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.