I'm not sure when gift cards became so controversial. I've been a fan for a number of years, as have most of the people in my circle, but from things I've been reading lately, they clearly have their detractors. There are some, usually those associated with big-name credit cards, that have ugly associated fees. In many states, but not California, they expire after a year or two. Some people don't really consider them gifts at all, but rather, a thoughtless cop-out.
By definition, opinions are neither right nor wrong, but they may be agreed or disagreed with, and I think that last sentiment is a bit harsh. There are times when it's not the perfect choice, and ideally it's not the only thing you'd give to a close family member or dear friend; that is, someone you really should know well enough to be able to choose something to their liking.
But in my experience in both giving and receiving gift cards, I've found them to be highly preferable for long-distance gift exchanges in particular - faster and cheaper to ship, especially - as long as you make sure that the card is for a store or activity located near the recipient. (For instance, don't send that gift card for In-n-Out Burger to someone in New Jersey.) If redeeming the card's not feasible, I would agree that it's pretty thoughtless. They're also excellent for stocking stuffers or little extra add-ons to larger gifts.
But when you've chosen a gift card for someone based on your knowledge of their tastes and things they enjoy doing, I strongly disagree that such a selection is "thoughtless." My family is full of eager readers and music lovers with rather particular tastes, and you can never go wrong giving any of gift cards for bookstores or iTunes. Granted, there are people who don't especially enjoy shopping, but they might like gift cards for activities - restaurants, movies, theme parks, even bowling alleys. I suspect that if there's really nothing that a recipient would welcome a gift card for, he or she is probably going to be pretty difficult to please with any gift at all.
It's been suggested that when people go to a store with a gift card, they spend more overall than they would otherwise, and I don't doubt that. I usually do myself, at least with store gift cards; not so much with the ones for restaurants or entertainment. Particularly if the gift card is for a store that I visit regularly and I have things I'd buy there anyway, I really do look at the gift card as "free money" to enable me to get something more before I have to kick in my own cash. And that's why I consider gift cards a gift that gives more than once; the opportunity to choose how I'll redeem it is the second gift. As for gift cards for dining out and entertainment, seeing the show or going to the game is the real gift.
We sent gift cards to some of our faraway friends this holiday season, and tucked them into stockings for friends and family nearby. Among the presents I received this Christmas were gift cards for bookstores, coffeeshops, food, music, and a spa, and I'm looking forward to using them all.
Gift cards - are you for or against?