1 How The American Express Gift Card Became the Bane of My Existence | The Billfold

How The American Express Gift Card Became the Bane of My Existence

For my birthday this year, I asked my parents whether they could gift me some of my dad’s frequent flier miles. He travels a lot, so I figured he probably has a bunch, and I’d been hoping to take a trip to Los Angeles that I couldn’t afford on my own.

As it turns out, gifting miles involves a pretty wack surcharge (a processing fee of $30, plus a “tax recovery charge” of 7.5 percent, according to USAir’s website), so instead, they gave me the staggeringly generous gift of four $100 American Express gift cards. It was so nice of them, and I am so appreciative of the gesture (thank you, parents!). But I have also found these cards to be kind of an albatross!

I know this might sound obnoxious, and I should make clear that I am by no means so flush that receiving this money didn’t feel like a huge deal—it’s just that the AmEx gift card, as a vehicle for gifting $400, is quite possibly the worst option. It’s like getting a brand-new puppy in a very complicated cage, with a bunch of unnecessary locks you have to deal with before finally getting to your puppy. Are you super-excited about the puppy? Absolutely! Do you grow to resent the cage? Yes, you do! 

Since it’s graduation-gift and wedding-gift season, you may be considering giving the whippersnappers and newlyweds in your life this kind of prepaid credit card for any of the following reasons:

• Your recipient can make purchases online!
• It is a more secure way to give money than in cash!
• It’s a more tangible or personal gift than cash!
• It is cool, and your recipient will feel cool using it!

At least, I think these are the reasons my parents thought to give the cards to me. In theory, I totally agree (again: Thank you, parents!). But they didn’t work as intended in practice.

Making purchases online. Most merchants (notably, delivery.com and jcrew.com, which in combination make up nearly 100% of my online buying) require you to fill in a bunch of fields when you pay with a card, for example, your mailing address—which won’t be connected to your card unless you take the time to register it. There is no way to do this online. You have to call to register the card, which, to be fair, I have not done with my cards, because the whole idea of calling customer service triggers serious Time Warner PTSD. You don’t want to give the gift of dread to your loved one, do you?

And since I couldn’t figure out a way to split the cost of plane tickets across multiple cards, I paid for them on my regular credit card anyway. I intended to use the AmEx gift cards elsewhere for regular expenses, which proved harder than it seemed (more on that later).

If your recipient is old enough to have her own credit or credit-linked debit cards, she will likely be much more appreciative of plain old cash she can put directly into her bank account and then continue using her real cards as normal. One exception might be if you’re giving a gift to a child who doesn’t have this option. Honestly, he’ll probably be so excited about the idea of having a credit card that he’ll be more than happy to talk to AmEx customer service all day long.

More secure than cash. You can request replacements for AmEx gift cards that are lost or stolen. The actual process of doing this is kind of a Catch-22, though, because to replace the card, you have to provide AmEx with a bunch of information (“the card number, CSC and other identifying details”).

If your recipient is the sort of mature, functional, responsible adult who would take the time to make a note of all these things after receiving the card, she’s probably not the kind of person who would lose it anyway. If she is the sort of person who would lose two of these cards when they fly out of her tote bag while she’s jumping up and down at a Waka Flocka Flame show, then she is also probably not the kind of person who ever bothered to write down all the information. (Theoretically.)

Related: If you’re thinking of giving one of these cards to someone you suspect may already have substantial savings/an IRA, chances are good that this person doesn’t need an AmEx gift card, and would be more tickled by something frivolous or fun! Can we recommend any of these $100 gifts instead?

Personal/tangible. Here’s the thing: Cash is wonderfully personal and tangible! These cards are only the idea of money—purchasing power in the abstract. They are no more or less sentimental than cold hard cash.

Being cool. This was where the cards failed hardest, as far as I was concerned. Cashiers look at them kind of weird—like they’re some kind of remedial training card I’m using because I fucked up my credit so badly, or something. (Which is not even true!) They’re different from gift cards for specific stores, because cashiers can check the balances on those right at the counter. With these gift cards, the recipient has to constantly keep track of how much is left on the card, which is particularly annoying if she only intends to use them for incidental purchases that are less than $10. And once they dwindle to less than a dollar or so, there’s the niggling question: Should she try to find something to buy for exactly 83 cents to use the card up? Explain to a cashier that she’ll be splitting your purchases across multiple cards and want to put 83 cents on the first one? Or literally throw money away?

