Myth Breaker: Gift Cards and Cash Are BAD Gifts

There's this weird stigma around giving gift cards and cash as gifts.

Some say that they are not personal enough, or that they don't convey the same meaning as a hand-selected gift.

Let's look at that for a moment:

Gift Cards

There are thousands of stores in any given town. Millions of businesses. Probably trillions of different products out there. If somebody is going to pick out a gift card for a friend or family member, they have to decide from which store to purchase that gift card.

Picking out the right gift card takes some thought and time.

Some of the coolest gifts I have gotten is gift cards to places that I love to shop - because the giver thought about where I'd like to shop. I'd absolutely die if I got a gift card from Modcloth, but not everybody likes Modcloth or even knows about it.

When you buy a gift card for somebody, you think about what they like. You may not pick out a dress for them, because you trust that they know their body type and preferences better than you do (and this is true for almost everyone); but getting them a gift card to a store that they really like takes, a lot of thought.

One Christmas, my mom and stepdad gifted me and my boyfriend a gift card to Walmart in a significant amount. We were moving two months later, so that gift card was well thought out and an amazing gift; when I moved (broke and maxed out), I used the gift card to buy a futon for our under-furnished apartment, and groceries to get me through to the next payday.

Think about it for a second; have you ever received a gift card and been disgruntled because the giver didn't put enough thought into it?

Just don't do this:


Cash is an all around desirable thing to have.

Cash is a little trickier, because it's hard to remember who gave it as a gift. But, unless it's my dad, who forgets about my birthday until I remind him, upon which he promptly pulls out his wallet and hands me a few bills, I've never been disappointed with cash as a gift.

Cash typically gets the worst rap as a wedding gift, but I don't think it's tacky at all to ask for a cash as a wedding gift and here's why:

  • Wedding's are freakin' expensive
  • It's not 1952.

What I mean by that last point is that people usually live together or at least live on their own before they get married. The point of wedding gifts, originally, was the set the happy couple up for moving in together after their wedding.

That is, by now, somewhat of a moot point. Most couples I know live together before their weddings and have usually accumulated toasters, bed sheets, towels, dishes, etc.

There are always things that people want, and that is where the wedding registry comes into place. But, if you are a last minute shopper, and the registry has been exhausted by all other guests, and a gift card is not an option, I am sure the newlyweds would be more than happy with cash.

I have no qualms about giving cash if the couple doesn't have a big gift registry. But I'm not going to just hand them a wad of bills

How to Give Cash and Gift Cards as Gifts

Since the concern is that cash and gift cards aren't personal enough, the goal when giving these things as gifts is to personalize it as much as possible.

You can:

  • Designate the cash for something (Ie: I didn't know what size you were, but I remember that you really liked that ring at XYZ store, so I thought I'd give you cash toward it instead)
  • Go through the store that you bought the gift card from and make a collage of things that you think your friend or family member would have liked from the store. Put it in a card, and say something like "I couldn't decide, but here's what made me think of you"
  • Buy something personalized to put the money or gift card in. It doesn't have to be anything big, but make sure to think of the person you're giving it to.
  • Since cash is less acceptable than a gift card, give the recipient cash in a gift card form - ie, a prepaid Visa card.

What do you think - is cash and gift cards an inappropriate gift? Why do you feel the way you do about it? Any other ideas to give cash and gift cards tactfully?



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45 thoughts on “Myth Breaker: Gift Cards and Cash Are BAD Gifts

  1. Like the way you mentioned everything about how to give cash and gift cards!! I like the ideas and will look forward to utilize these ways in better condition. Thanks 🙂

  2. Edward Antrobus

    I think the major complaint against using cash/gift cards as gifts is that the person who receives it will know exactly how much you spent (unless you bought on some sort of sale, and somehow, bragging that you paid a discounted price for somebody's gift sounds even tackier).

    That said, I love cash as a gift. I'm to the point in my life where most of the things I'd like are either too expensive for one person, or too mundane for gifts. If I tell somebody I want socks, they'd just laugh and say, "no, what do you really want?" Sigh. A Walmart gift card please.

  3. I think cash and gift cards are great gifts. I usually give cash. Like Edward said above, with cash I usually give more though, so it does get more expensive.

  4. Gift cards or cash are GREAT ideas. It's sucks to get a sweater from grandma that you'll never wear, but with a gift card I can get what I want/need. Thoughtfulness is good too though, I got a gift card once to Borders Books. Um... thank you?? If you knew me, you'd know how silly a gift that is. I rarely read! So I gave it to my daughter to spend. When given thoughtfully, cash and giftcards are just great.

