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Early last year, on the occasion of a "round-number" birthday, my family invited several of my relatives and friends to a party in my honor. I was happy and flattered to receive their handshakes and warm wishes. I was also somewhat embarrassed that everyone felt it necessary to bring presents.

Many of the presents were in the form of gift certificates. After all, what can you buy for a devout curmudgeon?

Admittedly, I'm one of the world's worst shoppers. There are dozens of nearby stores that I have never visited. I've never felt the urge. So, what to do with a stack of unneeded gift certificates? The first thing I did was to take inventory. I added up their total value and donated that amount to a favorite charity. Perhaps I did this to assuage some kind of guilt -- ask a psychologist.

At any rate, having no spending plan, I put the certificates aside for future consideration. Then I had an accident, which further slowed my activity, and I virtually forgot about them.

Late last year, I saw an advertisement for a play that I wanted to see, and I knew I had a gift certificate worth $35. I took it out of the stack and, for the first time, took a good look at it. Uh-oh. There in the fine print I saw, "Good for 1998 season." I called the box office and, fortunately, they promised to honor it this year. Eventually, I enjoyed the show.

This prompted me to check out the other gift certificates. Sure enough, some of them had expiration dates. This caused me to wonder -- why? After all, the purchasers spent their money as a gift to me.

But if unused, it would become a gift to the merchant. Meanwhile, the merchant has the use of this money to earn interest or pay expenses. Not only that, with inflation and ever-rising prices, over time the certificates would buy less and less. If a store has hundreds of outstanding certificates and some are never used, a lot of money can be involved. Statewide, the collective total certainly amounts to millions in potential losses to consumers.

As a dedicated tightwad, it occurred to me that perhaps there should be a law on the books to prohibit expiration dates on gift certificates. I mentioned this to one of my favorite lawmakers. His knee-jerk reaction was to the effect that business has the right to conduct business as it sees fit.

I reminded him that governments do regulate business in many ways. I hope I planted a seed. I'm sure that the use of gift certificates is a valuable device for both merchants and consumers. Eliminating expiration dates should make them even more attractive.

My all-time favorite gift certificates were given to me by my children when they were quite small. Written in crayon on ruled note paper, they read: "Good for one -- cutting the grass" and "Good for one -- washing the car."

I never used them. I wonder if they're still good.

PAUL J. GERSTMAN lives in Kenmore.
For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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