TORONTO - It came housed in a tin adorned with penguins — and couldn't have been more timely.
Cait Flanders said the Walmart gift card she received from her mother last Christmas was a pleasant and welcome surprise as she prepared to relocate to her new apartment.
"I was moving out on Jan. 1, so it helped me to buy everything that you don't think of... like cleaning supplies and things like that," said the 27-year-old Toronto resident, who was living at the time in her hometown of Victoria.
Flanders is the writer behind personal finance blog Blonde on a Budget, where she has been documenting her journey of tackling debt and becoming more mindful of her money.
She welcomes gift cards because they often allow her to save money.
"If someone gave me a Starbucks gift card, then if I want Starbucks once a week, now I don't have to think about it for a month or two."
When Flanders does purchase gift cards for friends and family, she tries to tailor her purchases for places she knows they frequent and enjoy.
By shelling out on good-as-cash plastic, she hopes to help recipients indulge in a treat for themselves while also offering a little relief to their budgets. That's part of what's prompting her to consider buying her 19-year-old sister a mall gift card for Christmas.
"There's always the trouble with any gift card that someone's going to end up just buying some useless thing that they don't really need," she said. "But I know for my sister, she's really into fashion. I know that she would go out and find something that she would definitely wear or use."
Few can argue with the ease and practicality of gift cards. Besides being a ubiquitous fixture in checkout aisles, they're a seemingly fail-safe option when gift-givers are unsure of what to buy — thus putting the purchasing power in the recipient's hands.
But a time of year where the emphasis is on homecooked meals and handcrafted items, some may see the cards of convenience through a slightly different prism — a shortcut to selecting a more specialized holiday gift.
Etiquette expert Karen Cleveland said she can appreciate the two schools of thought on gift cards. One way to bridge the divide is to consider adding a more personal touch by packaging the present as part of a theme, she noted.
For example, Cleveland suggested a gift card for the liquor or beer store could be placed in a martini shaker along with a favourite cocktail recipe written on a notecard
A similar approach could be taken for purchasing presents for foodies or those who love a good brew. A gift card for a recipient's favourite restaurant could be placed inside a cookbook, or items related to coffee or tea could be paired with a card loaded with credit to spend at their favourite cafe, she noted.
"There are ways to package it that just take a little bit of time and a little bit of effort and maybe a tiny bit more cost, but that just pull it together in a much more impactful, memorable way," said Cleveland, writer of the column Finishing School.
"I think it's about making it more of a special gift. It's one thing to include a gift card in its original little envelope. It's quite another to put some thought behind it and package it in a beautiful, interesting way."
For those who find themselves in possession of a gift card they have no use for or designated for a restaurant or retailer they may not like or frequent, there are dedicated sites which make it easier to part ways with unwanted cards.
Frances Ho said she had an epiphany around four years ago when she found herself with a wallet full of gift cards for specific stores where she couldn't find anything she really wanted to purchase. She sought to pinpoint an easier way to exchange the gift cards for cash or for other cards she'd be more inclined to use.
Ho is co-founder and COO of CardSwap, and this Christmas will mark the fourth in operation for the Canadian website.
Users selling cards have the choice of accepting points which are used to swap for other gift cards, receiving a cheque or being paid through PayPal, said Ho. Individuals can also convert unused gift cards for charitable donations, with CardSwap issuing payment for up to 92 per cent of the face value.
"Sometimes, when you receive a gift card, it just may not be the right place for you and so you just want to swap it out for your favourite store or your favourite restaurant," said Ho.
"I think when you give a gift card out, the thought is there already; and if it isn't the correct gift card, I think the person that gave it to you would rather you use it at a place that you would go to and really enjoy," she added.
"The point of giving a gift card is so that a person is able to splurge a little or treat (themselves); so I think it's perfectly fine to swap it for something you're actually going to use."
Even if the item received isn't the ideal fit or necessarily suited to the individual's taste, Cleveland said it's still important that recipients of any present are appreciative of the gesture itself.
"When I hear stories of people who sound indignant about the gift that they've received, even if it's a gift card, I'm sure that gift card was purchased with a lovely intent," she said.
