Cold hard cash. The phrase is the antithesis of the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with the holidays. No wonder that giving money as a gift has gotten a bad rap. But there’s nothing “Bah! Humbug!” about it. Turns out, it’s not only easy for the giver but also valued by the lucky person on the receiving end.

What’s more, cash has a classic, comforting permanence—even more so in this age of bitcoin and PayPal, which begins to make money feel like a faraway abstraction. Certain currencies have had an extra allure, thanks to their iconic designs. Think of $2 bills, Kennedy silver dollars, or even the often maligned Susan B. Anthony coins. And there’s no sign that will slow down, especially with the new $10 bill—featuring a woman—on the horizon.

Until then, the newest currency out there is new “artisanal” paper money created by and for people who live in certain regions. Designed to encourage citizens to support small businesses rather than chain stores, local currencies in the U.S. include BerkShares notes adorned with artwork—including the paintings of turnips shown here that can be spent only at participating businesses in western Massachusetts. Other examples are stamped clay tokens known as Santa Barbara Missions and Ithaca Hours, paper bills accepted by more than 300 establishments around Ithaca, N.Y. (Similar small-batch currencies also exist in a few spots in the United Kingdom and Germany.) Outside of the pertinent ZIP code those babies aren’t worth zip.

Check Consumer Reports' 2015 Holiday Guide for our picks of the best gifts, details on the latest deals, time-saving tips, and much more. And see our countdown calendar for top gift ideas for everyone on your list.

A picture of cash currency that some communities are using.
Some communities (like the Berkshires) are printing their own money.
Photo: James Worrell

But, welcome as cash might be to the recipient, is it tacky to give money, in whatever form? Not according to Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert based in Palm Beach, Fla., who notes, “It’s rarely returned, and one size fits all.” True, the sight of a pyramid of presents, festooned with ribbons and shiny wrapping paper, makes the heart beat faster. But the fact is, no one will turn their nose up at a fan of crisp Jacksons or a fresh-from-the-bank $100 bill. The Chinese have been on to that for eons, hence the tradition of handing out red envelopes called lai see at the New Year and other happy occasions. And who wouldn’t remember the delight of slipping their hands into the pocket of a new bathrobe and finding—surprise!—a fresh-from-the-bank $50 bill?

Some also argue that a gift is nothing more than devalued currency. As economist Joel Waldfogel points out in his book “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays” (Princeton University Press, 2009), there’s often a disparity between what giftees thought their presents had cost and what they would have been willing to pay if they bought those items for themselves.

A 1993 survey of 86 undergraduate students showed that the students estimated that their gifts had cost $438.20—but thriftily said that they wouldn’t have shucked out more than $313.40 for them. A second poll two months later found an additional group of students who calculated the cost of their holiday haul at $508.90 on average—although they confessed that they valued the gifts at $462.10. Waldfogel calculates that approximately 20 percent of the value of holiday gifts is destroyed by gift-giving—and because annual holiday spending in the U.S. is approximately $616 billion, that’s about $123 billion per year tossed out with the wrinkled wrapping paper. “Apart from the joy that givers get from choosing gifts and recipients get from receiving things, as a means of resource allocation, gift-giving is pretty bad,” Waldfogel says.

In addition, recipients are getting pickier, says Evan Polman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Consider the long lines of folks returning presents on December 26. Chalk up the boomerang phenomenon to an excess of options. “The more options someone has, the more she or he expects to find something that matches their preferences perfectly,” Polman says.

And though gift cards can expire, money is timeless. Cash may be hard and cold, but like bedrock, it endures. Barring regulatory changes that eliminate it, Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors, calculates that Americans will still be using paper currency in 200 years.

So we say: Show us the money. Just make sure it comes in a nice wrapping.

Editor's note: This article also appeared in the December 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.