  5. I almost always give cash for weddings and graduations. I can't imagine not wanting cash at that point in life and I don't care if someone thinks it's tacky.

    You're absolutely right about the well thought out gift card. One time we received a giftcard to blockbuster video (back when there were still such things), but the closest video store from that particular chain was an hour from our house...not very well thought out even if we do like movies.

  6. I don't believe they are inappropriate gifts nowadays, but I do believe there is a reason they're more common today than they were 10-20 years ago.

    I wrote a post on this a few months back, but I personally believe our love of things have made people nearly impossible to shop for. 20 years ago you got a present and you just learned to live with it - if you liked it or not. There were no gift receipts or returning just dealt with it and thanked the person.

    Now, our attitude is more 'we want what we want and if you don't buy me the perfect gift then don't bother.'

    Cash and gift cards are fine presents but I think it's sad to really delve into why they are.

  7. I love getting cash or gift cards as gifts! And I'd much rather give them as well, then people can get things they actually want or need. When people by you stuff, even though they mean well, it's usually not something you really need and it ends up getting exchanged or sitting in a closet somewhere. I got married this past October and we were moving across the country right after the wedding so luckily most people understood that money/gift cards were what we needed. We also set up a honeymoon registry on, I know some people think that's tacky but our guests thought it was awesome.

  8. Emily @ evolvingPF

    I actually would almost rather receive an object from a major retailer as a gift than a gift card because I can return it and get cash. Gift cards are giving us trouble as we never spend them. We received a lot of checks for our wedding, which was lovely - we used the money for our honeymoon. I didn't think that was tacky at all. We sent pictures of us on our honeymoon in our thank-you notes.

    Gotta disagree with you on being anti-wedding registry and pro-cohabitation, though. My husband and I didn't live together before we got married and as we are both students we really, really enjoyed the lifestyle upgrade we got from our gifts. Our slow cooker seriously changed my life. We had both lived with roommates so we were missing some key shared items and that sort of thing.

    Also, I can honestly say that we experienced ZERO surprises in our first year of marriage regarding living together. (I'm not saying we didn't have annoying habits, just that we knew about them in advance.) I don't buy the argument that you have to live together to know someone well enough to choose to marry; my personal experience refutes that.

    1. Post author

      Oh, I'm totally not anti-registry - I love registries! They are easy and I'll have a big one, I'm sure, when we get married. I'm just saying that more often than not people do live together before marriage these days, so sometimes people have everything they need or just prefer cash 🙂

  9. Brian

    My sister and I live far away from each other so it makes giving a physical gift difficult sometimes. So for our birthdays we just give each other e-gift cards. We both like this since you can get pretty much anything you want from them!

  10. I am okay with either cash or a gift card. It's a gift and whatever I get I am grateful for. After all, they didn't have to get me anything. If I had a preference, it would be cash. I also give cash more than gift cards. Love your ideas on how to give.

  11. I guess I am in the vast minority. I don't like receiving or giving gift cards or cash as a present. With me, I know that cash is just going to go in the bank and go towards bills. When it's Christmas or my birthday, I want to have at least something new. A gift card is just going to sit around and will usually make me end up spending the difference on something that I don't necessarily need.

    As for giving such gifts, I like to make more of an effort with finding a good gift for the person. I do understand that for people who like to shop or would most want clothing, a gift card is probably much more practical.

    I like the suggestions you made about making these kinds of gifts more acceptable though.

  12. I don't have an issue with giving cash as a gift, and in fact give it often. But I consider gift cards useless. Most people don't end up spending the entire amount because they lose the card or forget about it, so that's wasted money. Some gift cards have expiration dates, and gift cards aren't as flexible as cash.

    I cringe when I get gift cards and use them as soon as possible. Cash has no use-by dates and is good for any purchase at any store.

  13. Hahaha it's not 1952. So true though! Gift cards and cash are usually my favorite gifts to receive. Unless something has a lot of meaning, but that doesn't usually happen. If I'm going to be materialistic, I'd rather do the shopping (or saving!) myself.

  14. jefferson

    i like to give Amazon gift cards as gifts, because that store has literally everything.

    i don't think its tacky at all..

    there is nothing worse than wandering around a store for hours wondering if the person already has something..

  15. John @ Married (with Debt)

    I like to give cash or a giftcard as a wedding gift because I hate waiting for people to cash checks. I'm always a little worried that the family member "helping" the bride and groom with their gifts helped themselves to my cash, and the couple would never know.

