I don’t give cash. Gift cards? Yes. Pre-loaded cash and gift cards? Yes. But I don’t believe cold, hard, out-of-the-ATM cash is a thoughtful gift. It’s the opposite. I used to give cash to the doormen in my building, every holiday, but it just felt…weird. Like I was paying them off, instead of showing my deep abiding gratitude for all they do for me throughout the year. I’ve upped my game and think you should, too.
Here’s why I think cash makes for a lousy gift.
It’s cheap and dirty. There’s something naked, tawdry and low-rent about cash — physically and metaphorically. You only break out cash for the smallest denominations — tips at a restaurant, the valet, the $5 blackjack table. Maybe when you’re buying gum. Cash is small. Not to mention, it’s filthy. It’s been handled by thousands of people by the time it gets slid across the counter to you. You wouldn’t buy a shirt for a friend and then wear it around before giving it to them. So I don’t like handing people I care about a used, dirty thing and calling it a gift.
It lacks meaning. Giving a fat tip to your trusty stylist is a generous act; cash tips have their place. But gifts? A gift card, say to a store you know that person likes, or to a spa, says, “I’m giving you the gift of shopping in a place you love,” or, “You deserve a massage and I know you won’t get it for yourself.” You made an effort; you had them in mind. You give them the means to choose something they like. Cash is stripped down to a kind of ugliness that has no place in a nice gift exchange.
It’s lazy. Not only does cash have a low-energy feel, it’s also straight-up lazy. It says, “I just couldn’t think of anything else, so … here.” You made about as much effort as it took to reach into your wallet and pull out whatever was in there. Nothing says, “I don’t give [you know what]” like a few wrinkled bills shoved into a card. (See our tipping guide in which the etiquette experts explain that cash is the last resort, and not appropriate for all people at all times.)
Who uses cash? There’s a reason no one has cash on them, like, ever. Cash is antiquated. Plastic is king. Name one place where you’ve gone in the past two days that didn’t take cards (except for those annoying restaurants who tell you after you’ve eaten). Even vending machines will kindly dispense chips with your Visa. If you really don’t want to limit someone’s spending to any one particular place, at the very least buy a cash card so it’s clearly a gift, and not something you dug out of a drawer or your back pocket.
Are you giving a gift or managing her finances? Whenever the argument of cash vs. gift cards comes up, you’ll hear the arguments against gift cards: the hidden fees and expiration dates, and my favorite: If you give someone a $25 gift card, she may spend more than the value of the gift. God no! She’ll be exposed to all the world as a spendthrift! What kind of a friend would let that happen? (P.S. When I spend more than the amount on a gift card, I don’t call it overspending. I call it a discount.)
But seriously. Talk about taking the joy out of gift giving! What the recipient of your generous gift does or doesn’t do with your gift card — spends part or all or more than it’s worth, or loses it altogether — is to miss the point of a gift: It’s a thoughtful gesture from you to that person, something of value that transcends the issues of convenience, fees or fine print. It doesn’t say, “Hey, thanks for the bang trim,” or “I appreciate you bringing my Honda Civic back to me in one piece.” It says, I thought of you. I care about you. And I want you to enjoy this one, on me.
Writer Barbara Bedway doesn’t agree. Read her side: Why Cash Isn’t Crass — It’s Polite.