I just got back from a beautiful Sunday night dinner with my family, including a visit to my favorite puppy (a puppy who’s two and a half– it’s a biological phenomenon). I’m still a little high from smooching her up, to borrow a page from my mom’s vocab book. We had a great night, with lots of laughs and my dad’s amazing (gluten free!) fried fish.
As my sister and I were driving home, she told me a story that inspired me, although it was so simple. I just had to share. But first, a preface, because it had to do with a gift card.
And… I’ve actually never liked gift cards very much.
You see, I think they take perfectly good money and ruin it. I’m not a fan of them for two other reasons:
A. Giving: They seem kind of impersonal, which to me, is the antithesis of what gift giving is actually about– not the number of dollars spent; and
B. Receiving: As I said before, it seems someone has just de-valued money they worked hard to earn and insisted I go shopping at a store there’s very little chance I would have visited otherwise. I realize I sound like a monger, but I’m not. I’m just practical. To me, gift cards actually are less practical than gifts. At least with gifts, there’s a translation that occurs between money and thoughtfulness, resulting in a product. Even if the product is no to your liking, it’s doing what a gift is meant to do: show thought. Not add another to-do-list in your card holder.
And sure, you may not like what they picked for you, but at least they thought you would. You’ve got to give them credit for trying. With gift cards, you get the impracticality of a gift, with the same amount of thoughtfulness as cash.
It’s not gauche to give cash. Or, if it is, then it’s got to be even gauche-er to give an impotent version of theretofore perfectly good legal tender, also known as a gift card. The recipient still knows how much you spent. Actually, they know it was either that amount, or less, because you got a promotional deal. So if you’re going for the whole cross-the-price-off-with-Sharpie-so-they-don’t-know-how-much-I-spent idea, that’s a moot point as well.
For our culture as a whole, I think we have gone way off the mark as far as gift-giving. It’s not just gift cards and I’m not singling out people who give them; this is a culture-wide thing and I have been guilty of buying into it, too (though with this post I officially relinquish any ability to buy a gift card for anyone here on out). But the ubiquity of gift cards in particular is indicative of a materialistic philosophy that has basically ruined gift-giving and holidays that should be centered around something other than consumerism and spending.
You know, those other fringe things in life, like feelings of love and connections with family and friends, time spent together and slowing things down, traditions, memories, and great food (that we are so lucky to have), service to the less fortunate while feeling grateful and blessed with all you have, as well as time off of work, vacation and traveling… The list goes on, but on the list does not go: gift cards.
I think giving and getting things is way over-emphasized, and that gift cards are probably the best illustration of our singular focus on giving and getting– even when we aren’t sure what we even want to be giving or getting anymore. It’s certainly not that we need it.
I understand it’s a boon for businesses, who probably enjoy all the pre-paid funds that go unclaimed every year, as well as the forced patronage and accidental over-spending beyond pre-gifted amounts. It seems to me it’s the individual, with their now hampered ability to vote with their dollars, is losing out on the deal.
The fact that buying gifts for people, especially at the holiday season, often takes on the connotation of a dreadful chore, is the best example I can conjure as to why this isn’t working for us anymore. Yet, to my continued bafflement, we keep it going.
And as for romantic partners giving each other gift certificates, that’s cool. For me and the couples I’ve observed, that may be a small red flag in a relationship with someone who should theoretically know you best in the world (unless you’re Gayle and Oprah), but I won’t go too deeply into that, since this isn’t actually about gift cards or reading your tea leaves with them and I’ve gone slightly off topic already.
So I’m sure you would be surprised to hear, based on that little schtick above, that I still believe it is incredibly sweet whenever someone does give me a gift, even a gift card–and even a card I don’t think I’d ever use and plan on handing off as a freebie to my sister or friend, or acquaintance as soon as I can find one who’s first name I can recall.
Besides all the reasons I think gift cards are a whack way we get taken for a ride by big business, I still think it’s immensely thoughtful for anyone to think of me enough to want to give me something. I am always humbled by gifts. I certainly don’t need anything (in fact, I’m currently in the process of letting go of as many of my possessions as possible– and it’s awesome), but I recognize the sweet vulnerability of giving someone a gift and hoping they will like it, and that melts my heart. I’m always a huge softie when someone gives me a gift, not because I want it or need it or even like it, but because apparently they thought of me and wanted to show it and that’s the best way they knew how.
I also know the excitement of finding just the right thing (though usually not at a specified “gift giving time” if you’re like me) and being able to give it to someone with true joy and lightness of heart. When you are able to give someone something freely, without expectation, because you want to and you know they will love and appreciate it, there is not a better feeling in the world. So I can understand why gift giving is a tradition that’s stuck around. And I think it can be a beautiful part of human existence. I’m not arguing that we do away with it. I just believe, like everything else in America, we have bastardized it and super-sized it and pumped a bunch of growth hormone into it, and basically, ruined what can, in moderation, be a nice part of life.
So now that I’ve gone off, on with my inspirational story. Or rather, my sister’s. The reason I loved it is that it gave me a new outlook on the gift card and reminded me why they’re not so bad, as well as another little trick I can use in the future to make the world a little bit brighter. If you have gotten this far, you will then surely understand why that was so valuable for me tonight.