LOOK: 26 gift ideas that everyone will like:
<em><a href="http://www.rona.ca/en/cardboard-kid-armchair-05095004--1?select_store=55130">Cardboard Kid Armchair</a>, available at Rona, $3. </em> Introduce your kids to the art of DIY with this super cute cardboard armchair.
B: Bento Boxes
<em><a href="http://www.harabuhouse.com/item/TAKENAKA-BENTO-BOX---SMALL/242/pg">Takenaka Bento Box</a>, available at Harabu House, $24. </em> These mini Takenaka Bento Boxes come in 10 different colours and are microwave and dishwasher safe.
<a href="http://www.anthropologie.com/anthro/product/home-new/26188672.jsp">Circling Swallows Clock</a>, available at Anthropologie, $158. Forget having a traditional clock, this clock allows you to design your own template and adjust sizes (but we do recommend placing this on a coloured wall).
D: Dog Treat Maker
<em><a href="http://www.petsmart.com/product/index.jsp?productId=16069596">Sunbeam Pets Dog Treat Maker</a>, available at PetSmart, $30.</em> Spoil your dog with homemade goodies with this easy-to-use treat maker. This device also comes with healthy treat recipes.
E: Eye Mask
<em><a href="http://www.potterybarn.com/products/faux-fur-ombre-eye-mask/">Faux Fur Eye Mask</a>, available at Pottery Barn, $20. </em> Pamper yourself this holiday season with this soft and fuzzy eye mask with silk fabric underneath.
F: Fondue Set
<em><a href="http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/Gifts/product/056975016577-item.html?ref=google:sayt">Blue Sierra Fondue Set</a>, available at Indigo, $80.</em> With six forks, this set is best suited for meat fondues but can be easily be used for cheese or chocolate by removing the ring.
G: Gym Bag
<em><a href="http://www.mec.ca/AST/ShopMEC/Packs/ShoulderBags/PRD~5026-308/mec-georgette-tote-womens.jsp">Georgette Tote</a>, available at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, $44.</em> This cute, all-purpose double-strapped shoulder bag has four pockets on the inside and open pockets for bottles (to prevent spillage!). It also includes a spot across the top for your yoga mat.
<em><a href="http://www.gentec-intl.com/product/earbuds-red--images4irr/">Klipsch Overhead Image One Earphones with Bluetooth</a>, available at various retail locations, $100-120.</em> We love the pop of the red, and these headphones by Klipsch feature a weather-resistant design for outdoor use, as well as a microphone that works with Apple devices.
<em><a href="http://instawatch.may28th.me/">InstaWATCH</a>, available online at InstaWATCH/May28th, $44.</em> Take your favourite Instagram pictures with you — wherever you go. The instaWATCH lets you customize your own watch face by choosing your Instagram photos and a strap colour.
<em><a href="http://www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/shop">Message On A Bottle</a>, available at the Gardiner Shop at the Gardiner Museum, From $35. </em> Send your favourite message with these adorable ceramic jars by Beth Mueller, available at the Gardiner Shop at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, which can be used for decorative or practical purposes. They also come in several sizes.
<em>KitchenAid Stand Mixer, available at various Canadian retailers, $550.</em> It's an iconic appliance that never seems to get tired — and we love how you can pick a colour that matches your personal style. This stand mixer by KitchenAid includes a handle-bar steel bowl and tilt-back functionally.
<em><a href="http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/10222388/#/10222388">KOPPAR Table Lamp</a>, available at Ikea, $20. </em> Add a pop of colour to your desk this season with these super trendy glass lamps from Ikea. They are also available in dark yellow, grey and olive green.
<em><a href="http://www.anthropologie.com/anthro/product/home-office/21306113.jsp">Tree Monogram</a>, available at Anthropologie, $25. </em> Great for a mantle or entrance hall, these monograms (sold separately) also make a great desk accessory.
N: Novelty Pot Holder
<em><a href="http://www.dannabananas.com/hot-heads-4.html">Pac-Man Hot Heads</a>, available at Danna Bananas, $20. </em> Don't ever burn yourself again. These fun pot holders are designed to grab trays and handles — and are much cuter than oven mitts.
