Stop! Before you hit the mall to buy Christmas gifts, get smart. Does your friend or family member really want another gift box, discounted cook book, or car-cleaning kit?
Probably not. Most people would prefer a gift card to an ill-thought-out present.
My Google search of "novelty gifts" uncovered not one but several New Zealand stores promoting Farting Undies as a Christmas gift "for him". What a drain on the world's resources. Not to mention the $9.90 purchase price. Wouldn't a gift card have been better?
If you know the person well then it's possible to choose a gift card from an individual store.
Most years I attempt to get organised in early December and arrange class gifts for my children's teachers, who have worked hard, but been paid modestly.
In the early years I watched child after child hand "gifts" to their teachers. Had I been a teacher I would have had nightmares about cluttering my house with candles, toiletries and other gift baskets.
A better way, I thought, was to put a hat around, collect up a decent sum of money and buy the teacher something he or she actually wanted. Each year I now check with the teacher's colleagues and more often than not the answer is gift cards.
Some parents think gift cards are unimaginative. Yet one year the teacher was moved tears at the $150 Westfield voucher she received. It turned out that she'd been cash-strapped all year and she could finally spend a little on something other than basic living needs.
Gift cards are easy to buy. Most local supermarkets have Gift Station stands selling gift cards for up to 72 stores such as Lush, Bling or Civic Video. The top five bestsellers are The Warehouse, Mitre 10, Hunting & Fishing, Restaurant Gift Card and the Movie Gift Card. Or if going to the supermarket is too much effort, gift cards can be bought online.
If in doubt or I don't know the recipient well I buy Westfield vouchers - much as I hate airless, claustrophobic malls and their piped music. It would be a rare person who couldn't find something to his or her liking in a mall. The cards can be spent at the mall supermarket if nowhere else appeals.
Gift cards: a contact sport
There is more to gift-card shopping and redeeming than simply choosing the right card and handing over the money.
Both the givers and receivers of gift cards can boost the value of their gift cards by treating the exercise as a contact sport by:
a: buying gift cards at a discount in the first place;
b: ensuring gift cards are used; and
c: squeezing more value from the cards by thinking before redeeming.
Buying at a discount
Gift cards can be bought at a discount. For example, it's sometimes possible to buy iTunes vouchers for less than face value - sometimes 25 per cent less.
Last year I found out that my son's teacher was partial to beauty therapy treatments. Bingo. One of the parents owned Skinsense Beauty Therapy in Devonport and offered kindly to double the value of the money collected.
I would guess that given the right approach other retailers might be willing to discount their gift cards in the right circumstances.
If you're really clever you could buy the gift voucher on Trade Me. I checked this week and there were several gift cards for sale at less than face value.
For example, trader "nboy" was selling a $200 eVent cinemas gift card for $125 reserve or $150 buy now. That's a great discount. Looking back at recently expired listings some lucky buyer picked up a $250 Kathmandu gift card for $150 + $5 postage from seller giarctauom. Most gift cards sold in recent weeks for about 10 to 20 per cent below face value.
A word of warning, however. I personally wouldn't buy a gift card from any trader with negative feedback or fewer than 50 trades under his or her belt. Nor would I buy a gift card or anything else from a trader who said delivery was at buyer's risk. Beware as well of gift cards and vouchers that are non-transferable.
Another way to make your money go further is to buy the vouchers or gift cards using your Fly Buys, Hot Points, or TrueRewards points.
Making your voucher go further
Most people spend their gift cards by going to the shop or mall in question with the intention of spending the voucher that day come what may.
A more efficient way to use gift cards is to think: "I'm going to wait until XYZ is on sale and then use my voucher."
I was given a very elastic gift card last year - a $50 GrabOne gift card. Because GrabOne and other one-day sale websites offer goods and services at considerably less than their retail value, I was able to turn the $50 gift into about $150 worth of spending.
I was firmly told the voucher had to be used to spoil myself, and not spent on necessities or things for the family.
If, however, I'd wanted to I could have bided my time and used the voucher for something such as a house wash or discounted electrical work - both of which I have bought in the past through GrabOne and Treat Me.
GrabOne gift cards can be bought from supermarkets with Gift Station stands. The card contains a code that can be redeemed as a credit in your GrabOne account.
Use that gift card
Retailers make lots of money out of unused gift cards. The moral to that tale is to put a reminder in your diary to use it by XYZ date. Don't let it collect dust in a drawer.
Another word of warning is that gift cards and vouchers sometimes come with gotchas in the terms and conditions. They may, for example, only be valid for six months or have other sneaky terms and conditions.
I bought two Dhosa Plaza vouchers last month from Treat Me. One voucher was for our family and the other, as the terms and conditions allowed, was a gift for a friend.
When we arrived we were told that even though we met all the other conditions, we couldn't spend both vouchers on the same day because they were bought by the same person. Needless to say, we vowed never to return.
Another issue is that if the trader goes bust, gift cards and vouchers could be worthless.
Or, as Consumer points out (consumer.org.nz/reports/gift-vouchers), some retailers charge you to check your balance.
New takes on an age-old problem
I picked up a new idea about vouchers as gifts this week.
John Berry, from Pathfinder Asset Management, emailed me about the Ross Asset Management saga and his concerns that investors were putting money into funds that weren't run at arm's length.
The conversation somehow turned to gift vouchers and Berry said he would rather give cash than vouchers to his children because invariably they wanted something from another shop.
"So they talk us into buying their voucher from them so they can cash up - and then I have to remember to use it before expiry," Berry commented.
"As a good lesson to my kids I have on occasion bought the voucher off them for $1 less than the face value - which may seem cruel but it does teach them the value of cash over 'cash-like' or less liquid assets," he said.
"Why would a buyer want to turn cash into something they can only spend in one place?"
That is a great way of showing children that the bank of Mum and Dad isn't simply a font of money.