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KAI RYSSDAL: No pressure here, everybody, but we are down to just 15 shopping days till Christmas. Which means more of us are probably thinking about taking the easy way out: Plunking down 50 bucks for a gift card and being done with it. Analysts guess retailers are going to earn more than $26 billion from gift cards this holiday season. About a third of that will be pure profit for them. Cash left behind by customers who don't redeem their credits. That's all the more reason, says commentator Ron Lieber, that you should spare your loved ones the hassle.
RON LIEBER: It's been almost 12 months since last year's holiday season, yet the scattered bounty still haunts my desk. Those iTunes gift cards -- did I spend them? And L.L. Bean, hmm. Is it worth my time to extract that last $3.67?
As if we needed something else to keep track of, many of us now have a gift-card inventory. Given with the best of intentions, gift cards are supposed to make life easier, allowing us to pick out whatever we want.
But gift cards don't make life easier, as my messy desk attests. And because of that, it's just rude to give them.
Put yourself in the head of the recipient. You know, the person you think you're helping with the gift of flexibility?
The gift cards from stores are bad enough. If you carry them around, they add mass to your wallet. If you leave them at home, though, you won't have them when you need them. They're a pain. Then there are the gift cards that the leading credit-card companies have created. They're good anywhere those cards are accepted. How great, right? But here's the problem: the giver pays a fee just to buy them. And if the getter hangs on to them for too long, they start losing their value. They're a pain, too.
No matter the card, you end up spending money out of your own pocket to extract the full value. Leave $6 on a $100 gift card, and you feel like an idiot. But to extract that full $100, you'll almost certainly have to spend more, say, $114. Some gift that is!
Look, if you can't be bothered with picking out an actual gift for someone, just give cash. It's easy, since ATM's have lots of it. It doesn't expire. People don't lose it.
So, are you worried you'll look rude or lazy to others who stormed the aisles to shop? Worry not. When you hand over the green cash money, everyone who gets it will light up in delight. And it won't sit on their desks for very long.
RYSSDAL: Ron Lieber is the managing editor for filife.com. That's a new personal finance website.