License to spend: Why gift cards are better than money


I stumbled upon a long-forgotten Starbucks gift card the other day and rejoiced. Here was $10-worth of coffee and treats -- luxuries I no longer allow myself in the name of frugality -- just begging to be spent. And a week before payday, too. Bonus!

Why is finding a gift-card better than finding that proverbial $5 in your pants pocket? Because unlike the five-spot, you can't do anything BUT spend the gift card. No saving it. No redeeming it for cash. No trading it in. You're forced to go out and spend it on what it was intended for. Coffee. Books. Music. Home electronics.

When you've taught yourself to do without, it's a sinful luxury. Not to mention an exciting taste of the way things used to be. For example, I long ago weaned myself off the expensive habit of buying new hardcover books. When something comes out I want, I either put my name on the list for it at the library or borrow it from a less frugal friend. But with a $30 gift certificate to Borders..well? My hand is forced. And doesn't it feel wrong, oh, so deliciously wrong to walk out of there with the latest bestseller in a crisp paper bag? Oh yeah, baby!

As we've reported here on WalletPop, gift cards are growing in popularity. Many retailers are also doing away with pesky expiration dates as well. With the economy going further south every day, I predict these little squares of plastic will take on a new cache. A license to spend, if you will.

So go ahead and give your loved one a vicarious thrill. Hand over that $50 gift certificate to Victoria's Secret or Best Buy and bid them spend, SPEND! On whatever they want!

This time next year, they'll thank you for the experience.