I know how it happens, that little kid people have been buying gifts for over the years, and who used to jump up and down at a stuffed animal or fire truck or blocks or books, hits the double digits age. Adults know, from experience, that it is difficult to buy for teens and tweens, that they are probably chasing ever changing trends of which the non-parent is unaware, or that they have particular tastes that are as fiercely adhered to as some fundamental religions, “But I don’t like that. No one wears that.”
In the old days when adults got tired of trying to figure out what the kid will actually like an Aunt or Uncle would get one of those cool money cards and put cold hard cash in it for youngin’ to, “Buy yourself something.” No further instructions necessary. Now, when adults transition from giving the nicely wrapped and thoughtful shopped-for gifts, they skip the cash and pick up a gift card at the mall, or grocery store, or convenience store or almost anywhere these days, for a store that they’ve heard that teens like.
But I’m over it.
Here are the reasons why I will not give gift cards anymore, and why I will ask my loved ones not to give gift cards to my kids this holiday season.
Disclaimer: There may be some kids who do not have the issues I’m going to talk about below. My decision is based on what I’ve seen my kids and some of their friends do.
- They Don’t Use the Cards
The gift cards are sometimes not used for weeks, months, years, or not at all. Kids collect them, forget about them, take months to decide what to do with them, or lose them. Your hard earned money is doing nothing, except contributing to the bottom line of the store.
2. They Teach Kids to Spend Money Only at Expensive, Specialty Stores.
You are telling a kid that they must go into a certain store and buy something only from that store. And if they don’t have enough on their gift card to buy a $60 sweater, they have to find some way to make up the difference — Mom?
Why, I ask you, are we encouraging kids — minors with no jobs — to buy a $60 sweater? Why are we normalizing it?
Because it benefits the stores.
It gets the kids in the stores where they play all the cool music (my sister calls it jeans-buying music) and then they want to come back. And, because many of these cards can be bought elsewhere, adults might not know that their $25 dollar gift card merely gives the kid a discount on a $60 sweater.
And even if the kids would consider buying elsewhere, where they might find the same or similar sweater for less — they can’t — because your gift card only allows them to go to the $60 sweater store.
So, if you want them to have a $60 sweater, buy it for them. You’ll be the favorite Aunt/Uncle and if they don’t like it, they can exchange it. But please don’t get them used to shopping in stores their parents can’t afford. Don’t let them feel entitled to it. Don’t normalize it.
3. Gift Cards to Discount Stores Aren’t Much Better
Giving them a card to a discount store doesn’t always help. See number 2, the kids have already been socialized that it’s cool to buy at the other stores. “I hate that [insert discount or department] store” and “I don’t like anything here” are words I’ve heard uttered when we are barely through the front doors. When a kid feels that way before even looking at the stuff I guarantee they won’t find anything there and your gift card will sit unused, see Number 1. Oddly enough, if I buy something from Marshall’s or TJMaxx and bring it home and put it in my closet, then it is suddenly wearable. They borrow it and I never see it again. (I have my own marketing tricks, thank you very much. . . heh heh heh). My girls are currently wearing two of my jackets — one from Kohls and another that I got from a Thrift store. But if they had a gift card to those stores it would sit unused.
The shopping experience at less expensive and more inclusive stores is quite different — there is merchandise not just for teens and gasp — they see people buying it that are not their age, or gender, or size, or their perceived economic group (teens tend to believe they are wealthy). They refuse to do it. The gift cards to the discount stores simple tell them that they aren’t allowed shop at their favorite stores, and that makes them angry.
My girls are sitting on Target and Old Navy cards that are almost a year old now.
4. It Normalizes Use of Plastic
I know, I know, we are in a paperless society. I use my credit, debit cards all the time. It’s convenient. But I’m grown. And I have other bills to pay and in every job I’ve ever had I got paid in money, not plastic. And if you look at any consumer debt article it will talk about people, largely Americans, reliance on credit, specifically on credit cards to buy things they cannot afford.
