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Life Lessons

Buy Yourself A Gift Card

SHAOYANG, CHINA - FEBRUARY 16: People read books at Songpo bookstore during the Spring Festival holiday on February 16, 2021 in Shaoyang, Hunan Province of China. (Photo by Teng Zhizhong/VCG via Getty Images)
Teng Zhizhong/VCG via Getty Images

I am a big book guy, but not a big bookstore guy. Almost every book I buy, I buy on a recommendation or a review or because it's by an author I already know I enjoy. When I decide to buy one, I check for sales, buy online, often buy the e-book, or even just take it out at the library. I have almost never in my life bought books spontaneously, at least since the days of the Scholastic catalog.

For my birthday earlier this year, my coworkers got me a gift card to a local bookstore. Oh ho ho! Now I had no choice. I had to go to the bookstore and purchase several books. I would not worry about price. I would make snap judgments. I would chance taking home a book I might end up not enjoying, providing a frisson of risk. Suddenly I was the proverbial kid in a candy store, flitting from section to section as my stack grew taller. (Here is my ultimate haul, if you are curious.)

Do you like books? Here is something I would like to recommend to you: Go to a bookstore. Purchase a gift card to that bookstore. Put the gift card in your wallet. Leave. Now, you have a reason to go back to the bookstore and buy a bunch of books! Isn't that rad? It might sound stupid to you. And inefficient. And superfluous. I grant you all of those. But there is a difference between "buying books" and "having to buy books," and the latter is a delightful scenario to find oneself in.

You're skeptical of the necessity of these extra steps. I get it. But sometimes you have to force yourself into enjoying a luxury. Let me try to explain further.

Why does the gift card have to enter into it at all? Why don't I just go to the bookstore and buy some books I want?

There is a mental hurdle that the gift card overcomes in a single leap, rather than a tentative ascent that you may not complete. It can be very easy to be all, Oh I don't need to buy a second book today, I already bought a book. But if you have the gift card, you do have to buy that second book, and maybe that second book turns out to be the best book you've ever read. Or you might be like, Oh, $35 is too much for a book. I agree. But if you've already spent the money, you won't let price get in the way of a book's appealing qualities. The trick is taking the initial plunge with the gift card. After that, all of the little nagging things that pushed you away from buying a book are no longer in play. Which is a good thing, because the ultimate goal is to buy the book, not to not buy the book.

How do I know what books to buy?

This is the beautiful part. You don't know! You follow your instincts. Choose by section if you want; I read mostly fiction, so when I had my gift card I made a deliberate decision to browse nonfiction first. See which covers grab you (even if all fiction covers look the same these days). Read the jacket copy and the back-cover blurbs. Does it speak to you? Could you see yourself loving this book? Or does something you can't quite put your finger on tell you this isn't quite The One? If the answer to that last question is yes, then put it back. You are God. These books' fates rest in your hands.

Walk around with the book while you look at other books. Let your unconscious mind work. You can always put the book back. And if you put the book back, you get to pick another book! The system works.

There's no wrong way to pick a book, and having already paid up front for the gift card frees you from the self-imposed burden of feeling like you need to make the perfect choice. Choice can be paralyzing. Uncountable money is spent by brands and marketers trying to make your choices for you, especially in e-commerce. It's exhausting to be the target of so many interested parties telling you how horrible it'll be if you don't make the absolutely correct choice. Remove yourself from the cycle. Follow your whims. So what if you end up taking something home without doing your due diligence? You still have a book. That's a pretty great consolation prize.

Aren't gift cards a ripoff?

You're talking about breakage, which is the amount of money spent on unused services, i.e. gift cards that are never or only partially redeemed. That won't be an issue for you; you are going to spend more than is on the gift card and make up the difference in cash.

What if I already buy books spontaneously?

The gift card idea still has value. You can set a target amount to spend to influence your book-shopping behavior. Wish you bought more books? Load up some dollar figure that will force you to purchase three books on this trip instead of the usual two. Tend to spend too much on books? Put 50 bucks on that sucker and force yourself to go home with two instead of three. The important thing is to create for yourself a target. I think you will find that if you have a specific number of books that you are obligated to buy, it will change your browsing behavior in some surprising ways.

Does the gift card idea work for things other than books?

Probably! It's very easy to find yourself locked into purchasing habits. You do things a certain way because that's how you've always done them; there's enough crap going on in your life that you want some of your activities to be mindless. You likely take the same route through the supermarket every time, picking up the same items. You don't even look at the sections you've already decided don't concern you. That's fine for staples, but many of the things we buy are indulgences, and if you are hidebound in your shopping habits, you are denying yourself a whole host of potential pleasures. The gift card takes money out of the equation, and focuses your options to a single store while broadening them on the item level beyond your usual blinkers. Get outside your comfort zone, and you'll see old goods in a new way. It's like going to a supermarket while on vacation in a new country, which is one of the most fun experiences there is.

There you have it: a good idea. Perhaps your brain is not broken in ways that make this a solution to your self-imposed problems. But I still urge you to try it. Think of it as a gift from present you to future you.

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