If it's the thought that counts, then gift cards don't count much at all.
They're popular, granted. Six out of 10 people responding to National Retail Federation surveys this year said they wanted to receive gift cards for the holidays, and more than half said they planned to give them.
The rest of us may think of gift cards as a cop-out. Gift cards are what you give when you don't have a clue what makes the recipient tick and can't trouble yourself to find out.
OK, that's not totally fair. Gift cards may seem like the only reasonable solution when you're dealing with, say, the ever-changing whims of your teenage nieces and nephews. But why bother with plastic? Just give 'em cash. Cash gets spent. A big chunk of what's sunk on gift cards — about $1 billion per year, according to market research firm CEB — remains unspent.
Ill-considered gifts are an even bigger waste of money, of course. Everybody has stories of epic fails: The etiquette book (extra points if it's from your mother-in-law). The box of chocolates to someone who's allergic, on a diet or both. Getting back the gift you gave to the oblivious person the year before.
Good gifts can be all over the map as well, but they share a similar trait. They universally say, "I get you."
Giving good gifts can be incredibly hard. It takes time, energy and some sleuthing. You have to stop thinking about yourself — what you want, what you think the recipient should have or be or do — and think in depth about the other person: How do they like to spend their time?
What are they passionate about? What would make their lives easier or more fun? It's an exercise in empathy that takes us out of ourselves and brings us closer to the people we love.
The ultimate gifts are the ones that are unexpected. They're something the recipients wouldn't think of or buy for themselves. They can surprise and delight.
This is why "gift guides" that magazines and websites like to feature are ultimately disappointing. There's no one-size-fits-all good gift. The shiny chef's knife that would be nirvana for a budding cook would be a horrible gift for someone who stores books in the oven.
On the other hand, who would think an old, battered lunchbox would be a good gift? Yet a friend of mine counts that as one of her best. Her husband searched thrift stores, vintage shops and auction sites for months to find the lunchpail she loved, and lost, in childhood.
Money just complicates matters. Do we budget or splurge? For the thrifty, getting a great deal on an awesome gift is the holy grail. Too often, though, the bargain isn't awesome, and the awesome is no bargain.
I'm not great at gift-giving, but I'm trying to get better. I'm learning to splurge more often, because I'd rather delight the people I love than fritter money away on other stuff that brings less joy. I also pay attention to the people around me who are good givers. Here's what they have in common:
— They listen and take notes. Some of the best gift-givers keep a running list of ideas in a notebook or on their smartphone.
— They consult. Friends and loved ones can be a great source of ideas, plus they can let you know what the recipient already has.
— They don't wait for Black Friday. It's more likely to stumble across a great gift the other 11 months of the year.
— They don't just give stuff. Experiences bring more happiness than possessions, research shows.
— They fail sometimes. Selecting a gift means taking a risk, and no one gets it right every time.
Early in our marriage, my husband, who normally is an excellent gift-giver, gave me a waffle iron. I hadn't even fully unwrapped the present before I blurted out, "We're going to nip this in the bud." (A note to spouses everywhere: Don't give anything with a plug unless it's been specifically requested. Even then, think twice.)
Speaking of specific requests, those of us who aren't great gift-givers still have one great option: wish lists. We don't get the thrill of the out-of-the-park hit, but at least we listened.
What if the other person really wants gift cards? By all means, give them. But we shouldn't give up on trying to find real gifts for the people we love. We're better for having made the effort.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Liz Weston is a certified financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.
NerdWallet: You got a gift card you don't want. Now what?
The Atlantic: Buy experiences, not things