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Gift Cards for Experiences vs. Gift Cards for Stuff

In the last week or so, Micah and I have used two of our Christmas gift certificates. First, we went to the Kennedy Center and saw the NYC ballet. Then Thursday night we had our lobster and filet mignon meal (in celebration of the Finwikian’s launch).

As we were eating the lobster, I started pondering the difference between these gifts and “ordinary” gift cards. My aunt and uncle know how much I love the ballet. My aunt lived in DC for a while and went to the Kennedy Center. I’m sure that if she still lived here, we would have all gone together. But since they’re on another continent, they simply gave us the pleasure of going ourselves (certificate was better so that we could pick the particular ballet and the night).

Micah’s grandparents would have liked, I think, to take us out to a lobster dinner. But since they live in Florida (when they’re not doing archaeological stuff), a Lobstergram was a fun alternative.

These were gifts of experiences. If the givers lived nearby, it might have been in the form of an IOU to arrange the trip together. But since they didn’t, a gift certificate was a great way to give the experience specifically and yet not put on too many limitations.

Other experiential gift cards we received were those for coffee (since that’s our date night activity) and fabric (which is experiential to me).

I remember all the hubub around Christmas when people were debating whether gift cards were good gifts. When they’re just for buying “stuff” (like gift cards to Big Box retailers), I prefer Raymond at Money Blue Book’s take — give in red envelopes. It’s pretty and gift-like, but you’re not limited by a store. Plus you don’t have those few remaining dollars to spend aimlessly because you really want to spend them. Gift cards for random stuff can be thoughtful, but they can also be limiting.

On the other hand, gift cards for experiences are a really winner in my book.

Here’s some more to chew on when it comes to gift cards:

This post was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance at Being Frugal.

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Carnival of Personal Finance #144- St. Patrick’s Day Edition |
March 17, 2008 at 7:01 am


Money Blue Book March 9, 2008 at 10:22 pm

Mrs. Micah,

I have mixed feelings about gift cards but I think for certain people, it’s a good choice. The gift is not really the monetary value of the card itself, but the gift of “forced enjoyment”. I would never go to a spa or pay buckets of money for a massage treatment on my own. But if someone cared about me and wanted to compel me to go pampered in the nicest way possible, giving me a spa gift card would be the way to go.

But I agree with you – gifts of experience are the way to go! Memories don’t depreciate like material products, but rather they appreciate in value over time!

Finance Girl March 9, 2008 at 10:28 pm

I love this idea! I’ve been thinking about starting to give “experience” gifts, since everyone in my family has so much stuff (and never gets rid of anything).

But what is the point of giving a gift card instead of actual tickets or something? I guess that way they can choose the date that works for them, etc.? I would just make sure that the value of the gift card covers what the experience is likely to cost.

mrsmicah March 9, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Exactly, Finance Girl. It was just enough to cover two tickets but worked for whatever evening we wanted.

fathersez March 10, 2008 at 12:44 am

My wife and I just give our cash.

This way, we place no restrictions on the receipent and he/she may get whatever they most need at that time.

Here, crockery sets and clocks are favourite gifts and when people get maried they end up getting 7 or 8 sets. And no one gives them a broom…hehe

tracy ho March 10, 2008 at 4:42 am

Great ideals ,

All the best.

plonkee March 10, 2008 at 8:19 am

The last successful experience gift I had was a spa voucher. I wasn’t convinced by the idea, but I had a really nice time.

I think I like the idea of experience gifts, but it can be just as hard to pick something someone would like to do, as it is what they would like to have.

Ron@TheWisdomJournal March 10, 2008 at 12:30 pm

I received a gift certificate from my wife (for Valentine’s day) to get a one hour massage. At first, I was interested because I thought SHE would be giving it to me, but then I read further that it was at a spa.

I’ve never been to a spa and to be honest with you, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with another woman’s hands all over me….and I certainly don’t want Guido’s hands all over me. I don’t know what to do, but I’m thinking about giving it back to her and telling her to enjoy it. She loves going for a massage. I’m too ticklish and I really don’t think I’ll enjoy it. I’m dreading it already.

If I’m going to receive a gift certificate, I’d much rather it be from Amazon!

Mrs Micah's Mom March 10, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Some masseuses will teach couples how to give each other messages. Maybe you could convert your gift certificate to something like that. You might have to add enough for another massage, though.

Evan March 10, 2008 at 9:18 pm

If anyone has received a gift card they don’t want, I just started a website buying them from people!

Peter August 20, 2008 at 12:13 am

There are quite a few websites for buying, selling, or swapping gift cards. You can find a pretty good list of them (including your site Evan) at

If you have a Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover gift card, you can transfer the balance (or part of it) to PayPal instantaly at

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