Having one of these cards turned down for insufficient funds is, if you can imagine it, even more embarrassing than when it happens with a regular card. Using them at restaurants is kind of a nightmare because of the tip factor, too—read AmEx’s long explanation of how it works here, if you’re not already too stressed out.

And there’s another, hidden reason why not to buy them: the surcharge! My parents paid $5.95 apiece for the privilege of giving me money—a total of nearly $24 basically thrown away.

To conclude, a confession and a plea.

The confession: I am still in possession of two of these cards, with different weird amounts left, even though they are free money, because I have been too lazy or forgetful or annoyed or reluctant to use them up. It has been more than four months since my birthday.

The plea: Don’t buy these for anyone! Give any of the following instead, and your grad or newly married pal will appreciate them more: cash; regular gift cards for the grocery store, gas station, movies, Target, Ikea, or Pottery Barn; a big care package of stuff like toilet paper and peanut butter in fancier iterations than they’d buy for themselves; alcohol; concert tickets. But really: CASH.


Alexandria Symonds is the associate online editor at Interview. She has a savings account and a Tumblr, in that order. Photo: Flickr/Pandemia


47 Comments / Post A Comment

mbmargarita (#781)

I think I’ve mentioned this on thebillfold before, but as a thank-you my boss once gave me $150 in AmEx gift cards. I ended up using them exclusively for Starbucks runs and it was wonderfully self-indulgent and felt like they lasted forever. So, there’s always that.

nutmeg (#1,383)

I got a Visa gift card from my Grandma for $50 for my birthday; I ended up buying myself a stuffed plush t-rex to use up most of it. Also, it’s a huge pain-in-the-ass, but if you change your card info on iTunes (I buy music, okay) to one of these you can end up using pretty much the whole thing, and if you’re like me it’ll take a while. That’s how I bought myself a bunch of old Simpsons episodes to watch stoned!

Lily Rowan (#70)

I vote not Pottery Barn, unless you’re giving a lot of dough! Because their cheaper stuff is stupid and their good stuff is pricy.

ElBlynx (#499)

@Lily Rowan Yes! Someone gave us a gift certificate here for our wedding and even at the very respectable amount of $100, I am having such a hard time finding anything that seems worthy of their generous gift. Maybe because I am a west coaster I just don’t understand the hi/low brow mix of lobster duvet covers and $70 American flag table runners.

jason (#1,335)

@ElBlynx SAME EXACT THING. Except it was $150, from my fiancee’s dad, for her birthday or something. We could not find anything we could actually use that wouldn’t cost us at least a hundred more. Ended up giving the card to my mom, who, to my knowledge, has not used it either.

lalaland (#437)

@Lily Rowan I loathe Pottery Barn ever since they took 3 months to deliver a sofa (I called constantly, finally one day they were like, oh! we have it! we just forgot). They are the worst, never order from them. I am off my soapbox now.

Lily Rowan (#70)

I’m so glad I’m not alone.

@ElBlynx Not gonna lie, I just checked the Pottery Barn website for lobster duvet covers and was a little disappointed when nothing came up. How dare you toy with my emotions like that.

ElBlynx (#499)

@missedconnections It’s no longer available online but will a lobster pillow with lobster verse cheer you up?:
Lobster Pillow

MuffyStJohn (#280)

So . . . you can’t use it at JCrew.com, you will lose it, and it is “not cool,” and so you have found way to complain about being given $400. Interesting.

hopelessshade (#580)

@MuffyStJohn I thought she was very clear that the gift was generous and highly appreciated but the vehicle it was given in was unexpectedly cumbersome. And thus useful to point out?

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@hopelessshade I guess I don’t see what is cumbersome about it. It sounds like she was too lazy to register the cards and also has a lot of immature hangups about having her method of payment look “cool” (maybe she has a crush on the checkout dude at her Safeway?). 5 minutes on the phone with American Express for $400 sounds like a decent trade off to me.

Would cash be preferred? Sure, I think we would all like some cash. But she refers to a gift of $400 as an albatross. Which – hey, I’ll take those cards off your hands honey! I’m sure I can find a way to spend free money and not bitch about it.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@MuffyStJohn We need a new tag called “Adultbabies Can’t Do Things”

melis (#42)


Not being able to check the balance is a pretty big inconvenience imo.

jfruh (#161)

Even more annoying was when I won an award at work and got $100 in AmEx travellers checks, which filled me with bafflement about where and under what circumstances I would use them — travelling to Europe in the ’80s, maybe? But then I found out that my credit union would just let me deposit them as cash straight into my savings account, so, problem solved.

hellonheels (#1,407)

Maybe your parents went with the AmEx gift cards rather than actual cash because they were able to redeem the frequent flier miles for them rather than using actual money (and thereby avoiding the surcharge)?
I travel a lot for work and when I redeem my points I usually go for store gift cards because the points-to-cash value is better, but still, free money…unlike 400 actual dollars.

triplea (#1,234)

Or you could take 30 minutes on your day off to register the cards online, track your balances there, get a real wallet and a purse and then just use them instead of your credit/debit cards. Also I wouldn’t care what some 16 year old grocery store cashier thinks of what card you’re using.

