I was recently doing some research on gift cards for my weekly TV segment when I ran across a curious piece of data:  This year there will be approximately 20 percent more people giving gift cards than there will be people wanting to receive them!  I wondered why.  Then it occurred to me:  Maybe people give gift cards because they're easy and require little effort.  And, maybe recipients don't like them because they can be a real pain.

Granted gift cards are simple—but they do have some real downsides.  As Christians, it behooves us to be wise stewards of our money.  King David praised wisdom when he said, "Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place." (Psalms 51:6)  Let me share a few things to consider before selecting a gift card.

1. Some gift cards have expiration dates.  While many store cards do not have expiration dates, you may find that the Visa or Master Card you give expires within a year or two, or begins charging a monthly service fee.

2. Unlike the old-fashioned gift certificates, gift cards may leave you with a wasted balance.  Do you remember the gift certificate that your grandmother gave you for $20 for merchandize at the toy store?  If you bought something for $18—they gave you the remaining $2 back in change.  But, with a $20 gift card it doesn't usually work that way.  If you spend $18 of its value—you simply are left with a $2 credit.  Many of these $2 credits never get spent—thus leaving retailers with millions of dollars in "free" money. 

3. Some gift cards charge fees. Many store cards don't. But often the Visa, Master Card and mall cards do.  These fees (frequently $3-$5 per card) can add up in a hurry.

4. Beware of bankrupt retailers.  As the economy worsens, it's probable that many more retailers will close their stores.  If you get a gift card from a retailer that closes, chances are you'll be out of luck.  There aren't a lot of laws protecting consumers in this area—and besides, how much of your time and effort do you want to put into getting someone to make good on a $50 gift card.  If you are given a gift card, consider using it quickly.

5.  Think about giving gift cards for essentials.  With more people losing their jobs, this might be a good time to give "practical" gift cards.  Why not give a gift card for groceries, or gas, or even to pay utilities?

Steve Diggs presents the No Debt, No Sweat! Christian Money Management Seminar at churches and other venues nationwide. Visit Steve on the Web at www.stevediggs.com or call 615-834-3063. The author of several books, today Steve serves as a minister for the Antioch Church of Christ in Nashville. For 25 years he was President of the Franklin Group, Inc. Steve and Bonnie have four children whom they have home schooled. The family lives in Brentwood, Tennessee.

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