Gift Card Advice: 802 Reasons Why Cash is a More Thoughtful Gift

Did you know in China it’s considered taboo to give a clock as a gift? Yep.

I’ve also been told I should never give my Chinese friends umbrellas and knives too.

At least I shouldn’t if I want to stay in their good graces.

The Chinese aren’t the only ones who have their taboos when it comes to gift-giving; take us Americans, for example. While we have absolutely no problem passing out clocks as gifts, a large segment of our society still feels that handing out cash for weddings, birthdays and the holidays is just plain tacky.

At the risk of being considered a heretic, I have to tell you, I love receiving cash gifts. In fact, I’ll take money over a gift card any day of the week — and you would too.

You know I’m right.

After all, when was the last time you felt disappointment after opening a birthday or Christmas card, only to see a portrait of a dead president or two unexpectedly fall out of it?

Of course, if you’re being honest, the answer is never. But that doesn’t stop us from clinging to the hokey mantra that giving cash gifts is an almost unspeakable and unforgivable act of utter thoughtlessness.

So we buy gift cards instead — $80 billion worth in 2009.

The Drawbacks of Gift Cards

True, gift cards aren’t as bad as they used to be after new regulations implemented by the Credit Card Act of 2009 eliminated some fees, and banned charges for non-use during the first year, but they still have drawbacks.

Perhaps the biggest is that gift cards often end up going unused — over $8 billion worth each year. That shouldn’t be a surprise if you consider that a recent poll by Consumer Reports ¬†found almost 25 percent of folks who received a gift card had still not used it nearly a year after receiving it.

I can attest to that.

Yesterday I asked the Honeybee and the kids to round up all of the unused gift cards and gift certificates in their possession. Then, after combining their cards with mine, I gathered all of them on the kitchen table and took this photo for posterity:

My poor photographic skills notwithstanding, the picture shows 19 cards and 6 gift certificates from Walmart, In-N-Out Burger, Arby’s, Men’s Wearhouse, AMC movie theaters, Chili’s, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, JCPenney, Sears, and See’s Candies that are worth roughly $802.

Yes, $802.

I currently have almost $300 in gift cards for Men’s Wearhouse, although one of them is now three years old. As a result, it has been losing 1.5 percent of its value every month for the past 12 months due to penalties for non-use. I know.

The Gift Card Exchange to the Rescue!

It’s folks like me that are the reason retailers love gift cards. We’re also the reason why gift card exchange websites that purchase (and sell) unused cards for cash are all over the Internet.

Sites such as Plastic Jungle, CardCash, Gift Card Bin and Gift Card Rescue cater to people who are stuck holding gift cards they don’t want or can’t otherwise use by buying them for rates generally between 60 and 75 percent of their face value.

I tried to see how much I could get for one of my Men’s Wearhouse gift cards, which was valued at $100. The offers I received ranged from $68 at Gift Card Bin to $73.50 at Plastic Jungle.

If you’re in the mood to buy, gift card sellers’ losses are your gain. Among some of the best deals were a card for The Limited worth $310.67 being offered for only $236.11 at CardCash (that’s a 24% discount), and a card for Pumpkin Patch worth $272.35 that was being offered for $204.26 (25% off) over at Gift Card Rescue.

Gift Card Exchange Days

If you’re looking to sell your unwanted gift cards, keep in mind that, according to reseller Gift Card Granny, the highest payout rates of the year occur on December 26th. So to help consumers take advantage of those rates, they’ve created a special Gift Card Exchange Day website where, on the day after Christmas, you can submit your unwanted gift cards to a plethora of companies looking to take them off your hands; those resellers will instantly provide you with cash offers, on average, between 75 and 92 percent of the value of your original gift card.

Of course, none of this would even be necessary if society would just get over its hangups about giving money as gifts.

So the next time you’re thinking of handing out a little legal tender as a gift, just do it. I guarantee you the cash is going to be spent — not to mention greatly appreciated.

And I’ll bet anybody who dares to tell you otherwise has a gift card they’d be happy to sell you.

Photo Credit: Lindsay Dee Bunny


  1. 1

    Kevin Mzansi says

    I dislike gift cards because they encourage spending. It is rarely that a gift card covers the cool gadget that you want to buy and all the ancillary spending (a iPad needs the cover and extra battery pack, right?). The guy who invented gift cards is an absolute genius, if you are a retailer. I discovered unspent gift cards from 3 years ago, just the other day!

