OK, folks, listen up: we are getting closer to the holidays, and some of you are starting to panic. Less than 10 Shopping days to go, and more than a few of you are on the verge of buying a gift card.

Don’t do it!

Uncle Barry will tell you what no one else will: Gift cards blow. The straight dope your nephews and nieces and grand kids are too nice to tell you: They hate getting them.

Why? Because they suck.

Nothing says “I am both thoughtless and inconveniencing” like a gift card. They let the recipient know that you couldn’t be bothered actually picking out a present, so here is a cash equivalent — only so much less convenient than the crisp paper kind of cash. And, you can only spend it in one place.

How much do gift cards suck? Each year, $5 billion in gift cards go unclaimed, forgotten about or lost. That’s how much people value them — they throw away $5 effen billion dollars worth every year!

They are an expensive and inefficient way to say “I feel obligated to get you something, but don’t know what.”

There is even a cottage industry to buy unwanted Gift Cards from their unhappy owners. The only reason sites like Gift Card Rescue or Swap A Gift or Plastic Jungle or Gift Card Buy Back even exist at all is because so many people want a way to get the damned cards out of their hands.  That these firms even exists is a testament to the gift cards’ crapulence.

Ahh, but there are alternatives. Sure, you could actually select a thoughtful gift tailored to the recipient, but if you were that type of shopper, we wouldn’t be discussing gift cards, now would we?

My advice to those of you who are haven’t figured this out yet yourselves, consider four superior options to the random gift card:

1) If you must get a gift card, then get them a Gift card they will actually use. Maybe they have a favorite clothing store or gadget shop. Not a random retailer, but a place you KNOW they really like. (as opposed to being near where you live). If your daughter is a Starbucks junkie, then at least you know the gift will be used — and appreciated.

2) Better yet: Get them an Online gift card (aka eGift Cards) But only to an account you are sure they already have. (This is the key). If your nephews shop at Amazon, if your nieces are regular eBay bidders, if your grandkids frequently buy songs at the Apple iTunes Music Store, then that is a far better option.  eGift cards are far less likely to be lost or go unclaimed. They can be recovered if accidentally deleted. And, they reflect some thought on your part.

3) Even better still: Get them a prepaid credit card. All the major credit card firms (Amex, Visa, Master Card) let you buy prepaid CC as a gift card. These can be used anywhere credit cards are accepted. Its practically cash, and far more flexible than a Abercrombie or a Sears gift card.

4) Best of all: Just give them the damned cash. Hey, its gonna be worthless in a few years anyway — you might as well start giving it away now, while it still has some value!

There you have it — my holiday present to all the lousy gift givers out there.

Seasons Greetings!

Category: Consumer Spending, Credit

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

36 Responses to “Yes Virginia, Gift Cards Do Suck . . .”

  1. OkieLawyer says:

    Something I didn’t see mentioned, Barry, is that if the company goes bankrupt, the gift card becomes worthless.


    BR: Excellent point !

  2. Yeah right, like a gift card to the local brothel is going to go unclaimed by uncle Joe ;)

    Even better still: Get them a prepaid credit card

    Nothing says – future debt slave – like a gift like that :)


    BR: Nah, once its used up, its garbage . . .

  3. jnutley says:

    This works both ways, imo. People lead busy lives today. Aside from your best buddy, your spouse and your own young kids, you likely do not spend enough time with people to reasonable “read” their desires.

    If you can’t state to your close circle of friends and relations what you want, so that they understand it, then you should at least be able to put together an Amazon or other on-line wish list and tell them the address.

    If you can’t even do that, it’s on YOU that you’ve got a stack of generic gift cards Christmas morning.

  4. ToNYC says:

    Thank you, Barry. Good idea to sharpen the point on our consumer-crazed culture at this holiday season.
    Think first, no garbage.

  5. “Why? Because they suck.

    Nothing says “I am both thoughtless and inconveniencing” like a gift card.”–BR



    good to see you “back in the saddle”

  6. Nothing says you care more than a gift card for fruitcake.

  7. zenfurni says:

    Hey Barry -
    Thought you might like to know “crapulent” means “hung over.” :)

    But then again, anyone who’s gotten too many of them will know what it means to have a gift card hangover.

  8. Pat G. says:

    “4) Best of all: Just give them the damned cash. Hey, its gonna be worthless in a few years anyway — you might as well start giving it away now, while it still has some value!”

    Too funny. I’ve been giving the grandkids bonds and the rest of the family cash for years. It’s never the wrong size or color…

  9. Scott F says:

    BR, who knew you were such a philosopher ?

  10. nweaver says:

    Actually, with all the fees involved, both for issue and maintinence, prepaid charge cards are WORSE than normal gift cards….

