What’s the best gift for any occasion? It would have to meet these requirements:
- No one ever returns or regifts it
- It never expires, becomes obsolete, or requires repair
- Even if the recipient already has it, they’ll be happy to receive more
- It can be exchanged for literally anything you might want at any store
Yeah, I’m talking about cash.
Maybe this will cement my reputation as an unromantic guy who listens to too much Planet Money, but to me, no gift is more perfect.
In addition to the time-honored practice of slipping twenties into an envelope, there are now plenty of modern ways to give cash. Here are some of my favorites.
Direct deposit isn’t just for paychecks anymore. Dwolla, POPMoney, and other services allow you to send cash directly to the recipient’s bank account at no charge. You don’t need to know their account number; an email address or phone number is sufficient. Or you could try the latest trend in payments with Snapcash – Snapchat’s latest offering in partnership with Square Cash.
I have mixed feelings about these, because they have significant drawbacks compared to actual cash: fees, expiration, and that leftover $3.27 after you buy your sweater.
There are many good ways to buy gift cards online, both physical and virtual. Amazon, for example, sells gift cards for many retailers, and if you buy a physical gift card for Amazon itself, they’ll ship it overnight for free. Other sites sell discounted gift cards; at GiftCardGranny.com, for example, you can compare discounted physical and e-gift cards from various sites.
Invest in a child’s future and contribute to a 529 college savings plan account. You’ll need to talk to their parents and find out where their plan is held (and possibly account number) and then contact the plan to find out how to make a gift. This is usually easier than it sounds; they’re eager to take your money.
Alternatively, if you’re a grandparent, you’re probably better off just establishing your own 529 plan with the grandchild as the beneficiary. I did a roundup of the best 529 plans earlier this year.
Another way to ensure the recipient doesn’t blow all the money right away is to give a Series I U.S. savings bond. The bond is available in any denomination (minimum $25) and can’t be cashed in for at least one year.
I love savings bonds: they pay interest guaranteed to keep up with inflation. Although the setup process may seem a bit hefty at first, if you’re giving a large amount or plan to give savings bonds regularly (not a bad idea), it’s worth the time.
It doesn’t matter who’s on your list: cash is a universal gift that can be used by anyone, for anything. It gives the recipient the freedom to get exactly what they want.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com and author, most recently, of Child Octopus: Edible Adventures in Hong Kong. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.