Santa's bringing a gas gift card this year - oh joy of the season!

Imagine it's Christmas morning. You rush downstairs and first check your Christmas stocking to see what Santa put inside -- a gasoline gift card. Surprise! Merry Christmas!

In what is now an ongoing joke in my household, I buy my wife a $10 Christmas gift card at one of the finer stores in town: Longs, Safeway, McDonald's or Burger King. I see practicality, she sees a cheapskate. Now, with the economy in a recession, it looks like more people are coming around to the practical view, despite the lack of Christmas morning excitement they produce.

This holiday season, more gift card recipients plan to use them for necessities and not on luxuries, according to a new study released by Bankrate, Inc.

However, fewer people plan on buying gift cards this year, the study found. According to an Archstone Consulting survey, Americans will spend $25 billion on gift cards, down 25% from 2007.

Gift card sales are expected to dip with the economy, said Lauren Coady, manager of consumer research at National Research Network, which conducted a 2008 gift card trends survey with The Harman Group. "Overall, 60% are still planning to purchase at least one gift card this holiday season," Coady said in the press release. "But roughly one-third of consumers are planning to buy fewer gift cards and/or spend less on gift cards this holiday season due to the current economic situation."

The study also found that nearly a third of gift card recipients tend to redeem them on necessities. Nothing like getting a fast-food restaurant gift card under the tree, right? Instead of Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's, discount stores like Costco and Wal-Mart are likely to see increases in gift card sales.

Everyone enjoys unwrapping that special Christmas present under the tree, but for the perfect gift that you can't find, a gift card can't be beat. While maybe a little impersonal -- OK, a lot impersonal -- gift cards take the anxiety out of choosing a gift and let the receiver pick what they really want. They are popular. Fifty-five percent of consumers told the National Retail Federation they want to receive gift cards this holiday season -- more than any other type of gift.

Gift cards used to commonly have expiration dates, but many retailers have gotten rid of that hassle. However, some credit-card branded gift cards, such as for Visa and American Express, charge a monthly service fee if they haven't been used in 12 months. The credit card gift cards also charge fees from $3.95 to $4.95 to use them.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job hunt at

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