    Just to make it absolutely clear: For anyone who is planning to give me a gift card this Christmas, I will absolutely not be offended if I find cash in an envelope :-)

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      Great point, Kevin. In researching this piece, I did read that most people who get gift cards do indeed spend more than they normally would otherwise.

  2. 3

    Olivia says

    It all depends.

    It depends on the recipient. We have a nephew who is a gaming junkie. And a sister in law who LOVES KMart. A brother in law who frequents Walmart. If they make known they want a gift card for a specific place I scope out bargains. Like exchanging survey points for a card. Or using Plastic Jungle to find one at discount. Or picking up a card given as an incentive on something I was going to buy anyway. This allows us to give something better than we could normally afford and they are totally cool with that.

    However, there are other “cash only” people in the family and since a couple of bills in an envelope is fairly boring, we try to give cash imaginatively. Money origami is a big hit with the neices and nephews. And one year I taped crispy bills together end to end, rolled them on a tube and sealed them in a box with the end hanging out and a tab attached saying “pull me”.

    It also depends on the card. I wouldn’t mind getting one to certain places. I had no trouble using a Home Depot card for painting supplies, spackle and sand paper.

    It’s also possible to buy gifts for others with your cards instead of allowing them to disintigrate into nothingness. I won one for Amazon which purchsed nifty moleskin notebooks for my husband and a drum book for our eldest.

    So, it depends.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      I hear ya, Olivia.

      By the way, speaking of money origami … Most folks who fly Southwest probably know that their excellent in-flight magazine, Spirit, features a step-by-step money origami project every month. To help pass the time, I tried it once — and failed miserably! Of course, I know what you’re probably thinking: Will you ever try it again, Len?

      Well, it depends… ;-)

  3. 5

    Erin says

    What I don’t get is how is a gift card showing much more thought than cash? I could argue it may be worse than cash because the giver doesn’t actually have to decide on anything other than what store you will do your shopping in. That’s not to say I’ll ever turn down a gift card. The truth is there really isn’t a lot of thought needed when giving them out as gifts though!

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      Agreed. Especially, if someone specifically requests a gift card from a certain retailer. Then you can’t even claim credit for picking the store!

      Heck, why not save me the shopping trip altogether and just let me wrap up a couple dead president portraits!

  4. 7


    I’m in the middle of writing a post remembering how I did all my grandmother’s Christmas shopping for her…
    at the bank! Twenties in envelopes for everyone!

    I think she had it right. No shopping stress for her, and she could focus on family and food preparation.

  5. 9


    It’s true, I would like money best. However, some store gift cards are ‘practically’ money, as in I would shop there at some point anyway – Amazon and Target come to mind.

    My wife told me the only thing that would be taboo is if I bought her a vacuum cleaner or an iron as a gift (you know it’ll happen eventually as a gag gift, haha).

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      In theory, I agree. But not always — at least in my case. For example, you’d think those two In-N-Out cards with $22 on them would have been used up within the first month or two. Nope. They’re now almost a year old and practically begging me to run down the street and pick up four double doubles and four orders of fries. You know what, maybe I will…

  6. 11

    DC says

    I’ve done this — enclosed cash with the following written note:

    U N I V E S A L G I F T C A R D
    * Accepted EVERYWHERE!
    * No Fees!
    * No expiration date!

    That seems to make the recipient happy.

  7. 13


    my only question would be is why people hang onto those gift cards when they can sell them?

    i’ve always look at as the same as cash just like i do with a credit card.

    either use them and get what you need or want and spend less cash of your own on the item or sell them. either way you come out ahead and the thought behind them is not lost.

    • 14

      Len Penzo says

      In my case, Griper, it’s out of site out of mind.

      Yes, I know… put them in your wallet. Well, nine of those gift cards are mine. There is no way I am stuffing all nine of them in there with all my other cards. Heck, even the cards that ARE in my wallet are still out of site out of mind.

  8. 15

    Holly says

    I give out gift cards because I wouldn’t mind receiving one on occasion. Apparently, my family members believe in the totally useless and obscure gift-giving method…which never goes over well.

  9. 17

    CandiO says

    Mmmmm In-N-Out Burger, god I miss that place (living as I am now on the east coast). Use those gift cards if nothing else, eat a double double for those of us who can’t, lol!