@triplea Uhhh, she CLEARLY said that there is no way to register them online.

Genghis Khat (#584)

I’m a cashier at a large retailer, and with the gift card credit cards it just takes off the amount left on the card, so maybe pick a large store to use them up? Like, if you only had 84 cents on a card and were buying a five dollar item from me you would slide your card and it would take off 84 cents without you having to tell me in advance, and no declining.

Genghis Khat (#584)

Also, the cashier is really not judging you. We deal with tons of people every day and do not care. When I see someone with a credit card gift card I just assume they have a generous relative.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Genghis Khat Right? Splitting a transaction: not uncommon or scary. In fact, every time I go to Safeway the person in front of me is doing it.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@MuffyStJohn Also at Target the machine automatically asks if you’re splitting! Which is why I always use the end of a gift card there.

Katzen-party (#219)

@MuffyStJohn @Genghis Khat I wish it were that easy! I’ve received Visa gift cards as a gift before, and a lot of cashiers seemed confused by and/or suspicious of them, and I had a couple of different cashiers tell me that they wouldn’t take them. I also had a couple of other cashiers that made a mistake (or didn’t listen?) and tried to charge more than what was on the card (even when I told them the balance of the card and that they would have to enter that amount) so the card was declined and then they wouldn’t try again. And all of this was especially annoying to me because I was a cashier for many, many years and know that (depending on the type of point-of-sale system you’re using), it usually isn’t difficult to split tender. But at the same time, I would usually get annoyed with people using these cards because I would say that approximately 99% of people who try to use them don’t know that you have to know exactly how much is on the card to be able to use it and then they’d get mad at ME because I couldn’t take the card.

Genghis Khat (#584)

@Katzen-party My point though, is that you DON’T have to know exactly what’s on the card, at least at my large retailer. The customer just takes out the card, swipes it, and the register takes off what the card has and asks how the customer would like to pay the remaining balance. It’s really hard to fuck up.

Katzen-party (#219)

@Genghis Khat Oh, I worked at a nationwide chain of big box stores and we always had to know exactly how much was on the card to run it without getting a decline, but that was about five years ago, so maybe things are different now. I personally also had difficulty using mine at JC Penney (ugh, I know, but I was trying to use it to buy bras) last year in a split tender transaction. So maybe some systems/stores (not to mention individual cashiers…) are better than others.

Titania (#489)

Someone too anxious to make a five minute call to customer service is EXACTLY the kind of person that I would not trust with real cash. I have Time Warner too; you’ll live.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

@Titania This. No one likes calling automated people. But it is just something we have to do, unfortunately.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

Okay. Confession time. My INSANELY generous parents have gotten me three of these AmEx cards, each in the price of $500. They were for birthdays and Chanukah and yes, I am a grown woman with a steady paycheck, health insurance, and an IRA plan living in another state. I know, my parents are insane and I do not deserve them but I love them lots (thanks parents!) I LOVED these cards and am not sure what the issue you had with them was? The first $500 card I used to buy lots of little fun things in the spring of 2011, right when I was quitting a job that I hated. I bought tickets to a Prince concert, a Kindle and a Kindle cover, a skirt at Anthropologie, just, fun things. I never had any problem spending the money and I was able to spend all of it down to the last cent. The second two cards they gave me I hoarded for the express purpose of TRAVEL. I used the pair of them to book a trip to a location on the other side of the country (I’m an East Coaster) this fall. The pair combined didn’t pay for the whole trip, but I was able to cover the rest myself. The airline through which I booked gave me no trouble when it came to splitting the cost on three cards. If you keep the sheet that comes with your AmEx gift card it’ll say what address it is registered at–in this case it was aligned with my parents’ address, so I just used that in the address slot. It was so easy, I could not believe it. So what I am saying is: I do not believe this article. AmEx giftcards are great. I hope my parents continue to spoil me with AmEx giftcards in amounts that make my head explode. If they do I will save them for either MORE TRAVEL or a new laptop. (They got my boyfriend one too, for $100, my parents are really insane people guys, but they are the best). (Also I hope y’all don’t hate me now, I’m just sharing my story as evidence that there are normal and responsible ways to use these AWESOME CARDS–or any gift card, really. If you ever get one do the happy dance, for realsies.)

lalaland (#437)

@TheDilettantista My parents were never big gift givers but randomly for my college graduation, they gave me a gift card for over $500 to Target, because “you love Target!” Anddd it was awesome and I used that thing for about two years on household goods (subsidized toilet paper is the best toilet paper). Parents!