So my sister, who I’ll call Camilla for the sake of this blog (and also because I find giving her that pseudonym to be absolutely hilarious), took her friend out to Starbucks the other day and used her gift card to pay for their coffees. There was some odd amount, like $1.79, left over on the card. She asked the guy at the counter– barista, sorry– what she would even be able to get for that. He offered her a cake lollipop. She declined (Camilla’s the one who gets a fat foot if she eats wheat). Then he suggested that she could give it to the person behind her.
At this point, Camilla said she felt a little embarrassed for not thinking of that in the first place. She turned and asked the lady standing there if she wanted it for her coffee, and she was thrilled! $1.79 off a Starbucks is like getting half off the price of your straw, so it’s really not a bad deal!
She felt so good to be able to do that small favor, that it even meant more to her than getting a cake lollipop she didn’t even want. (I can’t take them seriously, by the way, or the people who eat them. You know the guys, nibbling on a rainbow colored piece of cake on a stick, while trying to look serious drinking their coffee and reading about the Middle East… Okay, fine. I’ve never seen that, but I really hope to some day. It would be the Starbucks’ equivalent of a unicorn.)
It was a win-win. Camilla didn’t have to carry around a stupid Starbucks card worth $1.79 and wait for the next time she wanted a coffee (actually, come to think of it, she doesn’t even drink coffee…Was this whole story a lie?! Camilla, you got some ‘splaining to do!). And the lady behind her only had to add in another $8 for her cup of black coffee to get paid for.
Once she told me that story, about her little way of paying it forward, it made me feel so nice, because I now knew what to do with the rest of that pesky balance on a gift card I know I’ll never use. (Victoria’s Secret, I’m lookin at you…) It gave me a new way of looking at gift cards. I was able to see that the true gift of them is in their uselessness, which maybe isn’t so useless after all.
But in the spirit of honesty, I’d known this little secret of gift cards all along. Yes, I, too, have experienced the magic of gift cards. Although I still think they are the red-headed-step-child of gift giving, I have found a silver lining that is perhaps closer to golden: being able to give to others freely, without it affecting my carefully-planned budget. I’ve probably given away about 85% funds I’ve received in gift cards over the last few years. This isn’t because I’m the next Mother Theresa (although that’s certainly a factor), it’s just because I’m really too practical to buy some thing I don’t actually want. And besides, I spent plenty of years doing that as a selfish teenager. I may be a slow learner, but I’m not totally inept.
With cash, I tend to be pragmatic with how I spend, because for me, money is closely linked to freedom, and I don’t spend more than I earn. I also do not spend my money (a useful tool) on things that don’t further my happiness (which would be squandering its usefulness). The more I buy beyond what I need, the less happy I am, so I have need for very little.
If I have money, I know I have a use for it (save for the future, keep my freedom alive). But if I’m given a gift card to a store with clothes for example, I know I do not need one more item of clothing, and it is very easy for me to pass the card along to someone who does. My ex boyfriend Leo, for instance, was forever in need of new pairs of designer socks. He was very poor in that way, so I was always happy to oblige. I shudder to think of him leaving the house without socks that would make Brad Goreski from Rachel Zoe proud. (Fun note: Leo and Brad share the same birthday. It is a Brad, Brad World. See image above to remove any doubts of that from your mind.)
Same with restaurants or coffee shops or anything that’s nice of someone to consider I’d want, but I find rather frivolous and not part of my daily routine. Unless I’m really in the mood for something, it’s a much better deal for me to see someone else happy, than try to force myself to want something that I actually don’t. That’s how you end up with a pile of shit for sale on Craigslist. I’m not naming any names, but please don’t check my account…
One of the most recent examples is that last year I gave a $25 gift certificate for a local restaurant as a gift in our family Christmas card game/grab bag. Some people thought it was so extravagant (we usually keep the gifts to around $10) and I was almost embarrassed to admit it was mine. But it had been given to me a few days before, and although it was nice of the person who gifted it, I had no interest in using it. For me, that was actually a much better deal than using $10 of my unadulterated money to buy a silly gift that was going to end up in someone’s closet (at the very top, in the very back). I was happy to do it and was glad it would be enjoyed by someone who cared.
Money is a tool, and I use it as such. Gift cards are frivolous, and I use them as such, as well. The fun thing about gift cards for me is that they have always been like a total break from the norm because I could lose them, buy someone a gift, take my boyfriend out, or just give them away and feel good about it, and it was totally free. I loved it (and still do, if I ever get a gift card after this airs). So that is one gift of gift cards– the gift of abandon.
I’m not telling you that you should give up your gift cards. (But a word of warning: it does feel good– if you haven’t tried it, you just might like it and get hooked.) But I think we just might all love the idea of brightening a stranger’s day with a little extra cash that’s left over after you check out at the register. It doesn’t really cost you a thing, and it can totally make someone’s day. Just think, all that for under two dollars!
Not to mention, if there’s ever a thing I’ve learned about good karma, it’s that you’re never really giving anything up when you help someone else. The universe provides you with more than you could have imagined, if you simply allow yourself to feel and believe that you have everything you already need (because you do!). Optimism and faith, even when they may seem naive given the circumstance, will carry you through when nothing else will. When you give to someone else, you are really giving to yourself. And that, my friends, is how gift cards got off my shit list.