    • 18

      Len Penzo says

      I can’t believe those cards weren’t used up yet either, CandiO. That fact is one of the best examples I can think of that supports my claim that if a card is out of sight, it ends up being out of mind.

  10. 19


    Haha — like CandiO, I also got temporarily distracted by your mention of In-N-Out Burger. You Californians may have enormous state taxes, but you also have the best burgers …

    My problem with giving out both cash and gift cards is the same: I don’t want the recipient to know how much I’ve spent. And when you give either cash or a gift card, that info is obvious.

    • 20

      Len Penzo says

      Agreed on California (especially S. Cal) having the best burger joints. No other place comes close, Paula.

      There are so many great burger places here, it’s hard to count them all.

  11. 22

    Entity325 says

    I hate gift cards, and have informed friends and family not to get them for me. I would rather be given an actual present I don’t want than a gift card.

    In gift giving, it’s the thought that counts. Cash is the laziest form of a gift, because EVERYONE likes money, right? You didn’t put any thought into this, you just reached into your wallet and grabbed something! Gift cards are even worse. They’re LIKE cash, but can only be used at the indicated retailer, so it’s just as much of an insult, but less useful.

    If you go out and get me an insult gift, then at least you put some thought into it. If you made something yourself(like I did for my mother, sister, and sister-in-law this year) then not only have you put thought and actual effort into your gift, but you’ve also saved some money.(OK, to be fair, what I ended up making was more expensive than the item I was inspired by, but it also contains significantly more value.) A little effort and thought are more valuable than a thousand envelopes packed with $100 bills.

    • 23

      Len Penzo says

      Hold on now! That’s $100,000! If given the choice, would you really prefer me giving you, say, a small handcrafted painting instead of $100 grand? ;-)

      • 24

        Entity325 says

        Hmm… when you put it that way, it depends.

        If this small painting was hand-crafted by a Mr. Van Gogh or a Mr. DaVinci, I’m still going to have to go with the painting ;)

  12. 25


    If I can’t find a suitable gift for the wedding, I stuck the bills in an envelope. I don’t think about whether it’s tacky or not. The important thing is to help the couple in their future financial misery.

  13. 26

    StuckintheCold says

    It is an interesting perspetive on gift cards. However, I like gift cards. I have no unexpired gift cards in my possession and always have used them. My kids have often saved up their Target cards from birthdays for a larger gift. Using a restaurant card as an example, I can explain why it would be better as a gift than cash. we rarely go out to eat. If I were given cash, I would most likely not go out to eat. However, with the gift card, I am given the “luxury” of a meal out, and the time with my companions. That is a gift – as opposed to cash that most likely would have been put into living expenses or savings. Maybe it is just because I have a hard time making sure cash gifts get used as a consious choice as a gift.

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      You make some good points. Although, in my opinion, if someone gives me, say, $20 for my birthday and I end up using that money to pay a utility bill I think it still qualifies as a gift simply because it frees up that cash to spend on other things. I guess it’s all a matter of how we do our “mental accounting.”

  14. 28

    Guy says

    I see it that a gift is supposed to be fun. If I give cash then someone will probably just go and pay for the groceries where as if I give them a gift card to the movies I gave them a fun time.

    My grandfather hasn’t been to his favorite dinner in years since the housing crash and his real estate business went under. So I bought him a gift card for his birthday so he can go back and have a nice meal there. Could I give him money? Yes, but I know he would spend it on paying bills which isn’t fun for him. $100 dollars won’t change much if he used it to pay bills but definitely lifted his spirits when he was able to see old friends again.

    I’m a live for the moment kind of guy and who cares about paying bills go out and live for the moment because, who knows, tomorrow you might be killed… (not that you shouldn’t save and plan for the future, but people only live once and need to have fun as well).

  15. 29

    jessica f. says

    What’s the point of giving out money or gift cards as gifts? My husband gives his sister an Amazon gift card for her birthday every year, and she gives him the same thing, for the same amount. How is that a gift? They’re just giving back what was given to them over and over.

    If you give someone $50 for Christmas and they give you $50, why bother? You can both just keep your $50. I don’t get cash gifts.

  16. 30


    When I get a gift card I am half expecting the giver to say “I couldn’t give a #%^ about you, so here…” and that goes for cash too. Now, getting cash in general is great – YAY! – but not as a gift. Come on! Think of something else… anything…

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