Gift cards are the top gift consumers are buying this season, the International Council of Shopping Centers says, with two-thirds of consumers buying the cards as presents.

Most of those people are probably paying too much, but more on that in a moment.

I know that many people dismiss gift cards as unimaginative presents, sort of like handing someone $20 and then telling them where they have to spend it. And I do have people with whom I no longer exchange gifts because it got to the point where we were just exchanging gift cards.

But there's an argument to be made for gift cards. They free the recipient from the guilt of spending. Give me $50 and I'll put it in the bank, but give me a Starbucks gift card and I'm going out for coffee.

There's a lot of pent-up demand as we emerge from recession. Many people have hunkered down and worked on building their savings, keeping their wallets tightly closed, but at some point, clothes wear out, appliances and toys break, and children are always outgrowing stuff.

Gift cards are cash equivalents, which makes them a more versatile gift than, say, a Chia Pet or a Snuggie. Impersonal? Yes. Wrong size or color? No.

A key benefit to receiving a gift card for Christmas is that you can use it after the holiday to buy stuff that would have cost twice as much before Christmas.

(If you receive one for Hanukkah, which begins this week, you'll have a bit longer to wait.)

And with a small amount of effort, you can get gift cards at a discount.

Here are some tips:

--As retail reporter Warren Wise reported Thursday, Piggly Wiggly is back with one of my favorite promotions: gift cards for Greenbax. If you're a regular Piggly Wiggly shopper with a Pig Card, you may have lots of Greenbax stored up and not even know it. From now through Dec. 28, every five Greenbax will get you a $10 gift card. The Pig sells gift cards for a variety of stores.

And here's a related tip. If you're a home subscriber to The Post and Courier, on Sept. 4 you received a copy of "My Charleston," The Post and Courier's guide to life in the Lowcountry. Still have it? There's a Piggly Wiggly coupon on one of the last pages good for 5 Greenbax, which in turn are worth a $10 gift card.

--If you're going to buy gift cards, you might as well buy them online and get frequent-flier miles for doing so. Most airline frequent-flier programs have a shopping hub where you can enter your frequent-flier number, then click on through to the sites where you plan to shop, and you'll get miles for the purchases. The miles will reset the expiration date on your frequent-flier account. Of course, make sure there's no shipping charge involved, but there usually is not for a gift card.

Some credit cards also have shopping hubs where you get cash back for starting out at their website.

--Check for promotions. Barnes & Noble, for example, is offering a free $10 "eGift Card" (it's e-mailed to you) for a purchase of $100 in gift cards. Outback Steak House will give you a $20 "bonus card" (valid Jan. 1 to Feb. 10) if you buy $100 in gift cards. Applebee's will give you a $10 bonus card for buying $50 in gift cards.

--Buy discounted gift cards online. There's a thriving second-hand market for unwanted gift cards, which means you can buy them for less than face value, often around 10 percent off. Movie theater gift cards are often 20 percent off. I just bought one. And of course, if you get a gift card you don't want, you can sell it. Check out giftcardrescue.com, cardpool.com or plasticjungle.com. Giftcardgranny.com lets you compare discounts offered by competing sites.

Happy shopping, good luck getting good deals, keep to that budget and let's all stick to what we can afford.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.