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4 mistakes you're making when buying gift cards

Tips to make everyone on your list feel special

Credit: Getty Images / triloks

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There are people that are tough to shop for—parents, grandparents, little sisters (are dolls still acceptable if she's 25?!). And then there are people straight-up impossible to shop for. They don't buy anything, they don't have any discernible hobbies, and they return everybody else's gifts to the store.

I think we've all had to shop for this person before, and while it's tempting to throw your hands up and say "forget it, they're getting a gift card," most people do prefer an actual gift. Still, with just a few extra minutes of extra consideration, even a gift card can make that person feel important to you.

Here are all the ways you can mess up a gift card, and which ones to buy instead.

You're too impersonal

I have this cousin, and God help me if she ever reads this, but every Christmas she gives me a gift card for a store I never ever visit. Nor do I ever visit that store's competitors, or any retailer like that one. In fact every year I'm increasingly shocked the place is still in business.

Anyway, obviously my cousin doesn't have to get me a thing, and I appreciate her thoughtfulness. Simultaneously, it's also a subtle reminder that we could know each other better. Another year's gone by and we're still not as close as we could be. How depressing!

So if you must go the gift card route, surely you can spare a few moments picking the perfect store. I don't care how hopeless it feels, there's a right answer for everyone here. They never leave the house? Lowe's. All they do is work? Starbucks. They really never leave the house? Netflix.

Card Fan
Credit: Getty Images / joingate

You went with Visa, Mastercard, etc.

Gift cards from card networks should be avoided. First, they violate our guideline above for being too impersonal. Second, they're not as good as cash because fees may eat away at the balance.

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For example, while a Visa gift card may be used anywhere that accepts Visa, after a few months of inactivity the balance on that gift card will usually be subjected to a fee. Probably between two and three bucks per month. If your recipient leaves the card in a drawer for a year or two, or holds off for a big purchase, some or all of that money may have disappeared.

There's also generally another fee for you at the point of purchase—about four bucks, most likely. With so many dollar-for-dollar store gift cards available, it's silly to pay fees like this. If you really want to give something as good as cash, just give cash.

You didn't read the fine print

On the other hand, sometimes even a personal, thoughtful gift card can miss its mark.

Here's something that comes up often. There is a difference between—for example—an iTunes gift card and an Apple Store gift card. iTunes cards can pay for songs, apps, movies, etc. But Apple Store gift cards are only useful for buying new Apple computers, phones, or other items in brick-and-mortar Apple stores.

Even if your intent was thoughtful, when you don't read the fine print you run the risk cutting your recipient off from the purchase they really want to make. Your gift should be delightful, not "almost right."

Gift Card
Credit: Getty Images / ZwartFotografie

You paid shipping fees

What? No. Don't buy any gift cards with shipping fees associated with them. Think of it from the retailer's perspective: At worst you're locking in a future customer on their behalf. At best you're paying them for literally nothing, if your recipient loses the card or whatever.

Businesses like Dunkin Donuts, Olive Garden, and Tim Horton's still charge for shipped gift cards bought online. If you must patronize them, do so at a brick-and-mortar location or check the gift card rack at your local supermarket, often you'll find a diverse selection there.

Your card doesn't hold its value

There are three ways the gift card experience can come to an end. Ideally they're spent, but they can also be lost, or sold to a third party for cash.

Now, we don't think you should pay attention to resale. After all, if you buy the right card, resale won't happen. But if you want to ignore us, know that according to WalletHub your recipient will only be able to recoup between 55% and 80% of the face value of a card they don't want. Supply and demand, people.

So just to recap: Make it personal, watch out for details and exclusions, avoid card network gift cards, and don't pay fees. If all else fails, there's always cash.

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