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Being as this is the holiday season and shopping malls are bursting at the seams and department stores such as Target (pronounced Tah-Jay in my neck of the woods), Kohl’s and Kmart have lines that seem to stretch to eternity and aisles crowded with shoppers fingering every piece of merchandise they can get their hands on, purchasing a gift card is a relatively good idea to help speed you on your way during these hectic times.

Besides, we’ve probably all been faced with a similar dilemma when it comes to getting gifts for someone. We all probably know somebody that is “impossible to buy” for. Either they seem to have everything already or their tastes are so far off the mark that whatever you get them will sit and gather dust or be exchanged for something that they really wanted. By getting them a gift card, they’re free to choose whatever gift might suit their fancy and keep you off the hook for getting them that hideous orange and purple sweater that looked so good in the store but will never see the light of day and is destined to be either re-gifted or spend a lonely lifetime in the back of someone’s closet.

Location, Location, Location

Usually gift cards are found right by the check out aisle in your favorite store. They usually come with decorations depending on the time of year but Christmas and Hanukkah themes are especially popular during this time of year. As of this writing, gift cards aren't generally available for purchase via the internet but as more and more of them are being sold, some retailers are offering them up on their websites. Such is progress.

How do they work?

Gift cards usually don’t come with a set amount. Once you pick one out, you tell the cashier how much you want it to be worth. They in turn will scan it and the amount will be credited to the balance on the card and added to the purchase price of anything else that might have struck your eye. You are then free to give the card to anybody that you like.

Denominations

In my experience, gift cards usually come in with five dollar minimum denominations. I suppose there are no limits to the amount you can purchase on one but if past history is any indicator and depending on who the recipient is going to be, ten, twenty five, fifty and one hundred dollar values seem to be the most popular.

How do I use one?

Let us suppose that you were the lucky recipient of a gift card. You’d make your way to the store at which it was purchased and proceed to shop to your hearts delight. Once it came to check out and pay for any items that you bought, you’d whip at your gift card and the cashier will scan it and deduct it from the total balance on the card.

For example, let’s say that the gift card had a face value of twenty five dollars. After getting your items rung up by the cashier, your total comes to thirty dollars. You could present the gift card and only have to pay the additional five dollars out of your own pocket.

On the other side of the coin, let’s say your purchase comes to only twenty dollars. The cashier would scan your gift card and you wouldn’t have to lay out anything from your own pocket and you’d still have five dollars left on it to play with. There is a catch though. As far as I know, even though gift cards act like cash, they can’t be redeemed for it. You’re left with a five dollar credit balance on the card for later use and the issuing company still has five bucks in the bank. That being said, the issuing company cannot count the balance as income until the card is either used or expires.

Do they expire?

At first, gift cards, as long as they maintained a positive balance, had no expiration date. However, after they started to gain in popularity and began to be used more often, companies found themselves having to keep track of more and more gift cards that had small balances. The record keeping was actually getting to be more expensive than the worth of the cards themselves and many companies today are putting a time limit on the life of the card. I believe the average shelf life these days is two years. Another little ploy that is gaining in popularity is the practice of "devaluing" or decreasing the amount of the gift card as time elapses and the card sits and gathers dust. So that means that twenty five dollar gift card you got as a stocking stuffer last year might only be worth twenty dollars by the time you use it and will keep decreasing in value as more time passes. Sort of a "reverse interest" if you ask me.

Pros and Cons

Well, as I mentioned earlier, gift cards are the perfect gift for those hard to buy for types. It kinda takes you off the hook and allows them to choose their own gift. Besides that, if you’re a klutz like yours truly, there is no wrapping involved. Just sign em’, stick ‘em in an envelope, seal it and you’re done. Another plus is that they can be used on any item in the store. This is especially good for those folks who like to wait for the big sales to buy the things that they want or need.

On the downside, there is that expiration date thing. They become worthless if they aren’t used in a set period of time. Oh, and since they act like cash, they should be treated the same way. We all know the old saying “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” For the most part, that’s especially true of our friend the gift card, if you lose one, you’re out of luck. There are however some companies that will replace one if it gets lost. I'm not sure how they going about doing that but I'm pretty sure it invloves jumping through hoops and a lot of red tape.

On a personal note, I’m not much of a fan of being the recipient of a gift card. To me, it’s rather impersonal and I hate to shop anyway so it sorta defeats its own purpose.

I am however, an avid fan of giving them as gifts.

Life is fraught with such contradictions.

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