Pardon me while I pull out the soap box...
When I was a kid we would exchange Xmas gifts with extended family at our grandparents house on Christmas eve. That was the time that we'd get and give gifts between cousins and uncles on my dad's side. Every year inevitably one or two of my cousins would give me a gift that left me wondering why they'd ever think I'd want such a thing. Over the years I got several gifts from a couple of cousins that I had absolutely no interest in. Its not their fault and I don't blame them, I too had little idea what to get them. We simply didn't know each other very well and were taking blind guesses about what a good gift would be. On the other hand the absolutely BEST gift that I'd get on Christmas eve was from my Grandparents. They'd give me a card with cash money inside. It was 100% guaranteed that I'd like that gift and get 100% utilization from it. It wasn't a lot of money, maybe $10 if I recall but it was still useful money I could use to buy something I wanted.
Etiquette seems to compel people to buy gifts rather than giving cash. I certainly understand the thinking. You want to give someone a thoughtful gift that shows you care. Slipping a $20 bill into a envelope might imply to people that you actually don't care a whole lot. It makes sense then for the gift giver to want to give a thoughtful gift rather than just pulling cash out of their wallet.
But here's the problem... remember my cousins and their awful gifts? Remember my grandparents and the $10 bills that I looked forward to? Sometimes cash is a much better gift than your best effort at gift giving. This is more often true for people you aren't as close with or whom you don't know very well. My cousins and grandparents knew me about as equally well. While my cousins tried to give me a thoughtful gift they simply couldn't know what I wanted and were doomed to fail through no fault of their own. My grandparents on the other hand knew better than try and just pulled out the $10 bill annually.
Giving bad gifts is not your plan and usually not really your failing. Its impossible to know the best gift for everyone in your life. Invariably you'll have some more distant relations or even closer relatives who are very hard for you to shop for. Even worse when you give these people a bad gift you've wasted your time to do so and will also likely waste their time. When you give a poor gift you spend your own time to go do the shopping. Then when the recipient gets the gift they may very likely spend their time returning it.
Just add it up :
You drive to a store and wander around trying to find something good to buy. (1 hour time).
You have to spend extra money to pay for gift wrapping
Once you're home you gift wrap the item (20 minutes ?)
When the recipient gets the gift they may then return it and have to drive back to the store and stand in line (1 hour?)
Altogether you and the gift recipient can easily spend 2.5 hours giving and returning a gift that shows you don't really know what they want.
Worse case: They never return it and sit on it. Personally I don't generally return gifts I dislike. Not sure why, maybe I think its just not polite. In this case the gift recipient ends up with something they get little if any value from. I've had several of those gifts over the years. So not only do I end up with a gift that shows the gift giver didn't know what to give me but I also waste the entire value of the gift by not using it at all.
Of course you have to know when to apply this. My wife wouldn't appreciate it too much if I just handed her $50 for her birthday. In some families giving cash may be a total taboo. You of course know your own situation. But if its not breaking a family rule and not for someone close then I'd urge you to consider giving cash for people for who you simply don't know good gift ideas. So please don't buy that distant relative a book on the History of the French Huguenots (for no apparent reason) or buy them some orange towels for their bathroom (in a randomly selected color that may clash with their decor). Instead just give them some money and let them buy the book or towels they'd prefer.
On the other side, I also don't think people should feel bad about tactfully asking for cash. This is another area that etiquette seems to frown on. Apparently people aren't supposed to actually acknowledge that they'd get more benefit out of cash than various things you'll generally find on a wedding registry for example. I for one think this is just nonsense really. If you have a urgent or strong need for money then letting people know that you could use it rather than getting wrapped up boxes of stuff then I see nothing wrong with it. I'm not saying that you should print 'give us ca$h!' on your wedding invitation. But you can indirectly ask for money sites like Honeyfund.com
Gift cards can be the worst of both worlds. I think they invented gift cards as a way to give a gift without giving cash. It seems like a happy medium for someone who wants to be thoughtful and not give cash but who doesn't know much about what you really want. The problem with a gift card is that you're locking in the recipient into a specific merchant that they might not want to shop at. Its quite easy to get the wrong gift card and that can provide much lower value to the recipient. Then to get around that problem we now have Visa gift cards or other generic cash cards. This to me seems the silliest thing in the world as a gift. Its the gift that says you didn't want to give them cash so instead you paid a fee and gave them a non transferable cash equivalent. Huh? I don't see any value in giving a cash card as a gift over good old fashioned paper money. I guess the one exception is for someone who might want/need to make credit card purchasers who doesn't have a credit card but thats a specific situation.
Bottom Line : If its appropriate then don't be afraid to give cash as a gift. You never know you might make some kid happy just like my Grandparents used to.
March 7, 2013
Pardon me while I pull out the soap box...