Greeting card tyranny

greeting_cardAt this point in the development of capitalism, it is well understood that the most profitable businesses are those that sell a product that consumers cannot resist buying. Cigarettes, oil, electricity, insurance and heroin are all examples of products that once a consumer is hooked, he cannot help but to buy. I put greeting cards in this category.

Americans purchase 6.5 billion greeting cards each year, blowing $7-8 billion for the privilege, according to the Greeting Card Association.

Sure, it’s not much money per person, maybe $30 each on average. But for what?

Trees are mowed down or, in the best case, recycled paper fiber is processed into sheets of printing stock. These sheets are then printed with cute little phrases and pictures (often in China), are shipped to the U.S. then distributed to individual stores. At the local stores, the customer plays his or her role, flipping through the cards as quickly as possible until one is found that will “work” — not perfect, just “good enough.” The card is mindlessly purchased, a name is unemotionally signed and the card sits until it’s time to hand it over to the receiver. That moment is funny, too, with the giver anxiously waiting while the receiver opens the card, fakes a chuckle at the joke and says a heartfelt “thank you.” If it’s a group setting, the card is then passed around so everyone can enjoy the hilarious joke. And, then, of course, after the journey from forest to factory to store to lucky recipient, the card is usually recycled into an eggshell carton, fulfilling the much more important job of gently cradling an egg.

My biggest complaint, though, isn’t about the environmental waste of greeting cards nor is it the financial cost, which is relatively small on an individual basis. No, it’s the societal pressure to acknowledge these special dates with a decorated and branded piece of paper. Somehow the greeting card industry has managed to create a world where I must buy something to remain in good social standing. Instead of getting points for buying something for you, I get punished for not buying something. Now by spending my money on a greeting card, I get to zero. It has become, literally, the least you can do. (OK, actually sending birthday greetings on Facebook is doing even less, but you get the idea.)

For many years now, I’ve mostly opted out of buying cards for people. I feel no pressure to tape a card on top of a gift just to complete the picture. I don’t buy a card for someone to acknowledge their birthday. Cards I’m OK with are condolences card for deaths in the family, thank you cards (buy in bulk to have some on hand for less money) and occasionally I’ll spring for one just to hold a gift card. My wife and I have an understanding about this, which helps a lot. Occasionally we’re still caught by this exploitation for certain special occasions, such as a parent’s anniversary or similar event, but it’s been liberating to largely free ourselves from this tyranny.

What about you? Do you still buy greeting cards or have you found a way to escape this trap? Or do you not look at as a trap and buy cards without feeling it’s a such a horrible thing?

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21 Thoughts on “Greeting card tyranny

  1. I hate cards. I don’t like shopping for them and most of the time, the wording is just horrible. I usually try to create something on my own. I have started writing letters instead of giving cards and people seem blown away by it. How can a card with a saying cost over $5?
    Grayson @ Debt Roundup recently posted…When I Would Rather Spend Than SaveMy Profile

  2. When I was younger, we had a software on our computer that allowed you to make your own greeting cards. It basically had 100,000 photos loaded onto it for pretty much any occasion you wanted and even let you set up exactly how you wanted the card to print out. I’m not sure if this really saved money in the long run since printer ink is so expensive, but everyone appreciated the effort and thought behind them was great and all the relatives loved them!

    I’ve since lost the CD for that program, though I’m sure there is tons of other software out there to do the same exact thing. I do agree with just buying a big stack of generic ‘Thank You’ cards though and writing out your own message on them when needed.
    Debt Hater recently posted…Weekly Spending – 4/28/13 – 5/04/13My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on May 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm said:

      I have a relative who saves the cards she receives and cuts them out and glues them into new blank cards (in creative ways) to make her own. I think they’re pretty cool. Almost makes me want to save them (but I don’t).

  3. Mrs. RB40 makes her own cards and everyone who get one loves it. She folds origami and glue them on the cards and have a lot of fun doing it. I don’t really send cards. I usually just call on special occasions.
    retirebyforty recently posted…The Biggest Problem With Early RetirementMy Profile

  4. Nick, sometimes I think we’re cut from the exact same mold!

    I’ve hated the idea of spending $3 on a little folded piece of cardboard for as long as I can remember! The messages typically suck, but the part that always pissed me of the most was how people mindlessly purchase them day in and day out.

    I’ve made my own cards since I was old enough to write. No joke! Occasionally I’ll get the 2 for $1 cards at the dollar store if I feel required to give one for a odd occasion, but I’d rather put some thought into my own.

    My mom still asks me to give her a made card each year. Now that’s special.
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  7. I certainly don’t feel card giving obliged. However I regularly buy them for my bf to make a lasting statement of my sentiments. Email or texts don’t have the same longevity. Cards only serve a purpose if you take the time to include a heartfelt message, much like Grayson who writes letters – it’s just I usually do it in a card rather than sheet paper.
    SarahN recently posted…How do I ‘work’ my payrise?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on May 13, 2013 at 7:01 am said:

      Thanks for stopping by, Sarah! You know, my point is that so much of the gift card buying is obligation driven. The old “Oh, I still have to get to the store and buy her a card!” thing. When you “want” to do it and you’re genuinely moved to do it AND especially if you do more than sign your name, I’m totally on-board. It’s the manipulation of the industry that bugs me the most. I’m glad you don’t feel obligated but do it because you want to!

  8. I’ve also stopped buying greeting cards, but when I do feel obligated to get one, I go to the places selling it for 50% off. My wife has made cards to give to me and I’ve made one for her too, but I’d feel awkward making a card for other people. They’ll probably think that I’m being cheap. My friend makes his own cards to give people but he’s an artist and people love his original design. I can’t do that.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…How to Save Money on GroceriesMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on May 13, 2013 at 10:20 am said:

      Yeah, I don’t have any talent, so I will buy the occasional card when it’s super important to give a card. But mostly I try to avoid the whole thing.

  9. I could not agree with you more. I hate the pressure of having to give a card, to me there are far more exciting ways to say it than a card, like one rose (which sometimes could be a cost of a card), believe you me people will remember you giving them a present and a rose on top rather than a present and card. For weddings I go to the trouble of cutting a DVD with pictures of them and me in it, takes two minutes but people remember it.

    For years I have kept cards from people because I felt bad throwing them away because sometimes I hardly used to read what was inside it.
    These days I take the time to read the card leave it out for a few days to appreciate it then keep them and send them off to the college they have here for craft day rather than throw them away

  10. Steve on May 30, 2013 at 7:38 pm said:

    I only buy 99 cent cards. But it seems everyone else is doing the same, spending an average of 1.23 per card. I agree though, it’s so much the bare minimum of effort, that what’s the point? “I’m thinking about you but not so much that I could bother to write more than my own name by hand?”

    • Pretired Nick on May 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm said:

      Heh! Exactly. I think these cards were pretty meaningful at one time but now they’re just a silly ritual that we go through just because we always have. “Care enough to say I would do even less if only I could figure out how to get away with it!”

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