You Can’t Swipe Love

A critical view on the true meaning of gift cards.

Picture this: It’s the Christmas season. You’re buying wrapping paper at a box store – or, replenishing your eggnog supply at the grocery store. You get in line, mentally going over the list of everything you need to have when, bam, you remember – you forgot to get a gift for your favourite relative. What to do? It’s too late to pick out a decent gift! For whom else did you forget to buy presents? What if that necklace you bought your mom isn’t a shiny enough bauble? You start to panic a little. 

Then, you notice the rows of shiny, plastic gift cards in the checkout line. Coffee chains, restaurants, iTunes – you name a big brand and there’s probably a gift card for purchase within throwing distance of your current location. They’re easy, fast and, most importantly, idiot-proof. They’re great gifts. Right?


Gift cards are, at best, impersonal and, at worst, a rude awakening that you don’t know the person to whom you’re giving the gift card well enough to pick out an actual present. Or, that you don’t care enough to put the time and effort into picking out something you know that person on your list may love.

It may seem like the ideal holiday gift: Gift cards don’t expire, they are basically the same as cash and are generally transferable – some can be sold or traded online.

But gift cards don’t hint of romance. Gift cards don’t sparkle with glittery holiday magic. Gift cards don’t tell someone you’re grateful she gave birth to you. Gift cards don’t say “I love you enough to go to 18 different stores to find you a present that you’ll cherish until the day you pass it down to our hypothetical grandchildren.”

Sliding a flimsy plastic square into an envelope is the equivalent of buying your girlfriend lingerie that doesn’t come close to fitting her. You want to give her a gift but you don’t care enough to know her size. You’re not willing to put in the work. It’s like buying your boyfriend a jersey for a sports team he hates – you thought of him, but do you listen to him enough to know his likes and dislikes?

It’s always tempting to give someone a gift card, because it’s also incredibly easy to buy someone a useless gift. No one intentionally sets out to buy people presents that they know they won’t like. But the fear of doing just this causes gift givers to panic and, in turn, go for what only seems like a bulletproof solution.

If you’re still not convinced that gift cards are thoughtless gifts, remember that buying the gift cards that are most readily available – the ones for chain restaurants, box stores and big businesses – hurt locally owned stores. While independent stores may offer their own gift cards in-house, they generally don’t have the money or pull to place their cards in big-box drug stores or grocery chains.

Gift cards do have their time and place. The holidays aren’t it. But if you do decide to go down the gift-card road, just remember: There is a world of difference between pulling a random gift card off the shelf at Wal-Mart and driving to the store your best friend loves. A plastic card stuffed into a white sheath? Hideous enough to make a reindeer cry. But a beautifully-decorated envelope with a hand-written gift certificate for your paramour’s favourite local boutique tucked into a holiday stocking or underneath the Christmas tree? There may be a little holiday magic in that.

This year, our gift guide focuses on everything but gift cards, separated into categories for the different personalities in your life from the forever-up-to-date techie to the foodie who’s always in the kitchen. These gifts give some ideas for how to tailor-buy for your favourite people. After all, it should be about their passions and personalities rather than your lack of time-management skills.

And for those who want to make up for a lifetime of mediocre gift-giving, we’ve included a sky’s-the-limit gift for each section. (We can dare to dream, can’t we?) A gift card could never compete with a private island complete with its own cabin or a customizable turntable that’s akin to having your favourite bands play right in your house, any day or night.

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