The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Restaurant Gift Cards

Use 'em or lose 'em but no matter what, don't forget to tip.

A person uses a gift card at a restaurant

Kali Nine / Getty Images

Gift cards are ubiquitous, more commonplace than the common cold. Step into any drugstore or grocery store and you’ll find a prominent display of them offering pre-paid enjoyment to places like Applebee’s, Home Depot, and Bass Pro Shops. It’s like a mall in the 1980s where everything you want to shop for is all in one place. When you’re in need of a last-minute present, be it birthday, housewarming, or otherwise, a restaurant gift card might seem like the perfect solution. But is it?

The good thing about restaurant gift cards

We all know the good about gift cards.  They’re easy to buy and simple to give. They can be slipped right into an envelope, and boom, it’s done. Sometimes they’re in their own decorative envelope or the card itself has the celebratory greeting directly on it. Who needs wrapping paper?  And you can always find the perfect place for someone to go out to eat. If the recipient doesn’t like Applebee’s, rest assured some other well-known restaurant chain will be there to choose from and one would think that everyone would appreciate a free meal. It’s also nice to decide exactly how much you want to spend since gift card denominations can be as affordable as $10 or as extravagant as $100. On the flip side, the person you give it to will also know how much you chose to spend on them. It’s the thought that counts, but $10 at a restaurant isn’t going to go very far. 

The bad thing about restaurant gift cards

OK, so maybe a gift card isn’t the most imaginative of presents. The beneficiary of such a run-of-the-mill gift has every right to judge you for your lack of creativity. They’ll know how little effort it took for you to choose this gift while simultaneously picking up a loaf of bread and paper towels at Walmart. Another concern is that you select a restaurant they don’t want to go to which is great news for the restaurant. That’s probably their hope, that most of the cards never get redeemed and they make money by selling no food. If you are going to get a restaurant gift card for someone, make sure it’s a place they enjoy. You don’t want to make someone eat a Cactus Blossom® at Texas Roadhouse when all they’re hankering for is a Bloomin’ Onion® from Outback Steakhouse. Do your due diligence so the card doesn’t go to waste.

The ugly thing about restaurant gift cards

Sometimes people can feel pressure to use a restaurant gift card, because they want to use every penny of it. It’s no fun being stuck with a card that has a random balance on it that’s not enough to buy anything else, but it’s too much to ignore. It then languishes in the wallet until the owner decides to return to the restaurant and go to the trouble of explaining how they want to use the $1.79 on the card and then pay the remaining balance in cash. The restaurant got what they wanted out of it: a returning customer spending more money. The worst thing that can happen is the restaurant closes permanently before the card is redeemed and it becomes a useless piece of plastic. It can be used to scrape ice off the windshield of a car so at least it will have some value. The sting of a gift card losing its worth is something that never goes away. Digital gift cards are popular too, but they’re easy to forget about and more likely to never get used. They live in the cloud alongside hundreds of selfies and forgotten downloaded apps, never to be seen again, sort of like B. Dalton Bookseller of the malls of yesteryear. 

The most important thing to remember about restaurant gift cards

From the good to the bad to the ugly, there is one takeaway about using gift cards that outweighs all else. When leaving a tip, it must be calculated on the original amount of the check. If the check is $60 and the gift card is for $50, the remaining balance will be $10. You do not tip on $10, you tip on $60. Tipping on only the remaining balance banishes you to a food court in an abandoned mall to eat at Corn Dog 7’s for all of eternity. 

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