802 Reasons Why Cash is More Thoughtful Than Gift Cards

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 — $110 billion worth in 2012 and a projected $138 billion in 2015.

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 — more than $8 billion worth each year. That shouldn’t be a surprise if you consider that a recent poll by Consumer Reports found almost 25% 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% 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: (present) Lindsay Dee Bunny; (gift cards) Len Penzo

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on 19 December 2011.)


  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.

        • 22

          lindy says

          Nope – I have both Culver’s and Five Guys…both decent but neither can stand up to In ‘N Out. Please enjoy a double double for *all* of us transplants! That will make it a Merry Christmas for me.

          • 23

            Len Penzo says

            Okay, Lindy … if you insist.

            (I know. Eating an In-N-Out Double Double is a tough job, but I guess somebody has to do it!) 😉

  11. 24

    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.

    • 25

      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? 😉

      • 26

        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. 27


    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. 28

    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.

    • 29

      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. 30

    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. 31

    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.

    • 32

      pandurata says

      I really appreciate cash gifts when I save up for a larger purchase, a new sofa for example or a nice vacation. Cash gifts earmarked towards those help to reach that goal much quicker, freeing up money in my budget for other stuff. And the gift-givers will see the result of their gift, be able to sit on the couch when they visit, get post-cards from the trip or a slide show afterwards, etc.

      In the case of your husband and his sister, however, I think they should have a frank discussion about how the gift-giving has devolved into its current status of a 1:1 exchange and perhaps agree on something else to do instead.

      I have seen similar developments within my family that I only see 3 to 4 times a year now. We are close but not in constant contact so it can be really difficult to figure out something you know they will really love.

      So, most members of my family have agreed to not exchange gifts, except for some self-made consumables such as cookies, the results from that year’s wine-making experiment, etc. Works great and you don’t have to pretend to like some expensive gift even though you don’t like it and know that it was given out of an obligation. My brother and I have started our own tradition replacing this back-and-forth gift giving: we go to the local Christmas market and then warm up in the movie theater. (significant others included if present and willing to join) My parents and I take a day-trip together, go to a museum or other sight in town that they normally don’t visit.

      It has become really about the time spent together, catching up, enjoying meals and talking, not the exchange of gifts. Eliminates stress in the time leading up to the holidays, leaving just the joy of looking forward to time spent together. So, your husband and sister-in-law may really want to talk.

      PS: The only exception is Grandma – she just won’t have it. In her case, we do some creative spying via other family members, also feeding her with ideas. She really wants to give us something that we will enjoy. And guess what, my wish is a gift card! I have a movie theater close by that I like to frequent. With that specific gift card (plus taking advantage of a weekly offer from my mobile provider that pays for the second ticket on Thursdays) my boyfriend and I will be able to go to the movies together 5 times for the price of about two thirds of one ticket. Yes, we would have bought that gift card ourselves, as ours is almost used up. So in a sense, it is giving us money. But it is with a specific purpose in mind, something that we will use because we already do so regularly. And with the gift card, she will have something to wrap for her granddaughter. :-)

  16. 33


    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…

  17. 34


    That’s a lot of unused gift cards! I’m with you that cash is king. But, our families like to give us gift cards, which is very sweet of them. We try hard to use them all up, but it usually takes us years. We’re just not shoppers and we often feel like we don’t need anything and have no clue what to buy. I’ve actually ended up using gift cards to purchase gifts for other people!

    • 35

      Len Penzo says

      Mrs. F: This past weekend we just used a gift card from Chilis that we found in our secretary drawer. It was two years old! We forgot we even had the darn thing. Thankfully, there were no penalties for not using it promptly, other than a few bucks in lost purchasing power due to inflation.

  18. 36

    Walt Heisenberg says

    My father used to give a $50 bill every Xmas until he retired. He would get those envelopes that showed the dead presidents portrait. Hang them on their tree and when we visited on Xmas morning you would get your envelope. Nothing tacky and it gave you an incentive to visit them. After he retired on a fixed income it was our gift to them to give cash to help them. I never once heard anyone complain either way. He passed and we still remember those envelopes.

    • 37

      Len Penzo says

      Great story, Walt. I remember those envelopes too.

      Today, I recommend giving your kids and grandchildren silver coins (American Silver Eagles) instead of those pieces of green paper with the dead presidents on it.

  19. 38


    Clock and picture frame are items I hate to receive during Christmas. I don’t know, it’s just that these items are not my responsibility to provide for the house, and we have like a dozen of clocks at home. LOL. I’d rather have money or gift cards as gift. However, I still like gifts that are personalized.

  20. 40

    Kathy says

    Unless you know the recipient shops a certain store, gift cards are more trouble than they are worth. You are forcing a person to shop at a particular place they may not even like. At least give them a pre-paid Visa they can use anywhere. Cash is great because it can be saved or put with other cash to use on something bigger.

  21. 41


    Amen, let’s rally some people behind the call for cash as the best gifts to give and receive. No more filled wallets and purses with $5 and $10 gift cards that force you to walk into the store every time you see it, so you can try to use the darn things.
    Now if we can only have ways of gifting money pre-tax easily…

  22. 43


    I gave my in-laws a $100 gift card to the nicest restaurant around after I got married. I just wanted to say thanks for letting me marry their daughter and for all their help with the wedding. That gift card has been sitting on the cork board in their kitchen for the last 7 1/2 years. It drives me crazy every time I visit. My wife tells me to let it go, but I have learned my lesson about gift cards.

  23. 45

    Jojojo53 says


    I received two complaints from giving cash in the same year! I put two $100 dollar bills in each of the children’s stocking also filled with treats , orange, nuts, candy cane, and a PEZ toy and other little stuff. The kids both said hey dad we need twenties, not hundreds. I had two happy kids when I changed the hundreds for twenties but an unhappy wife. How come they each get two hundred and I get nothing? Gave her two of the hundreds cashed in from the kids (she accepts hundreds) and put two hundreds in all three stockings every year thereafter with no further complaints!

    • 46

      Len Penzo says

      Twas a time when kids were ecstatic with a $10 bill. Inflation strikes again! By the way, the Honeybee accepts hundreds too.


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