continue to see gift cards as a poor imitation of thoughtfulness. “Gifts are important,” Post says, “and when you can buy the right thing, then go for it.” Remember, too, that some people will always prefer to hand-select something instead of defaulting to gift cards. Post says that what matters, of course, is the sentiment of the gift and the intention behind it. “The positive thing is that someone wanted to get you something and spend money on you.”