Gift cards now look and feel just like credit cards. If that’s all your kid gets for birthdays or Christmas, he or she will start to normalize paying for things with plastic and without thinking about how much they spent, or what they are spending this money on. Instead, if they think at all, they ponder only,
“Do I have room on this card?”
Scary. This is not something kids should be conditioned to think. As an adult, if you find yourself asking this qquestion while you are shoppingvor out to dinner, you have some issues.
When this kid is finally old enough to get a real credit card — and at stores they can get them at 18 years old, they have shopped for years with plastic without consequence. A recipe for disaster.
You have to learn how to manage money before you learn how to manage debt. Gift cards train kids to manage plastic.
Notably, people who have debt or spending problems are often encouraged to use cash exclusively even just as an exercise for a defined amount of time. This is so that they see where their money goes and it is obvious when it’s gone. I’ve also heard that people tend to spend less and more thoughtfully when they use cash and have to see it dwindle away. I think teens should be encouraged to spend with cash, just like the credit-challenged — so they have a visual of their spending habits — and limitations.
5. Gift Cards Discourage Saving
When you give that store gift card, the kid is unable to put money away for a rainy day, or plan to work to add to it in order to buy that big ticket item that is so important to him/her but that is only sold at a different store, or available on Craigslist or eBay.
In this sad economy the kid might only make a penny in interest if the money sits in a bank. But the gift cards? They make nothing at all and some even lose their value over time. And, again, see Number 1. They might sit unused or lost.
6. Gift Cards Take Away Spending Ability and Decisions
If the kid has gotten a handful of great store gift cards at Christmas and then their friends call them and ask if they want to go to the movies, or out to eat or — gag me — Starbucks — (again, the prices and marketing of Starbucks to people without jobs is a topic for another post), this kid has no money to do so. Then it’s all, “Mom, can I have $20?” while they are sitting on $200 worth of gift cards. Whether or not Mom or Dad pony up the money, the kid can’t pay his or her own way.
So what happens is, kids believe they are entitled to use or hoard their gift cards on speciality items of their choice and without regard to price, but all other expenses they incur are the obligation of parents.
Or, more importantly, the kid is not able to designate it for use toward a wonderful experience they hope to do — something small like being able to go to a game and buy food at the snack bar with friends or something big, like saving for that trip to Italy that is offered at the school. And, they can’t donate to charity or use any part of it to buy a gift for someone else.
Sure, if they received an actual gift they couldn’t put it in the bank either, but they wouldn’t be told to shop without thought.
7. Visa/Mastercard Gift Cards Aren’t Much Better Either
See number 1 (they often aren’t used). See Number 4 (kids are encouraged to buy things with a credit card). See Number 5, they can’t save it, See number 6, though it gives them more spending decisions, they still can’t use it at a fair, or to buy something they are selling at school as a fundraiser or at a snack bar, and they probably can’t decide to use the money to pay for something themselves — like their prom tickets. Many schools are switching payments with cards, but not always.
Plus, you’ve paid a fee of $4 or $5 dollars that goes to the company. This is for the privilege of giving a gift of plastic to a kid. Wouldn’t you rather give the full $30 to the kid rather than a $25 gift card plus a $4 surcharge to the company?
8. Giving Cash is Not Tacky
There are times when giving cash is a no-no — to a date, to a judge, to a addict. But to a kid? It’s perfectly okay. As I said in the beginning, this was the norm for years — Uncle Ben would hand out money envelopes. Grandpa would sneak a kid a $10. But that changed. I believe it was just a marketing thing. The stores want us to think we shouldn’t do it, and that the kids would rather get a $25 gift card to a store than $25 in cash. But see 1 and 2, that benefits the stores. When we have been convinced that giving cash is bad, but giving a gift card for the same amount is somehow better, we have directed business right where they want it — in their store. And, with their jeans-buying music and slick ads with gorgeous, young, thin models, they have created a loyalty to that store. If we gave cash, the kid could shop where ever he or she wants — even unwisely, or save, or use it for spending money.
