Can Gift Cards Be Thoughtful?

One guess as to this season’s new favorite gift?  It’s not a shiny new bike, the latest gadget, or a sleek sports car. No, it’s a gift card. The number one requested item isn’t the latest new device, it’s a small plastic card that can be purchased almost anywhere for almost anything.

I’ve always considered the gift card the poor man’s gift, something purchased last minute, in a panic between applying coats of mascara in the rear view mirror of the car on the way to the party (a view not in the least undermined by the fact that men spend considerably more than women on gift cards). Don’t have time to shop? Gift card. Don’t know the person that well? Gift card. Difficult to buy for? Gift card. The most popular gift cards bought are to restaurants, department stores and coffee shops, but with companies from Uber to Verizon, Southwest Airlines, and even Jiffy Lube offering gift cards, there’s something for everyone. Still, some might consider the gift card less gauche than cash, but less thoughtful than a real gift, because a real gift requires thought, planning, and time. But if gift cards are what people want (and statistics say they are –gift cards have been the most requested holiday gift for eight years running), then there has to be a way to make the gift card just as thoughtful as any other present. Here are a few ideas:

• Pair it with a note. Perhaps the gift card isn’t all that personal, but it can be made more so if you express your intention with it. For example, something like, “I noticed your slippers have holes in the soles, but I wasn’t sure of your size. So here’s a gift card for you to go pick out a new pair on me.” That tells the recipient you considered her needs and what she would like, while leaving the final purchasing decision in her hands.

• Partner the card with something else. A gift card to the movies can be placed in a popcorn container filled with the recipient’s favorite candy. A Starbucks card can be put in a mug, along with chocolate covered coffee beans. If you know the recipient loves antiques, a gift card tucked into a one-of-a-kind find will tell her there was nothing rushed about your gift.

• Make the card the prize at the end of a treasure hunt. It can be an across town venture geocache style, or just a hunt through the house. Hide clues and make the recipient work for their gift!

• Purchase a gift card that comes with your time. A gift card for your best friend to get a pedicure is much more fun if you’re coming along. That class your significant other wanted to take is much less intimidating knowing you’ll be right beside him. And while you may not be up for sky diving, you can always promise to go along and take pictures.

• Purchase a gift card tied to a memory. Nothing says thoughtfulness like a bit of nostalgia. Buy a gift card to a restaurant where something special occurred, like a first date, or to your favorite high school hangout.

• If you live far away from the recipient, e-gift cards may be the way to go. They arrive along with a redemption code in the recipient’s email box instantly, or can be set to arrive at a later date. Websites like for movies or for concerts and sporting events can be used nation-wide. even lets you add an image and voice record a personalized message to be included in the email.

Can a gift card be thoughtful? Absolutely, because it’s the giver that determines the amount of time and energy put into it, not the gift! And if worse comes to worse, while gift cards aren’t refundable, an unwanted gift card can be sold for cash or traded in for other cards on sites like