  16. Kaitlyn

    I think a great way for couples to make it easier for their guests to give cash as a gift is through honeymoon registries. Especially for couples who already have a lot of stuff, it's a great way for guests to feel like they're giving a specific experience. I recently used a service called Wanderable for my honeymoon registry, and would highly recommend them. They have amazing designs.

    1. Post author

      Great idea! I should suggest this to my friend, I don't think she knows about honeymoon registries.

  17. I give gift cards and love getting them too! I can't remember ever giving anyone cash as a gift, but I wouldn't be bothered if a close relative gave me cash. Actually, what am I saying? I am not offended or upset by receiving cash, ever 😀

  18. I love cash and gift cards! Yes, I also like when people buy me thoughtful presents but I'm the first to admit that I'm horrid to buy for. But for instance, for any wedding gifts that may come my way? I'd love cash or gift cards. I don't really need a lot of stuff that people might want to buy (like a toaster) but would love a new furniture set. As that stuff is expensive I would never want to be all "hey gramma, I need a couch!" but if she gave me money, I would love to put that in my new furniture fund!

    Truthfully though any type of gift is a gift and didn't have to be given and that's what I try to keep in mind. I even loved when I got socks for Christmas.

  19. I seriously have no idea why people think annoys the hell out of me. I'd RATHER have a gift card or cash (or check haha) than a gift. I'm probably the pickiest person out there and I end up returning half the gifts I receive =/

    I think cash is the best gift for a wedding gift, especially if all the other stuff on the registry is taken and you don't feel like spending $500 on some fine china the couple decided to add to the list.

  20. Justin @ The Family Finances

    I read a study by some economists about gift giving in general and people's happiness (called "utility"). Basically the amount of utility someone gets from receiving a physical gift isn't as high as when they they bought a gift for themselves. Maybe they preferred a different gift than they received, etc. In the grand scheme of things, buying gifts results in a deadweight loss of utility. With cash and giftcards the recipient can choose what they buy and lesson the deadweight loss.

  21. oh god I love gift cards. It's like free money because I can buy things I want at stores and I don't have to feel guilty about spending cash that could have gone towards student loans.

    Good thing they don't make student loan gift cards or that would kill a lot of my fun.

  22. Katie

    I like gift cards and cash! Every Christmas my dad gives me a gift card to Kroger. I know that I am getting it so I spend that weeks grocery money on Xmas presents. It really helps out.

  23. Great points. When I get married I don't expect a lot of guests but we would love cash. We already have most of what we need as we already live together and we both want to pay down my girlfriends student loans. I don't think it is a bad gift at all!

  24. I actually like getting gift cards and cash! However, I prefer not to give them if possible. Particularly cash. Contradictory to be sure, but it is what it is!

  25. I love getting cash and gift cards as gifts and I frequently give them as gifts as well. I do personalize how I give the gift however. I just got tired of seeing something I had spent money on, never get used and it would make me so sad for the loss of my money, now I know they will use my gift each and every time.

  26. I actually really like both options. I actually find them quite personal. For example, my sister in law really needed a new dining table. For their wedding we gave them money specifically for that. We obviously couldn't buy them the whole thing but we definitely helped put a dent into what they had to save. It worked out great.

  27. Cash as a gift is fine by me. I don't know if it's not considered tactful. If someone is offended that I gave them cash, they should let me know and I'll give them nothing the next year!

  28. I have only given cash once as a wedding gift -- and my card said, "what's better than a gift from your registry? not having to pay any tasting fees today" because we were all going wine tasting that afternoon. It was appreciated.

  29. I think it really depends on a situation/receiver of a gift. I love to give hand-picked gifts but we often give gift cards or cash. And man,I do like receiving cash as a gift! We only give personal gifts to people we know very well-family, best friends. If we are not too close, gift card is my first choice. And for the weddings I prefer the registries (unless it's my best friend again).

  30. Anthony Thompson

    The reason some people may object to gift cards is because of recent scam reports associated with them. As far as cash goes, it's not a problem for me. Cash is king.

  31. I love getting cash, though I confess that I am less likely to spend it on something I want... I usually put it in savings or something else boring and pragmatic.

    That's why I prefer gift cards... as long as they're to the right store, I have to splurge on myself. 🙂

  32. While cash is awesome, I am compelled to completely disagree about one point: Mommies (and daddies) would be VERY thankful for the gift card for the local pub... Just make sure to provide them with babysitting too.

    As a parent of a toddler, any night out is the best gift ever.

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