A Thoughtless Gift, More Personal than Cash

My friend Daryl turned 40 yesterday. I gave him an Amazon gift card. My mother turned <redacted> last week. I gave her an Amazon gift card. I gave my youngest brother and my dad Amazon gift cards for Christmas. I am pretty sure I also gave my dad an Amazon gift card for his birthday in October.

I admire people who possess the talent for gift-giving. Some people have an eye for the perfect token of admiration, that small, specific little something that stands as evidence of attention to the friendship. I am not one of those people.

I’m not lazy. I want to give the right gift. I want the gift to be meaningful. I want the gift to be interesting and valued and evoke some special memory in the recipient years later. I want the gift I give to do all these things, but, most of all, I want my gift to be useful.

I used to think that giving gift cards was the least thoughtful gift a person could give. A gift card was an admission of failure, an acknowledgment that I could not find anything suitable in the amount of time I gave myself to look for that special token. Just barely more personal than giving someone cash, which, back in the day, meant you hadn’t even bothered to leave your house.

Of course, these days, if I gave someone cash, it means I made a special trip to the credit union or ATM since I never carry cash.

I often give Amazon gift cards but feel a bit conflicted every time. I like Amazon gift cards. They are useful and valued and allow purchase of interesting things. I give Amazon gift cards because they allow a person to get whatever they want and not have to suffer covert trips through the Walmart return line in the middle of night. I give Amazon gift cards because I like getting them. I like having credit in my Amazon and iTunes accounts which can be used at a moment’s notice.

Still, I often worry that others might feel I am devaluing the relationship, that somehow the Amazon card represents a shortcut in our friendship that bespeaks a laxness or lazy inattention.

I worry too much it turns out. My friend Daryl got at least 5 other Amazon gift cards. Every single card he opened had a card from Amazon. It was like opening a treasure chest of virtual goods. He was happy. I was happy. If my gift was the lazy fruit of thoughtlessness, then everyone else was lazy and thoughtless too.

Instead, I realized an important truth. Amazon and iTunes gift cards are the new social currency. We don’t give gifts as much anymore. People don’t really need or want stuff. So, instead, we give them little pieces of plastic that represent a kind of pretend money which they can use, if they want, to purchase invisible goods.

Daryl probably has a long list of nifty things he plans to buy. Some of them are probably visible. He is a great collector of books, games and other interesting things. As for me, I collect invisible things — music, eBooks, apps. On birthdays and holidays, I hope for the little envelope with the Amazon or iTunes card inside. It saves me a trip to the store to convert my cash into single-store credit. This is the new economy. I don’t want money unless it is the kind I can spend easily at Amazon or Apple.

What do you think? Are gift cards a cop out or a super-thoughtful way to say you care?