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We all have at least one person on our gift-buying list who’s nearly impossible to shop for. They don’t seem to have any obvious hobbies, are very particular about what they’ll buy for themselves, and just don’t seem to pick up on the subtle “what do you think of this…” hints we drop in the lead-up to shopping season. For these people, gift cards can be the perfect present; they’re more personal than cash, but also show you’ve put a bit of thought into the recipient’s interests.

Buyer Beware: The Wasteful Side of Gift Cards

The catch to cards as gifts, though, is sometimes they equal a big waste of money. In November, Consumer Reports magazine announced the results of a survey that found that more than a quarter of participants still had unused gift cards from the previous Christmas, and that Americans lost as much as $8 billion in unredeemed, expired, or lost gift cards.

And, as convenient as gift cards are for consumers, that’s not the reason they’re so prevalent at stores. Retailers love them because they get cash in hand long before they have to hand over any merchandise - and they also know that a good percentage of the value on the cards will never be redeemed.

“It’s easy to understand the appeal of gift cards. They’re the perfect no-muss, no-fuss gift for the finicky family member or friend,” said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports. “But gift-givers and recipients alike need to be aware of the pitfalls and make sure that precautions are taken so that the recipient gets the gift and not the retailers.”

To avoid shelling out on a card destined to languish in a drawer, really target your recipient's interest when selecting their present. Here are a few of the more-creative options out there.

Finds for Foodies

Do you know someone who can't start their day without a cup of joe from Starbucks, or insists on living on the Subway diet? Pretty much every fast food restaurant offers gift cards at the checkout these days - and anyone can appreciate a free lunch here and there.

Kick it up a notch with a card from your favourite fancy restaurant or, better yet, teach your loved ones to cook quality for themselves. Toronto’s Dish Cooking Studio, for example, offers a number of courses for singles and couples of varying culinary skills starting at $75 per class.

The bourbon aficionado or oenophile (wine snob) on your list certainly wouldn’t turn their nose up at a card for the LCBO or other provincial liqueur retailer.

Send ‘Em Packing

Know someone who deserves a holiday? Gift cards that are good towards Via Rail tickets start at $25; you can also splurge in $500 increments on travel cards at itravel2000.com. Companies like SambaDays.com offer gift cards for a wide range of holiday and adventure packages. Trips range from rafting on the Ottawa River or touring wine country to flying lessons or laps in a racecar for the truly adventurous in your life. For something a little more tranquil, visit a site like BedAndBreakfast.com to order a gift certificate valid at any of thousands for B&Bs across Canada and the United States.

Stay Connected

A prepaid phonecard with airtime or long-distance minutes is a great way to encourage friends and family to keep in touch. Or consider an iTunes gift card for the music lover in your life, and then share playlists so you can bond over new tracks.

Get a Free $100 Gift Card!

Right now, when you're approved for either the MBNA Smart Cash MasterCard® credit card or MBNA Platinum Plus® MasterCard® credit card, you'll receive a free $100 gift card from RATESDOTCA for one of four great retailers.

Allan Britnell

Toronto-based freelancer Allan Britnell is an award-winning writer with nearly 20 years’ experience. He covers a diverse range of topics, including DIY and professional home renovation projects, nature and the environment, small business, personal finance, and family and health issues. He is also the managing editor of Renovation Contractor, the publication written for small- and medium-sized contracting and custom home building companies. He lives in Toronto with his wife, two daughters, and their dog, Oscar.

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