Experts’ tips on gift card etiquette for the holidays

Gift cards are sometimes criticized as impersonal presents, or perhaps worse, forgettable pieces of plastic that end up stuck in a drawer and never get used.

WTOP asked etiquette and gift-giving experts to weigh in on the gift card debate.

“There was a time when we would probably discourage gift cards,” Crystal Bailey, director of the Etiquette Institute of Washington, told WTOP. “But there’s a good way to go about doing it where the both the recipient and the giver can feel great in the end.”

Here are more experts’ thoughts on how to make gift cards the best possible present, and when to avoid them altogether:

Make it personal 

Treating a gift card the same as any other gift can make it more personal, Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert from The Protocol School of Texas, told WTOP.

Gift-giving expert Becky Briggs echoed Gottsman’s sentiment.

“The human touch behind a handwritten, heartfelt note (3-5 sentences) will deepen your relationship with friends and loved ones, help build loyal customers and employees and in turn inspire and boost retention,” Briggs, CEO of Our Gift Biz, said in an email to WTOP. “It tells the receiver they are more than a transaction and lets them know how much they mean to you.”

For example, Bailey recalled when she was in college, her grandma would send her cash with a note attached, “Have pizza on me.”

Adding a small gift to accompany the card is another avenue Gottsman suggested to make a gift personal. But don’t fall to the standard candle or hand cream “afterthought.”

“Let’s say you give a gift card to a cooking store — add some spatulas, a couple of hand towels,” Gottsman said.

Bailey encouraged people to shop small.

“A lot of times we just imagine getting (a card) from a big box store, but maybe supporting a local business that your recipient would be able to go to is a good idea.”

Know your recipient 

Briggs said that gifts should make someone feel valued.

“Often the best gifts are unexpected. And when they create an element of surprise, they make the receiver feel even more valued and special,” Briggs said. “The trick is knowing when a gift card makes the most sense or a gift is a better solution.”

Gottsman said a gift card could hurt someone’s feelings if the person is expecting a more intimate gift. But, “If you have a good relationship with that person, you know that they’re going to appreciate that card and that’s why you’re giving it to them.”

The relationship with the recipient can influence how much to spend, but Gottsman said ultimately “It’s the thought that counts.”

“First and foremost, you have to consider your own budget,” Gottsman said. “You don’t want to give a gift card that hurts you financially.”

Ten dollars to a local coffee shop could be perfect for a co-worker you “just want to show that you’re thinking of,” Gottsman said.

If you’re buying a present for a kid under 10, Bailey said, consider an alternative present to gift cards.

“That could be a little bit disappointing,” Bailey said. “Almost like receiving socks.”

Make sure it’s useful

As long as the gift card is from a store the recipient would enjoy, Gottsman said, “I don’t think you should be afraid to give a gift card. People will appreciate it. They will use it when they need it.”

Briggs cautioned against buying a card to a generic store such Starbucks, Panera or anywhere else the gift receiver doesn’t frequently go. These gifts could be seen as a sort of “I didn’t have enough time, but I knew I needed to give you something” gesture, Briggs said. “They fall flat and don’t have the desired impact gift giving is all about.”

Think about where the recipient lives when choosing what store to buy a gift card from.

“I had someone who was very kind and gave me a gift card, but the restaurant was 60 minutes from my home,” Bailey said. “And I’m still to this day trying to figure out when I’ll actually be in that area to be able to use the gift card.”

Make sure the amount you spend on the gift card is relevant to the store.

“It’s not that useful if I get a $15 gift card to a steak house,” Bailey said.

Some of the responsibilities for making gift cards useful fall on the recipient, Gottsman said. People should be cognizant of where they keep cards and to pick one spot for storage to make sure they don’t forget about them.

This is particularly important because, unlike cash, many gift cards have expiration dates.

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Jessica Kronzer

Jessica Kronzer graduated from James Madison University in May 2021 after studying media and politics. She enjoys covering politics, advocacy and compelling human-interest stories.

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