Is Giving Gift Cards Bad Manners?

Or is 10 bucks for Starbucks lattes the perfect present?

“I never, ever give gift cards because they’re so impersonal,” says my friend K. in Bryn Mawr. “You can buy them in the grocery store checkout line! ‘Here, have a Starbucks card, and a pack of gum,’” she jokes. “’Merry Christmas.’”

Honestly, while I agree with her in principle, I actually got a Starbucks card last year from a friend who’s familiar with my mocha latte addiction, and I loved it. But there’s a whole cadre of friends and relatives out there who are militantly anti-gift card. Then there are my teen and tween stepsons, who are firmly pro-gift card, since they can load up on iTunes music and Xbox games with them. A hairdresser friend “loathes” them in theory, but he only likes to receive books for Christmas, and then returns whatever you give him to Barnes & Noble. (He’s getting a B&N gift card this year.)[SIGNUP]

“I love gift cards because I’m incredibly picky,” says A., a Main Liner who’s very sensible and never runs up her credit card at the mall on things like sequined cardigans at J. Crew. That said, A. wants a sequined cardigan, so she asked her sister and her husband this year for J. Crew gift cards. She even wraps the stuff she buys with the pre-paid cards, so she can open it on Christmas morning.

Of course, something like $8 billion a year worth of gift cards goes unredeemed, which is the part that makes people nuts. “I always forget I have them,” sighs K. “I’ll buy something in a store, then get home and realize I had a gift card somewhere in the depths of my wallet.” Indeed, we “saved” two Visa gift cards worth hundreds of dollars that we got as wedding gifts for years, thinking we’d use them for a great dinner or weekend in New York sometime, until we realized one day they’d started diminishing in value and rushed out to use them at the grocery store and the gas station. (Speaking of which, we have three friends who’ve just lost jobs and need help paying for the basics right now, so they’ll be receiving Visa gift cards this year, too.)

And they do cut down on clutter. The other day, I stopped over to visit a friend in Chestnut Hill whose family in London had shipped over mountains of gifts in giant boxes for her and her young children. Cartons of Christmas presents are currently filling up her entire foyer, and since she’s living in chaos while her house is being renovated, she didn’t really need fabulous gifts sent over from Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Maybe she would have been better off with … a gift card.