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

@lalaland Seriously, parents!!! Honestly, the only “issue” I had with these cards was making myself spend them. I’m the kind of person who likes to “save things” for whatever, so I’d be like “Oh, look at that new camera, I want it.” But then I’d make myself wait just in case I wanted something more (like travel!) It is a sort of stupid, lame problem to have, but I always tend to do that when I get gift cards or something similar.

@TheDilettantista I do wonder if it would have been easier to get one card for $400 rather than 4 for $100 each because that is certainly more “stuff” to “deal with.” Then again I guess they probably come in denominations of $100, $500, something else.

You’re aware that your father didn’t need to transfer those miles and could have simply purchased the flight ticket for you using the miles in his account, correct?

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

I’m on your side! These things are super frustrating– for all the reasons you stated AND, at least where I live, no one takes AMEX. You have free money that no stores want to take it!

janestreet (#1,123)

@MuffyStJohn seriously. girl needs to grow up before anyone gives her anything ever again.

DON (#706)

@janestreet I give my cousins transformers and nerf guns all the time. They are 8. They shoot their sisters in the eye. It’s great. You don’t need to be grown up to receive gifts. Poor Alexandria is reading this shit and just wanted to contribute a piece of writing. You should consider being nicer.

thecoffeestain (#1,483)

@MuffyStJohn: You have whole-hearted agreement from me. While cash may be king for many families, some families don’t see it that way, and would rather give something like a gift card in lieu of actual dirty green bills. It forces you to pay for something nice for yourself instead of your cable bill or what have you.

And while I loved the reference to everyone’s favorite Ancient Mariner, calling $400 worth of free money an “albatross” is wicked extreme. These cards are not a curse, but a gift (which you say you’re grateful for, but your complaints indicate otherwise). Sure, you may not want to take the time to go through the registration rigamarole, but it would be worth it for the lack of headache later.

ThatJenn (#916)

I suspect there was some over-dramatic commentary in this article for humor that some people didn’t get? I appreciated the description of why these might not be the ideal solution for everyone.

Marissa (#467)

@Jenn@twitter Seriously. I didn’t see this article as an excuse to whine. The writer sounded quite appreciative of her parents’ gift. It was just pointing out the little differences of cash vs. gift cards.

Agreed. Sometimes I hate the Billfold (and that sometimes is anytime I actually click into the comments from google reader).

ThatJenn (#916)

@Holden Cauliflower You know, 95% of the time the comments here are one big pile of awesome, and then occasionally it’s like one person gets their hate on about someone being ungrateful (that’s usually the trigger, anyway) and it’s like it seeds this whole awful pile-on. But this is the only place (besides the Hairpin) where I even allow myself to read the comments, because most of the time the community is really nice. (Or maybe I just normally get here before the yuckiness starts?)

ems (#1,487)

Agree whole-heartedly. Amex is wack attack. Stop being so mean.

cliuless (#36)

and this is why i enjoy being chinese. giving cash isn’t a problem when it’s in a red envelope!

I’ve never been given a AmEx giftcard, but I HAVE gotten Visa/MasterCard giftcards before, which let you register online. Yay. But I also had the incredibly annoying problem of insufficient funds since a lot of online vendors are like “hey, um, your card was declined, SORRY.”

A solution that worked for me: I resorted to Square (squareup.com) and transferred the balances to my bank account, less Square’s transaction fee. I lost a few bucks in the process, but it was totally worth it to get rid of the cards and keep most of the money!

ThatJenn (#916)

@Deborah Kim@twitter Hey, I totally wouldn’t have thought of using my Square that way. Thanks for sharing!

Err, not to sound like a marketing robot. Thanks for sharing, Alexandria!

Andie@twitter (#1,417)

Why didn’t you just use the cards to pay for your trip?

Even thought you keep saying you’re grateful, you’re not really.

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