    Don’t forget 5: If you give cash, you can have fun with it.

    I remember the year when my grandparents gave every grandkid $100… In silver dollars. The next year was $2 bills. There are great websites for money origami. 50 cent pieces are pretty cool too…

  11. jskeelz says:

    I, too, have despised the rise of the gift card culture. You didn’t mention the cards that assess a fee on the balance remaining of the card is not used within a certain amount of time (typically one year from date of purchase.) And, how annoying it is when the gift card is for $20, the child recipient, who already got 5,000 presents for whatever holiday it is that we are celebrating this week, decides that the one item they absolutely must have today costs $25, leading mom to pony up the difference or refuse, forcing the purchase of some other totally undesireable item for $17.95 instead, and then wondering for a year what to do with the 2 bucks left on the card that is taking up space in the wallet that rival’s George Costanza’s for size and organization.

    All that aside, I found myself — gasp! — actually requesting that a few well-intentioned but gift-selecting challenged relatives give my children gift cards to Target this year. Target has a good selection of toys and arts and crafts, and the spare change can always be used on a gallon of milk (hormone free!) so we are all happy. Let Bill Ackman know we’re doing our share to help him out.

  12. jskeelz says:

    Arrgh. Excuse that apostrophy. Got all riled up and typing fingers went crazy.

  13. Darmah says:

    Ask ‘em what they want for craps sakes. Have them give you some options. Jeez. Or give ‘em cash.

    Or a donation to a charity in their name!

    But no gift cards!

    This whole gift giving thing has been outta control for years.

    Bah! Humbug!

  14. nweaver, above, makes a good point..

    these things http://www.coinfacts.com/silver_dollars/eisenhower_dollars/eisenhower_dollars.html
    are still available, ask the Teller, at the ‘Bank’..

    also, note the Mintage #’s v. the Bn., and Tr. #’s ‘in today’s Headlines’..

    same story, w/ http://www.easycoincollecting.net/2-Dollar-Bill.htm

    also, the U$D 2 Bill makes good “House Warming”-gifts @ 4th of July Picnics..

  15. comet52 says:

    Thanks Uncle Scrooge.

  16. Chief Tomahawk says:

    Gee, BR: Given the financial turmoil of the past year, your book, and the efforts of the free blog to “cut through the bull”, all I did was submit you for “Time’s Person of the Year” last July. Filled out the form and gave a rationale. A lot of good it did, as they selected Ben Bernanke!

  17. beaufou says:

    I actually still have an overstock.com gift card from last year ($50), I tried to use it but they stuff sucked.

    You can go with restaurant gift certificates (but make sure it doesn’t expire in a year or so which is a practice I find ridiculous)

  18. osbjmg says:

    I would like to take this opportunity to state my agreement with this post. You are so right. I can’t stand receiving gift cards. I actually don’t like receiving gifts at Christmas that much at all. I would rather have a surprise somewhere throughout the year that I have been needing or even wanting, but that’s a different story.

    I have hundreds of dollars in starbucks gift cards – I don’t drink coffee.
    I have tried to use this J Crew gift card more than 10 times, it’s $100 but there is not $100 of product in that store I would want to buy. The selection is pretty bad there too. Yuppy crap.
    This year, I tried asking for things I really want, but aren’t too expensive and would help me out more than just sit around!

  19. Onlooker from Troy says:

    “This whole gift giving thing has been outta control for years.

    Bah! Humbug!”

    Hear, hear. Brainwashed consumers being manipulated by marketers. Bunch of sheep.

  20. Chief Tomahawk says:

    osbjmg, give me your Starbucks cards! While I have no need to actually pay $4 for a hot chocolate (I don’t drink coffee either), I certainly don’t mind the eye candy which often frequents their franchises…

  21. Onlooker from Troy says:

    Oh yeah, also, I agree with Barry. Gift cards are just the latest marketing manipulation of said consumers. If there was an ounce of critical thinking left in America people would be able to see right through this scheme. Alas…

  22. [...] this writer thinks that gift card territory is always the wrong place to be. Kind of like The Friend [...]

  23. Brendan says:


    Anyone who knows me knows that I hate shopping. Why give me something that says, “here, go do something you hate!”

    I’ve been trying to burn through all the ones I have for years, but just as I get down to two or three left (like I have right now), I get a few more for Christmas from the relatives “back east” who don’t want to ship something but feel obligated to send something. Just send me an empty Christmas Card to say hi, that’s all I need! If you really feel the need to spend $20 on me, give a donation to a worthy charity in my name. I re-gifted several Best Buy ones this year by using them to buy a present for someone else. Is that wrong? I do have to admit that I did buy one this year, but only because I was giving “dinner and a show” to my dad and step-mom. I suspect that will actually get used since I picked a place near the show venue. Otherwise, I avoid the things like the plague.

