The Sticky Issues of Gift Giving Part One: Cash and Gift Cards

Salary negotiations, calculating who owes what on a group check at a restaurant, paying a babysitter, price haggling.

If you are anything like me–and if you have found Lily Fields Challenge, it’s probably because you are!–you do not love talking about money either.

It’s a horribly uncomfortable topic, and I really wish I could put my finger on why. As with most things uncomfortable, it becomes nearly pathological for me. I get the sweats, my heart races and I just want to disappear. Real story: After one particularly horrible experience ten years ago, I have avoided group restaurant events like the plague . It was so complicated, so badly done that I still carry some rancor about it. It’s a ridiculously small thing, but the panic is visceral.

Money however, as we know, makes the world go round, and it is, in many situations and for many people, the ideal gift to give at the holidays.

If I can give just one word of advice for the people like me out there who get flustered when talking about money: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Ok, that’s three words. But whatever. Money as a gift can be thoughtful, it can be done well so that both giver and receiver feel satisfied. Read on.

Money as a gift

Many people don’t like to give money as a gift because it feels “impersonal”. To be fair, because in our world we have fallen out of the habit of writing thank you notes (I am the first to be guilty of this sin), it has kinda become impersonal. But there are ways to make it less impersonal, and we are going to explore these together.

There are fantastic benefits for both giver and receiver to giving money as a gift: 1. It is an easy gift to give. 2. The receiver can use the money to purchase something that they really want or really need. For the person who doesn’t have the bandwidth for psychoanalyzing their loved one’s Gift Receiver Template, money is a great gift.

Types of Money Gifts

Money gifts can come in various iterations:

  1. Cash
  2. Check
  3. Credit card-type Gifts Cards (Visa Gift Cards, for example)
  4. Specific vendor/store Gift Cards
  5. Service/Activity-type certificate (nail salon, concert/theme park tickets, landscaping service)

Each has its own benefits and considerations, which we are going to take a few minutes to dissect.


Cash is an amazing gift. Useful. Easy to obtain and easy to spend. Can be used for almost anything.

Cash, as a gift, is the king of money gifts. Nonetheless, there are still considerations.

When we send cash, is our intention for the cash to be the gift that is opened on Christmas Day, or are we sending it so that a gift can be purchased and be wrapped and left under the tree? If the latter, then we need to be sure to communicate this to the receiver (or the receiver’s parents or special someone) to make sure it happens. We also then need to send it early enough for the gift to be purchased.

If I am giving cash as a gift, I want to consider the person I am offering it to: young people are just happy to have cash, but the denomination should be not too large for them to easily spend–a $20 is more useful than a $50, for example.

Little kids tend to be Quantity Receivers, and think “more is better”. So several $5 bills is going to be more fun than one $20.

For adults, to make cash a memorable and less likely to be frittered away, a bigger denomination is a great option (incidentally, also more onerous.) For example: a $100 bill is going to require slightly more thought as to how it is going to be used, and certainly can’t be spent as easily at the bagel shop as a $20 bill.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tend to fritter away cash here and there–a coffee here, a baguette there. I love it when a money gift comes in a nice envelope so that I can keep that cash separate and put the receipts back in. I do this so I remember what I did with the money. It also keeps me from frittering. Thus, when I give cash as a gift, I always put it in a pretty envelope and write the person’s name on it in my best penmanship.


The check sometimes feels like the “afterthought” of the money gifting world–at least when I end up giving a check, that is. I am casting zero stones. None.

A check is less work for the giver, but creates work for the receiver. Just sayin’.

In most instances where I have ended up writing a check, it is because I was too late to run to the ATM and withdraw cash, or there was a history of mail disappearing from mailboxes.

The great thing about a check is that we can write our intention for the gift on the check, if we have one, for example, “For a new bike.” What actually happens to the check is not ultimately in our hands, but we do get to have our say.

Checks are a step removed from usefulness. There is no widely accepted way to take a check to a store and buy a bike with it.

They are, therefore, in my humble opinion, not the ideal money gift solution.

