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Stop shopping; Give cash as a gift

Some people say giving money as a gift is tacky. I say it's no tackier than the red plastic pocketbook my mother-in-law once bestowed on me.

Money always fits. And it's never the wrong color. Nobody's face ever falls when they open an envelope and discover the gift of green.

The only problem is deciding how much to give. Sales of Hallmark greeting cards that are designed to hold cash, checks or gift cards have increased nearly 150 percent in the last two years. The firm surveyed its customers about cash gift amounts. The consensus: $50 or more is appropriate for a close relative, $25 or less is suitable for not-so-close kin and $20 or less is what they would give to a friend.

Whatever amount you choose, from a few bucks to a few thousand, here are some ways to give money or its cousins graciously.

Say it with cash
If you're giving less than $100, think cash. Even banks that usually don't do anything for free will trade wrinkled, dirty old money for newly printed, crisp $20 bills. A check might be slightly easier for the giver, but cashing it can be costly for people without a checking account or other banking relationship.

Cash does have some drawbacks. The U.S. Postal Service frowns on mailing money. If the envelope is lost or stolen, the money will be gone as well. And sending cash to parts of the world where the postal service isn't reliable can be doubly risky.

But if you're handing out the gifts, it's hard to beat the beauty of fresh bills. You can always personalize the cold cash with a nice note. It doesn't have to be flowery or long. A few XXXs and OOOs, a simple "I love you" or just "Thanks for tucking my packages out of the rain" will make the gift even more valuable, says Leah Ingram, author of You Shouldn't Have, a guide to giving.

Prepaid plastic
Visa- and MasterCard-branded stored-value cards look and act like credit cards. You load them up with any amount and the recipient can use the card to buy anything where the affiliated cards are accepted.

The card can't be used until it's activated, and both Visa and MasterCard products are covered under zero-liability policies. If the card is lost or stolen and you report it promptly, you will be reimbursed for amount on the card that had not yet been spent before the card disappeared.

If the gift card has a personal identification number (PIN) so it can be used at an ATM, the PIN will be issued separately, offering additional protection when the gift is en route. You can have both the card and PIN mailed to you, so that you can deliver them personally. Or you can get a dummy card to present and the bank will mail the actual plastic and PIN to the person you choose.

Shop wisely to get the most gift card for your money. Some banks and credit card companies charge their existing customers only for the amount that is loaded onto the cards. But other vendors charge a purchase fee in addition to the stored value that could dramatically increase the price a purchaser could pay for the card.

Next: Most merchants also sell their own gift cards.
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