In Defense of the Gift Certificate
For the longest time, I felt bad about offering gift certificates to friends and family when the holiday season rolled around. They had a reputation as the lazy person’s gift of choice: They were impersonal, they were anything but unique, and there was something crass—given our long tradition of removing price tags from gifts and pretending that their exact value is unknown to the recipient—about their dollar amount being displayed so flagrantly.
But the thing is, it had never bothered me to receive one. An iTunes gift certificate from a geographically-distant relative? Slam dunk. Much better than an awkward attempt to buy me clothes when we’ve hardly seen each other since I graduated from high school. And when I moved cross-country, to northern Canada’s Yukon Territory, a gift certificate to an outdoor gear retailer was another perfect choice. (Hello, down-filled slippers!)
So if I liked receiving gift certificates, why, I wondered, was I hung up on giving them? I decided to get over it, and in the last few years I have wholeheartedly embraced the gift card.
I do my best to choose a gift certificate that’s catered to the recipient’s interests or needs. The newlyweds who wanted to build a wine collection? I got them a liquor store gift certificate. The parents who had just booked a late-winter getaway to Arizona? A gift card for fine dining in Tucson. A theater gift card for the movie lover, a trip to a spa for the person who I just know loves a pedicure but will never spend money on that kind of thing herself.
There’s still something wonderful about picking out the perfect book for someone you care about. But when inspiration refuses to strike, I’m no longer shy about opting for the Amazon gift card instead. In this age of infinite individual choices—the era of PVR, Netflix, iTunes—I don’t see any shame in letting my friends and family select their own gifts. We’ve been dancing around the idea for years, anyway, by including gift receipts—with the price tag carefully redacted, of course—with our offerings so the recipient can return or exchange them.
I think a lot of our discomfort around gift certificates stems from that squeamishness about price, about showing the world how much you spent on a given individual. Are you worth $20 to me? $50? $100? But the idea that physical gifts don’t tell us the same thing has always been a charade. Everyone knows how much a paperback novel costs. And, frankly, if your recipient’s first reaction to a thoughtfully chosen gift is, “That’s all he spent on me?” then that giftee probably deserves a lump of coal instead.
Eva Holland is a freelance writer based in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Her work was recently listed as a notable selection in The Best American Essays 2013 and The Best American Sports Writing 2013. Photo: compudemano