Cash may be king, but plastic is handy, which explains the boom in prepaid gift and credit cards available everywhere from pharmacies to gas stations. But all prepaid cards are not created equal, and because they're still largely unregulated, your well-intentioned gift may end up being substantially smaller than you anticipated.

Oftentimes, there are fees that chip away at the overall value of the card if it isn't used quickly enough – for instance, the KeyBank MasterCard charges a $2.50 per month inactivity fee after a set period of time. There's also the issue of buying prepaid cards with a set dollar amount, such as $100 Visa or Amex card. Unlike cash or most store-branded cards, the purchases gets hit upfront with a purchasing fee – that's the case with all the cards issued by credit-card companies and banks in the most recent Bankrate.com survey of gift cards. For instance, that AmEx gift card carries a purchase fee of anywhere from $3.95 to $6.95. You'll be much better off to buy a store-branded card, be it Barnes & Noble, Dunkin' Donuts, or Best Buy, most of which don't charge you a fee or hit the recipient with dormancy or maintenance penalties. For us, we still prefer the reliability of greenbacks, available at an ATM 24/7.