9. Giving a Gift Card to a Store That Is Beyond Their Parents’ Means Can Cause Problems
Think about that. Using extremes, say you give a kid a gift card to a Luis Vuitton store. He/she buys some beautiful leather expensive thing. Loves the store, the service, how special he/she felt going in, the looks of approval when he/she carries the real LV bag. You’ve now trained a kid to only want real designer items, that may cost as much as her parents car and mortgage payments combined. But the kid doesn’t appreciate how much the thing costs, and when they need a new backpack or wallet, they aren’t going to want to go to Target or Marshalls, because they’ve now been trained, socialized to buy new designer items in specialty stores. This, even though they have no job and they are items that their parents could not or would not buy for them — or even for themselves.
It works the same with the $60 sweater from the trendy store. Let the kids save, combine cash they have received as a gift or earned babysitting and buy that sweater if they so choose, but don’t make them buy it, don’t train them to buy it, especially if it’s something their parents cannot afford. Teaching them that it is perfectly normal to to buy a $60 sweater when her parents can’t afford such items, or who have debt problems of their own, is kind of unfair. The next time the kid needs a new shirt, they will only want to shop at the designer stores, and it’s the parents that have to say no.
If you want to give an expensive, special present, please just buy the gift. Don’t gift the “shopping experience” that the parent cannot sustain.
10. A Word about Victoria’s Secret
Yes, the catalog has (or had) clothes. And some clothes are in stores. And they have very nice $60 bras that go on sale twice a year. And they have cute underwear and $75 bottles of perfume and also have the $10 lip gloss, and key chains, and body spray, etc. But unless you are comfortable with a 12 year old girl combing through panty bins looking through bejewelled thongs, crotchless or furred panties alongside grown ass women and sometimes men, you might want to skip sending a kid to that store. One of my daughters got a Victoria’s Secret Gift Card and I told her to to wait until the sale to use it. When she saw all the people digging through the bins of panties (all types of panties thrown in together — the regular ones and the sex clothes) she said, “This makes me uncomfortable,” and left the store. We ended up quickly buying perfume just to use the gift card. Of course, I have other daughters who got used to buying in there with their gift cards and don’t want to even look anywhere else. Sigh.
Call me old fashioned, but I think that when a woman is at a point in life when she needs or wants to buy sexy lingerie, she should be old enough to pay for it herself, not with a gift card from Uncle Bob.
In addition, somehow, the brilliant marketing people at Victoria’s Secret have convinced teen girls that paying twice as much for a T-shirt or sweatshirt that says PINK than they would for a T-shirt or sweatshirt that says literally anything else is perfectly normal.
Perhaps as adults, we shouldn’t encourage that.
I’ve decided that if I’m going to purchase an expensive sweatshirt or hoodie for my kids, it will be one with a college name or their high school spiritwear. The girls really like them also, and the inflated price is at least going to a good cause. Plus the girls are advertising something meaningful, rather than simply the word “PINK,” a brand for Victoria’s Secret.
Just to be clear . . .
I don’t mean to sound preachy, this is from experience. I’m frustrated.
I’m so tired of my kids not appreciating the cost of items, or their gifts, that a splurge is a splurge or special gift, not an entitlement, and that if someone thought enough of them to give them a gift card, they should use it. I’m tired of my kids complaining that they don’t have any clothes or money and asking me to buy them something, yet refusing to use their Target, Old Navy, or Macy’s Gift Cards because they don’t like those stores. I’m tired of the Christmas lists that simply list stores that the kids like to shop in but that I can’t afford. If they got cash they could still shop in those stores with cash, or window shop and choose to buy elsewhere.
Or, have actual presents to open on Christmas morning.
Just Me With . . . cold hard cash, but not enough.
And by way of full disclosure, I think all but one of my bras are from Victoria’s Secret. And I have one purple shirt that says, PINK, inexplicably. But I’m grown and know how to shop for sales, and, in past years have used gift cards to purchase my goodies. About two years ago I asked my family not to give them to me anymore. And I no longer wear the PINK tee. I do, however, wear t-shirts with my son’s college name on it and the names of my daughters’ championship sports teams.