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Gift Card Etiquette: How Do You Give Gift Cards without Being Tacky?



Gift cards have become ubiquitous in our culture. In a 2013 poll, 100% of respondents admitted they had gifted at least one gift card in the past year. On the other hand, many people find them to be gauche – that polite society simply doesn’t give gift cards as gifts. But if so many people are using them, how can they be wrong? Is there a gift card etiquette that you can follow to avoid offending a gift recipient? I think so.

About once every holiday season, I get a question about gift cards. Here’s one of my favorites:

Question: I got married this summer, and three months later, me and the missus are having our first argument. As I’ve learned from reading your articles, the fight is indeed about money. But not like you think. We’re arguing over whether giving gift cards as Christmas presents is “tacky.”

I say no. In fact, I’ve been doing it for years. I even save up the points on my credit cards and convert them into gift cards every November, so I literally give most of my gifts without spending a dime. But my new wife says gift cards are impersonal (and giving cash is downright insulting).

She also says gift cards come with high fees, not all the money gets used, and they’re easily stolen — “no one steals your sweater,” she says. Who’s right, Howard?

— Paul in Alabama

Recently, I also received one about giving gift cards as a wedding present:

Question: I’ve dated my boyfriend for two years, and I’ve never seen him give a gift that wasn’t a gift card. He buys them for everything — my birthday, Valentine’s Day, everything. 

We’re going to his best friend’s wedding next month, and he wants to get the couple a gift card! I told him that’s a TERRIBLE idea, and he should just buy something from their registry. He says he’s always given gift cards, so what’s the big deal?

Is he right? Am I being too intense?

— Celeste in New York

I personally think that gift cards can make good gifts if they are given the right way – even for a wedding. Here are my tips for giving gift cards without being tacky.

Gift card etiquette 101: Giving gift cards the right way

Make sure the gift card is the right card

Particularly for a wedding, giving a general-purpose bank gift card may come off like you didn’t put any thought into the gift. In addition, as one of our reporters found when researching gift card tips, many banks will charge fees for getting a general-purpose gift card or something like it.

So, you want to get a gift card from a specific retailer for two reasons:

  1. You can make sure the card fits the recipient
  2. You can avoid extra fees

In the case of the wedding, this can also be especially useful if you’re shopping late. If no gifts left on the registry fit your budget, give the happy couple a gift card to Sur La Table or their favorite retailer.

This also works for the holidays. Instead of getting everyone a general-purpose Visa gift card, get the foodie in your life a restaurant gift card, the DIY-enthusiast in your life a home improvement card, and the shopper a card to their favorite store.

Put effort into the accompanying message

Don’t just put the gift card in an envelope, or worse, just hand it to the recipient. That’s really going to make it look like you didn’t try. Instead, go get a greeting card that’s appropriate for the occasion. Then, instead of just signing your name and slipping the gift card in the envelope, take the time to write a message. Think about the person and the occasion and write something meaningful and appropriate. Make sure it’s personal so it will resonate with the person reading it.

Make sure the dollar amount is appropriate, but still in your budget

You want to give an amount in the gift card that seems appropriate. General etiquette is usually under $20 for casual acquaintances, like co-workers, $30-$75 for close friends and family members and more for someone like your spouse or for a big occasion, like a wedding. Always make sure that the dollar amount you give is visible on the card or write it down.

Of course, etiquette is fine, but always make sure that it’s something that you can afford. Just like you would with any gift, review your budget to see what you can afford to give. If you can only afford $30 for a friend’s wedding, then you shouldn’t give more than that just to seem polite. And you certainly don’t want to use a credit card to pay for a gift card. Interest charges can end up making your $30 gift card cost $60 or $90 if you’re making minimum payments.

You shouldn’t feel obligated to go into debt and cause your own financial problems just to satisfy someone else. And if saying that makes me gauche, then I’ll be gauche. Your friends and family should be able to recognize and empathize with a tough financial situation. And if they were to give you grief, they’re hardly masters of etiquette themselves.

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