Is a Gift Card a Good Gift?

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When you give someone a gift card, you’re essentially putting down the cash to let them buy whatever present they want. It’s definitely one of the easiest gifts you can give, but is it a good one?

Point: The Case For Gift Cards

What do I want for Christmas? I dunno! Peace on earth, etc. So instead of reading tea leaves or forcing a list out of me under duress, do the really thoughtful thing: get me a gift card.

You could argue that a gift card is impersonal, that it’s lazy, that it’s a cop-out. Ridiculous! A gift card is the most personal present there is. It’s the gift of freedom to buy whatever you want, whenever you want it. It’s the gift that says “we’re good enough friends/relatives/acquaintances that we don’t have to force it.” And there’s a certain beauty in that.

What, you got your girlfriend an iPod Touch? That’s something totally unique to her interests? You plumbed the depths of her soul to figure out she wanted it more than anything else in the world? Nah, it’s just a popular doodad! It’s safe, but it’s empty. Gift cards are also safe, sure, but they’re brimming with possibility, and the guarantee that she’ll end up with something she loves.

And it’s not like you’re handing over cold hard cash (which, hey, nothing wrong there, either, but admittedly could seem crass in certain situations). Do you know their favorite restaurant? A gift card beats putting take-out under the tree. Favorite haberdasher? You could get ’em a scarf that they’ll end up exchanging eventually anyway, sure. Or you could let them get what they really want, even if that something’s not even out yet. I like movies! And I’d rather see them in the theater, for free, throughout the year, thanks to that gift card you got me. I’ll pass on that Batman Blu-ray box set (because this one time I mentioned I like Batman but honestly I was just making conversation and really only meant the Michael Keaton ones and besides, honestly, Joel Schumacher should be strung up by the gizzard for what he did to that franchise RIGHT?). And so on.

When we were first talking about this, Kyle described gift cards as “pragmatic.” Please. If anything, they’re sincere. They say: If it’s the thought that counts, I’m counting on you to think for yourself. To make Christmas come when you want it to, not when the calendar says. I respect you that much.

Also they’re, like, a super easy last-minute gift, am I right?

Counterpoint: The Case Against Gift Cards

“Every single thing you see is future trash,” explained Robin Nagle, an anthropologist, in a recent interview. “Everything.” And while it’s certainly fine to enjoy whatever future trash you happen to accumulate in the present, giving someone a gift card is basically your way of saying, “here, buy yourself some future trash.”

That’s not to say that stuff can’t be a good gift. An Xbox can be just as thoughtful as a framed photograph, in the right situation. But it’s understanding that situation—the act of recognizing what would make someone happy and then giving them that happiness—that makes gift giving special. It’s what that makes a gift not just a physical thing but something more: a token of your relationship.

I don’t think anyone is unclear about what gift giving should be. It’s not just about the gift but the thought behind it, the idea that someone took time out of their routine to consider you and what you like. And with our time and our attention as scarce as ever, good gifts are all the more memorable. We all have a million things to do, but a good gift recognizes that someone took time out of their busy life to consider what would make your busy life better.

The gift card reduces the act of gift giving to a mere transaction. It’s saying, “I recognize this as an occasion on which I’m supposed to spend time and money on you, but I couldn’t really spare that time, sorry. Here’s the money anyway.”

“But wait,” the chorus of lame gift receivers cries out, “with gift cards we always get exactly what we want!” Sure. But you also get exactly what you want when you go to the mall by yourself on some odd 360 days of the year. And just like if you had picked it up on your own, whatever you decide to buy with that gift card will be exactly what it is and nothing more. A thing. A thing with no relationship invested in it and no memory clinging to it. When it becomes future trash in some landfill, that will be the end of it. It’ll never be remembered.

When you give a good gift, you’re giving something extra along with it. Some feeling, some emotion, some recognition. It’s what makes gift giving special, and it’s something that can never end up in a landfill.

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