With 11 nieces and nephews spread across the country, Bruce Kin Huie of San Francisco finds it difficult to be the "doting uncle" he wants to be at Christmas.
Last year Huie sent checks, which he found a bit impersonal, for kids who range in age from 1 to 16.
"I don't know what they're interested in because I see them once or twice a year," he said in a telephone interview.
This year Huie, 52, is budgeting about $40 per child, and is asking them for wish lists on Lottay.com, a Web site that helps people give the gift of money for specific gifts that people want. One of his nephews, for example, is into triathlons and will get $40 in a PayPal transfer from his uncle to buy himself some triathlon gear.
"This year I get to know a little bit about what their interests are," Huie said.
Whether his relatives will spend the gift money on the wish list item he designated it for is up in the air. Huie considers it better than sending a check or gift card, which is impersonal. And sending a physical gift may not be what they want, he said.
"It's like getting money in a card online," he said, adding that he thinks an online card makes it more personal.
"This is an online way to really keep them connected to me," he said.
That's one of the points of Lottay, Harry Lin, the company's CEO, told me in a telephone interview. It adds a personal touch that gift card can't give. Gift cards sometimes have hidden fees, and much of the profit from them is through "breakage" when users don't use them before they expire, Lin said.
There's also the awkwardness of giving money for Christmas, which Lottay tries to get around by adding gift cards and wish lists into the mix.
"Recipients love money as a gift but senders feel a little squeamish about it," Lim said.
If an online gift card and wish list are enough to convince you that this isn't a cash gift, then Merry Christmas. For me, it still looks like a cash gift, although I can see the benefit of at least giving money toward a gift that someone really wants but won't likely get because it costs too much.
For me, I'd like to get an Apple laptop for Christmas, but don't see it happening because it's so expensive for one gift giver to afford. Maybe if people chipped in $40 or so on Lottay, it would happen.
Lottay isn't meant to be a replacement for physical gifts, Lin said, so if you're determined to hit the malls and buy gifts, please do. But if you're out of gift ideas and sending a check doesn't sound personal enough, Lottay may be the answer.
"When you get it," Lin said of a Lottay gift, "the experience of receiving it is very different than getting a check from someone."
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who can be reached at www.AaronCrowe.net
Give 'em what they really want: Online dollars to use as they please