Monday, December 17, 2007

Save Yourself From The Mess At The Mall - Get Me A Gift Card!

I remember a time not more than ten or fifteen years ago when a person wanted to give a gift certificate, it was an actually piece of paper in an envelope. Many smaller stores and some restaurants still use the paper gift certificates but now the industry has turned to the most common for of money...plastic. Gift cards can be purchased in most $$$ dollar denominations. Wal-Mart, and other places, use generic cards and let the consumer decide on the specific dollar amount. The question is - does giving a gift card takes the thoughtfulness and warmth out of giving the gift.

Some people might be embarrassed to give a card with a set limit - as though the person might judge them based on the amount of the card. I can agree with this argument as well; I enjoy taking my time at stores and looking for gifts that fit each friend or loved one. Much of my holiday joy comes from picking a gift that I think is well suited for the recipient. Besides, gift cards aren't much fun to hide from snooping eyes and gift cards aren't challenging and fun to wrap...unless you're like me who puts the card in a shoebox with a brick, four layers of wrapping paper all tied together with that 2" wide packing tape. It sure makes it a lot of fun to watch people's reaction, that's for sure!

In some ways, gift cards are a great option to send to friends and family in different parts of the country. Mailing bulky packages is impractical for many people. Gift cards is the way to show a friend or loved one that you are thinking of them without the hassle of long lines at the post office. It allows a person for a person to choose what they most want rather than receive an unwanted gift.

A gift card to a friend's favorite store (like Hooters or Starbucks, hint, hint) can be as nice as going to the store and picking some gift in the wrong size or color. Gift cards save time and embarrassment in the busy holiday season. And to my surprise, even Goodwill has gift cards. So hurry and grab one for that guy who lives in the box outside your local Starbuck's and uses the restroom inside as his personal hygiene station!

If you choose to get the special person in your life a gift card or a bank card, or a Starbuck's card (hint, hint), remember these helpful tips.

Cost. Usually, it will not cost you anything to buy a gift card from a store like Target or Starbuck's. You just pay for the amount you want to put on the card. If you buy a $10 Starbuck's gift card, the gift recipient (me) will have ten dollars to spend and get 5.4 Grande drips, double-cupped, sleeved! With a bank card, you are going to pay anywhere from $5 to $15 to purchase the card. This is mainly a charge for setting up the card for you. So, to get that same $10 value on the card, it will cost you a minimum of $15 total.

Options. If you purchase a gift card from a certain store, you are limited to using the card at that store. So, your Walmart gift card is only able to be used at Walmart. The bank card can be used anywhere that Visa debit cards are accepted (which is almost everywhere.) This gives your special someone many more options of where to spend the money on the card.

Replacement. A visa card offers some sort of protection from theft or loss. You can check with the bank you purchase the card from to find out what type of protection you are offered. The store gift card will generally not have any safeguards except for, again, Starbuck's which allows you to register your card online.

Check Balance on Card. With a bank card, usually it isn't too difficult to find out the balance on your card. The bank will have an 800 number for you to call, or even an online option to check the balance left on the card. With the store gift card, you may have to visit the store to get the cashier to check the balance. But heck, if you go to Starbuck's everyday like I don't even worry about the balance because if the card dried up, you're such an addict you're going to get the coffee anyway!

Maintenance Fee. This is definitely a drawback for the bank card. Most bank cards will not charge a maintenance fee initially, but if you keep the card and don't use the balance within say, six months, a maintenance fee will be deducted each month, such as $2 or $5. With a gift card from a particular store, you won't have any type of maintenance fee to worry about. You just have to be careful of the card expiring, such as in my next little surprising fact.

Expiration Dates. Bank cards have an expiration date that will be printed on the card itself. Once this passes, you can ask to have the balance sent to you by check, but there is a processing fee to do this. Gift cards usually have longer to be used, but when they expire, you probably can't get any of the remaining balance back. So, past the expiration date, you will lose any money left on the card.

If you want a card that can be used almost anywhere, and you think the recipient will use the entire balance within about six months or less, go bank card. If you know that the card may only be used at one specific place, the gift card (again, Starbuck's, hint hint) is for you. Gift cards are great gifts, especially for the difficult-to-shop-for, I-got-tons-of-crap-anyway person. If you worry that the card will not seem as personal as a gift - don't! Most people won't say it, but they love gift cards. Just make sure you get a shoebox, a brick and some 2" wide packing tape...and watch the fun begin!