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Frugal Man: ‘Bah, Humbug!’ to Gift Cards at Christmas

Christmas, as you might imagine, is a tough holiday for people like me. The premise of the holiday is no longer about giving or even receiving. It’s about spending.

We are invited, encouraged, cajoled and sometimes even badgered to “celebrate the season” by spending, largely on items we already have.  Another golf shirt, another set of earrings or another video game will make it a merrier Christmas.


Not surprisingly, I am not doing my part. I can celebrate Christmas, but I can’t celebrate spending.

Fortunately for the economy, the rest of America is filling in nicely.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects that Americans will spend $604 billion on holiday shopping this year. That is about $25 billion more than we spent last year, and $100 billion more than we spent five years ago.

In fact, our holiday spending has been on a steady climb since the NRF started tracking holiday sales in 1995. The only exception was when Americans realized in 2008 that we were in a deep recession. Sales that year dropped by $23 billion. We climbed out of that shopping slump a year later and since then, have been spending like Santa issued us blank checks.

Do You Want a Gift Card?

And what is the No. 1 item we’re spending money on? Gift cards.  Almost 20 percent of holiday spending goes to gift cards, which all by itself is an appalling indictment of the holiday season.

Nothing says: “If you really want something, go get it yourself!” better than a gift card. People buy them for one of two reasons:

  • They’re lazy.
  • They don’t care enough about the person to spend the time and effort it takes to buy something meaningful.

Granted, that’s just an observation, but I would bet that 98 percent of gift card buyers fall into one or both categories. When I announced that in the lunchroom, however, the other two percent just happened to be at the table, and disagreed vehemently.

They claim that a gift card to their favorite store is the best present under their tree and nothing else comes close. To be fair, there is survey evidence that sides with them. According to the NRF, 58 percent of shoppers said they would like to get a gift card this year, and it has been the No. 1 request among shoppers every year since 2007.

Does Anyone Really Use Gift Cards?

A pragmatic person like me can understand some of that. If I handed you a gift card to your favorite store, there’s a much better chance you’ll get what you want than if I wander from department to department hoping to find just the right thing.

The problem is that many of you gift card lovers don’t actually use it.

According to Gift Card Granny, a website dedicated to all things gift card, a sizeable chunk of cards expire, are lost or just go unused every year.  Here are some of the wasteful statistics:

  • More than $45 billion in gift cards have gone unused since 2005.
  • American households have an average of $300 in unused gift cards.
  • About 40 percent of gift card recipients do not use the total value of the card.

Consumer Reports says that $1.8 billion in gift cards will go unused this year, which only goes to prove that people receiving them are as thoughtless as the people giving them.

Try Coupon Shopping

And that really is the problem I have with the Christmas season: We spend $604 billion for memories that seldom last more than 24 hours. For that kind of money, there should be a more meaningful return.

I recommend ditching the gift cards — and pretty much everything else — and giving your family and friends something considerably cheaper and definitely more meaningful: Personalized gift coupons.

They’re easy to make, are redeemable anytime and prove (unlike gift cards) that you actually put some thought and effort into this Christmas.  Just find a cheerful holiday background to print on and promise to deliver something memorable to the recipient.

For example, the gift coupon to my wife will read: “On the day and time of your choosing, I promise to prepare dinner, clean the kitchen, take you for a walk and watch the movie of your choice.”

The coupon for my 85-year-old mom will read: “On the day and time of your choosing, I promise to pick you up and spend the entire day with you, doing whatever you want.”

I will be making coupons for my sons, my sister and my best friend.

Some will get multiple coupons. They will involve things like detailing a car, a weekend of camping and fishing, attending concerts, riding bicycles, cleaning out the garage, going to the beach or whatever else I can think the person involved really likes to do.

I won’t have $604 billion or even $604 invested in Christmas — probably more like $60.40—but I will get a meaningful return. My family and friends will treat the coupons like gold bars, waiting to redeem them when they know they will get maximum value from them.

That will make celebrating the season a whole lot easier than buying them all gift cards.

Frugal Man Christmas meme with candy canes

Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].

Gift card display at a store

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