11/27/2012 01:36 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

Holiday Gift Cards: Thoughtful Touches Can Make Gift Cards Practical And Personal


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.

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