O: Orange Juice Maker
<em><a href="http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/breville-electric-citrus-press/?pkey=e%7Corange%7C59%7Cbest%7C0%7C1%7C24%7C%7C23&cm_src=PRODUCTSEARCH||NoFacet-_-NoFacet-_-Feature_Recipe_Rule-_-">Breville Electric Citrus Press</a>, available at Williams-Sonoma, $200. </em> This motorized juicer is the perfect gift for someone who loves to start their mornings healthier (or plans to come 2013). You can also juice grapefruits, lemons and limes.
<em><a href="http://www.thebay.com/eng/home-cookware-Chili_Red_2_Qt_Saucepan-thebay/266579">Dansk Saucepan</a>, available at The Bay, $90. </em> The colour and goregous design makes this one sauce pan that we would love to add to our kitchen repertoire.
Q: Quiche Pan
<a href="http://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/1/1/110063-nordicware-mini-tarts-quiche-pan.html">NordicWare Mini Tarts and Quiche Pan</a>, available at Bed, Bath & Beyond, $13. Get cooking with these mini quiche pans that can also be used as a tart pan.
<em><a href="http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/00238969/">TRÅDKLÖVER</a>, available at Ikea, $80. </em> It was hard to choose just one, but these thick-cut rugs are perfect for warming your toes.
<em> <a href="http://www.thebay.com/eng/handbagsjewellery-accessories-sunglasses-round-L112S__Sunglasses-thebay/250160">Lacoste L112S Sunglasses</a>, available at The Bay, $170. </em> Ideal for the winter: white sunglasses with oval-shaped lenses.
T: Tea-Infused Chocolate
<a href="http://sloanetea.com/"> Sloane Fine Tea Merchants Amethyst Collection</a>, available from <a href="http://sloanetea.com/">sloanetea.com</a>, $30 (nine pieces). Now you can eat your favourite tea. The handmade (and gorgeous) Amethyst Collection features nine unique chocolate truffles paired with Sloane teas.
<em><a href="http://www.rockprettybaby.ca/bambu-kids-spork.html">Bambu Kids Spork</a>, available at RockPrettyBaby.ca, $6. </em> Teach your kids about going green with this BPA-free spork — or you can also just use this multifunctional utensil yourself.
<em><a href="http://www.canadiantire.ca/AST/browse/3/HouseHome/Vacuums/RobotVacuums/PRDOVR~0436300P/Roomba+560%2B565+Vacuum.jsp?locale=en">Roomba Vaccum</a>, available at Canadian Tire, $450. </em> The epitome of convenience? The Roomba robot vacuum is able to work one room at a time (both carpet and hardwood) and even automatically returns to its home base to dock and recharge.
W: Waterproof Camera
<em><a href="http://www.bestbuy.ca/en-CA/product/go-pro-gopro-hd-hero3-waterproof-high-definition-sports-helmet-camera-white-edition-chdhe-301/10204282.aspx?path=5e51ed76ab56ec3ee5fe4d5be7de880cen02">GoPro HD Hero3 Waterproof High-Definition Sports And Helmet Camera</a>, available at Best Buy, $300.</em> It just looks cool, doesn't it? For your vacation, don't forget this cool waterproof camera by GoPro, perfect for all those underwater action shots (and possible stingray photobombs).
X: XL Pillows
<em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/The-Total-Body-Support-Pillow/dp/B002ERD5QI/ref=sr_1_3?s=bedbath&ie=UTF8&qid=1353365832&sr=1-3">The Total Body Support Pillow</a>, available on Amazon, $100. </em> We don't think we need to explain this one — everyone needs a giant pillow for themselves.
<em><a href="http://www.princelionheart.com/site_can/p_yeti_7620_can.html">Yetitoy by Prince Lionheart</a>, available at Prince Lionheart, $140. </em> No, we haven't forgotten the kids. The Yetitoy, a ride-on fantasy creature features big, button wheels and is made out of rubber — perfect for all surfaces.
Z: Zoo Back Packs
<em><a href="http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/toys/Zoo-Pack-Owl/879674002180-item.html?ikwid=skip+hop&ikwsec=Toys">Zoo Pack Owl By Skip</a> Hop, available at Indigo, $25. </em> Okay, and we did save another one for the kids. These tiny little backpacks come in several animal prints including bees, giraffes and cats — and are way too adorable to allow anyone to forget their homework.