Pre-loaded Credit Cards

These are amazing. They feel immediate, like cash. As long as a vendor accepts a credit card, these are as useful as cash.

Keeping in mind that these often have expiration dates, etc, these would be my second choice after cash for a gift. I would also want to give this in a cute little box or a special envelope, so that when it is used, there is a sense, for the receiver, that this is something special, for a special purpose.

As a matter of fact, I might have just convinced myself to do this for my teenage nieces for Christmas this year instead of cash. (Yay! Two down!)

Vendor/Store-Specific Gift Cards

I read somewhere that there are billions of dollars in unused gift card value out in the economy. This saddens me no end. I mean, for crying out loud, there are people who could actually use that money to pay for groceries, and here it is, sitting on a Victoria’s Secret Gift Card in someone’s sock drawer.

Ugh, this irritates me.

The intention of store/vendor specific gift cards is honorable. It says, “Hey, I know you like this store, here, go buy yourself something nice on me.”

What I don’t like is when this kind of gift is given without concertation with the gift receiver, to make sure that this is a place where the person actually does shop.

Let me tell you, I would 100% take a grocery store gift card over a Victoria’s Secret card. It would be more practical, I would be happier, it would actually make my life better. Although, here I am showing my staunchly practical side. I have zero fanciful side anymore. My children have broken me.

The point is this: know your audience. Launch a fishing expedition to find out where they actually shop, and what might actually make them happy/make their life better. Communicate. Make sure that they actually will use their gift card, instead of it being out there with the billions of dollars worth of plastic living in a sock drawer.

Service Certificate

These are fantastically fun if they are something that 1. the receiver would never do for themselves, but you know they would like to do, and 2. are easy to use.

Easy rule of thumb here: if the credit is difficult to obtain, it will be difficult to use. A nail salon that has never given a gift certificate is likely to not know how to book an appointment using it. If you have to switch languages in order to use the website, you might be getting in over your head.

Last year, my BIL and SIL gave us tickets for 4 to EuropaPark, a huge theme park in Germany. We would never in a million years have gone there had we paid for it ourselves, but this gift created a very fun summer outing for us this last year. That said, the cashing in of that credit was incredibly complicated, and required smartphone apps (we don’t have smartphones) and QR codes and wifi access and registrations and ugh, it was so, so complicated. Add to that the fact that no one in my family speaks German to call someone with our questions and we felt a little trapped.

So, if you are offering a cool vendor-specific credit, make sure that you follow up and see if they have been able to use it, and offer help when necessary!


Consider the money-type gifts you have received over your lifetime. Were there some that stick out as either very complicated or very well executed?

Look over your list: which people will end up with a money-type gift? Considering their Gift-Receiver Template, is there a way you could incorporate elements of anticipation or surprise or quantity? Do everything in your power this year to make sure this is something that will get used!

If you are going to go this route, consider how you can best serve your loved one. Try to put love at the heart of everything, even something as basic as running to the ATM instead of writing a check. Try singing with your feet: do something just a little bit different than you usually do, that will make the receiver feel loved!

Up Next

Tomorrow we are going to look at the sticky issue of gift wrapping: how to avoid destroying the planet while we celebrate this year.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

One thought on “The Sticky Issues of Gift Giving Part One: Cash and Gift Cards

  1. Cash is easy to obtain- says you. 😉 JK!! I love how thoughtful you are on everything. The only person in my life who absolutely refuses my gifts is my second daughter. She has hated every gift I’ve ever gotten her- after she was grown I mean. The 3rd year, she flatly told me, Do not send me any more gifts. They are just junk that I throw straight into the trash. I was crushed!! Getting, and giving gifts is my love language!! Per her requests, I haven’t given her any gifts in over a decade. I do send her cards. My heart is grieved, but nothing to be done. That said, if I send a roll of poop bags for her dog, she does say thanks.
    Also, pre paid cc have purchase fees!! I was appalled the one time I did that! No more! Store cards it is!!

    Liked by 1 person

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