More than half of all holiday shoppers this year will purchase gift cards, with the typical buyer getting four cards with an average value of $45 each. It will add up to more than $27.6 billion in spending, according to the National Retail Federation.
I won’t be one of those statistics, because I care enough to do my very best and that’s not the message I typically believe is sent by gift cards.
Thus, for the third straight year, I am swearing off gift cards, and encouraging others to do the same.
It’s not that I want to be a humbug, or even that I hate getting or using gift cards. It’s that the lack of thought that goes into the shopping process suggests that the entire gift-giving exercise should be overhauled; backing away from gift cards is a first step.
The NRF says that overall holiday spending in America is expected to increase by 6 percent this year, rising to an average of $1,189 per person. That average may be a bit skewed by wealthier individuals busting loose – a PwC study showed that people earning from $100,000 to $150,000 expect to spend $1,609 per person this year – but by any measure the spending is out of control in a country where the median household income stood at less than $60,000 in 2016 and the median retirement savings of families between the ages of 38 and 43 is less than $4,500.
For the record, let me make it clear that I certainly can find times when gift cards are both justifiable and appropriate. Over the last few years, I’ve heard from many people who hate my gift-card boycott, who trot out reasoning like gift cards aren’t returned for being the wrong size, they are always opened warmly and received with a smile, and more.
In the last decade, gift cards have shown up in most holiday studies as the most-requested gift, although that’s not a surprise because they are a catch-all for anyone who hasn’t given much thought to what, specifically, they would enjoy receiving.
And, yes, if I get a gift card I certainly do spend it.
But expedience is accompanied by a loss of civility.
Gift cards have become a form of cash. If you wouldn’t give someone cash as a gift — and I recognize that some cultures do exactly that, but most Americans still consider cash gifts tacky — then giving something viewed as “the same as cash” is equally tasteless.
Yes, Grandma, the little ones love getting exactly what they want with your money, but everyone would be better off spending some time chatting, learning what a child truly wants and why they want it, swapping e-mails with links to the items they want, discussing appropriate gifts with their parents and deciding thereafter how to get them what works best for the child, the family and your budget.
It’s not like the choice here is between a gift card and an ugly, improperly sized sweater. There are ways to bridge that gap, and families that are far apart by distance can “shop together” online.
The holidays should be personal, and gift cards are inherently impersonal.
Even if you get “the right” gift card, the gift itself carries all the emotion and sentiment that can be mustered between “from” and “to” lines on a cardholder. Worse, it might be all of the lasting warmth and feeling generated by a text or e-mail with no physical card exchanged at all.
Studies have shown that gift cards are popular for five basic reasons: They’re practical, timesaving, reduce holiday-shopping headaches/gift returns, offer kids lessons in money management and “it’s the thought that counts.”
The first three of those reasons are about the giver, not the recipient.
Considering the beneficiary first — which is what my parents taught me — means that convenience and ease of purchase shouldn’t be a factor.
If the thought is what counts, then the purchase decision should be more about the recipient than about the hassles of buying them something.
Likewise, if you want to teach kids about money management, give them cash; it’s at least as good a teacher as a gift card.
And don’t assume every gift card “fits perfectly,” because there are plenty of places where cards are exchanged or swapped for something the recipient would rather have. Moreover, studies indicate that over $1 billion per year in gift card purchases goes unused; presumably, those cards didn’t prove to be “the perfect gift.”
In the two years that I have sworn off gift cards, putting “the thought” back into holiday purchases hasn’t been hard. I’ve had no problem coming up with acceptable substitutes, as well as convincing friends and family that we should simply save the effort of giving presents rather than passing around gift cards to say we did it.
I’ve heard from plenty of readers too, who found friends and family members willing to mutually scale back the holiday craziness. In cases where gift-giving felt like a burden rather than a labor of love, cutting down on or eliminating presents was its own form of holiday gift.
No one you love enough to give a gift really wants you inconvenienced on their behalf; if you are buying gift cards to fulfill what feels like an obligation, take pause.
Plenty of friends and loved ones would appreciate a long holiday conversation, a visit, or a meal more than a certificate or card given mostly to fulfill a duty.
Holiday giving traditions trace back to ancient times, when gifts reminded us of the blessings of the season, the events that created the various holidays.
Keeping your gift-giving in that spirit requires more than a few bucks on some card.
So give the gift-card boycott a try this year. Avoiding them does take more time, effort, forethought, and planning, but it also will improve communication with family and friends, which is a gift unto itself. You’ll come away from the holidays pleased with your efforts — rather than simply relieved to check names off a list — and that makes it all worthwhile.
Chuck Jaffe is editor at RagingBull.com; he a nationally syndicated financial columnist and the host of “MoneyLife with Chuck Jaffe” (moneylifeshow.com). He is a long-term investor and does no short-term trading of stocks, options or ETFs. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.