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Cash poor, gift card rich

January 18, 2007|Sally Schultheiss | SALLY SCHULTHEISS is a contributing editor at Cookie magazine and a contributing writer for Real Simple.

MY HUSBAND and I couldn't pay our bills this month. We wrote checks from one credit card company to pay another. Our mortgage was past due, our cable TV was shut off, and we are still sharing a cellphone. Last week, I had to ask my son's preschool to wait to cash the tuition check.

And yet we are not too strapped to upgrade from a Starbucks grande mocha latte to a venti, or, at the Coffee Bean, from a regular ice-blended to an ultimo. Instead of popping a picture of our kids into a $4.99 frame for their grandmother's birthday -- as we usually do -- we ordered a $50 art book, "France: From the Air," online from Barnes & Noble and are having it shipped to her overnight express.

We are among the "gift card poor." My husband is a math teacher at a private school with an affluent student body where, lucky us, holiday presents have moved well beyond homemade fudge and smelly soaps. This year, his take included gift cards from Best Buy, Borders, Barnes & Noble, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Starbucks, Westfield malls, Blockbuster, AMC Theaters, Maria's Italian Kitchen and American Express. The grand total: $775.

Gift cards are meant to prompt little, unexpected indulgences. "You work hard. Treat yourself," is the implied sentiment. My brother, 32 and single, spends his in that spirit. He'll pop into the Gap to see if anything catches his eye, thinking, "I have that gift card from my birthday last July."

But there are no little indulgences for a strapped family of four -- especially in January, when the holiday debt hangover hits. We have more of a "clean out the change in the car to pay for the milk" mentality. We used one of the American Express gift cards to buy groceries at Ralph's, and the others to retrieve some dry cleaning we'd dropped off in flusher times. Although gift cards make some people feel momentarily richer, they simply make us respectable.

When I met a more well-to-do friend for coffee last week, instead of letting her, once again, treat me, I said, "I'll get this one," and felt the resentment in her ease just a little. I can pick up birthday gifts at bookstore chains, which now offer toys, stationery and even teas and chocolates.

I know all about the pitfalls of gift cards, which have exploded into an $82-billion-a-year industry. "Use them soon!" advises the local news, noting that their value dwindles with price markups and inflation. Estimates are that 10% to 15% never get redeemed and become, in essence, donations to the retailer, as do the little leftover balances, too small to purchase anything and yet unredeemable for cash.

Friends of mine complain that the cards are impersonal, bleak emblems of our anonymous, overly processed society. But I'm thrilled with our little bundle of bar codes.

If only our mortgage company would start offering gift cards -- that's something I could toast with my venti peppermint latte.

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