  24. Jessica6 says:

    @Okielawyer – I thought that’s what the thrust of the post was going to be about when I read the headline

    The other bad thing about gift cards are those for $20 at a boutique where most items are well over $100.

    and @ jnutley – fully agree. Even more irritating are the people who ‘stay in contact’ by sending out those stupid e-cards. But yeah, I don’t stick with the friends who send gift cards in the mail so much as the ones who make the effort to meet me for coffee toddler in toe whenever I’m in town.

  25. call me ahab says:

    good post BR-

    retailers love gift cards- they count on many of them never being used- thus helping the bottom line-

    from the receiver’s perspective- thoughtless, less- but more than that- they show that the giver is uncreative and boring and has the equivalent of white noise running through their brain

  26. donna says:

    I keep an Amazon wish list and make it easy for people to get me stuff. I don’t get why people are so lame about telling you what they want, for goodness sakes. It’s lame to give people gift cards, but there are cases where it’s appropriate. I had a drug addicted nephew and at least with a gift card I knew it wasn’t going for drugs, unless he got something and then just sold it for drugs later. My gift to him last year was the come to Jesus speech that led to him going to rehab. His gift to me this year is a solid year of sobriety, for which I’m very grateful.

    You shouldn’t give a gift because you feel obligated, you should give a gift because you care. A gift card doesn’t say you care, it says you feel obligated.

  27. “Even better still: Get them a prepaid credit card

    Nothing says – future debt slave – like a gift like that


    BR: Nah, once its used up, its garbage . . .

    I think there’s confusion, extant, with the ‘terminology’..

    Pre-Paid Credit Cards are ‘rechargable’/’reloadable’, and, if you like fees, or have no other option(bad/no/tortured credit), can function as a ‘virtual’ bank account..

    File under Ripley’s, if you’ve been pulling a Rip van Winkle, but it’s a big, and growing business..

    though, I think what BR was referring to was “Pre-Paid Gift Cards”


  28. martin66 says:

    In addition to the value being lot if the card is lost, did anyone mention that many gift cards have sales charges and are wasting assets, burdened with monthly service and other fees that can wipeout the total value if unused.

    All together now – GIFT CARDS SUCK (unless you are a retailer in which case you can book revenue now for costs you may never have to incur. pretty cool, huh?)

  29. [...] Gift cards blow.  How to do better.  (Big Picture) [...]

  30. joro says:

    Only good use of a gift card is to buy one for yourself if retailer offers a bonus with it. For example, buy a $25 Papa Ginos gift card get a free large cheese pizza ($35 of value for $25!). There are many others where you can score at least a 20% return on your purchase now for future use.

  31. I agree so far as adult gifts go. The sentimental value of a gift card is the same as, “Well, I’d get you something but it looks like what you could really use is $25.”

    However, I think Uncle Barry might be that uncle who got the kids that lame-o Lego set because he seems to remember they liked Legos (five years ago). Just kidding, but unless you really know the kid, you’ll never know if you and your carefully chosen gift are merely being humored. At least where I came from, growing up lower-middle class, we had fun going out after Christmas and shopping for what we really wanted. I’d bet a non-negligible factor in Beavis and Butthead gear sales was mall gift certificates. Grandma wouldn’t have bought it, but what she didn’t know didn’t hurt her.

    The part that was a scam was changed: gift certificates back then had expiration dates, and that wasn’t justifiable.

  32. neil says:

    Having received a prepaid credit card once, let me tell you…option 3 is the worst of the lot. Better than a useless gift card, but worse than a tailored gift card that will actually get used.

    Prepaid credit cards confuse the hell out of cashiers, and some places actually say they can’t accept them. Others can’t deal with splitting a bill in half and charging two different cards (unless one is their own gift card). And if you don’t make a single purchase for the full amount, you get left with a funny balance. If a store attempts to charge more than the remaining balance, it will just be declined. Ever try to get a cashier who’s not familiar with the prepaid credit card concept to charge exactly $23.58 to card?

    If you can’t be bothered to think of a gift, please just send me cash.

  33. Hah great post. I agree with every word of it. I received my first gift card when I was about 12 and promptly decided it was crap. I still think they are crap. How grown adults think these things are a good idea is beyond me.

  34. [...] worries, we can still help you get your shopping done. So far, I have tried to steer you away from Gift Cards and towards some price war items. I also suggested some sale items and other gift [...]

  35. [...] Virginia, Gift Cards Do Suck . . .” [via Marginal Revoluion] Save and Share: These icons link to social [...]