Looking a gift card in the mouth

"You qualified."

I'd just purchased $102 worth of stuff at the sporting goods store, and the clerk happily handed me my ten dollar gift card. What a nice surprise. I turned around to the stuff next to the checkout, searching for a $6 item I could now purchase, for free.

"Oh, sorry, you can't use it today. It becomes valid tomorrow."

Not only that, but I noted that it expires in four months.

Not so much of a gift. A manipulation. I better hurry back, the thinking goes, or that thing of value in my wallet will disappear.

Just as insightful is the recent promotion that they did at Staples. Pay $15 to buy the ability to save 10% on most things in the store (not online) for the next sixty days. It turns out that most people spend about $50 on a visit, which means that part of the card pays for itself in that first visit. But, and it's a big but, you've now purchased something that feels like a debt, one that you can only profit from if you head back, and soon.

These, of course, are not gift cards at all. They are motivational cards. And they work.

People are not machines, and purchasing just about anything is as much about emotion and the story we tell ourselves as it is about economic calculation. Charging you for the chance to save money one day is one more step in a dance about feelings.