I Bought Everything on My Christmas List with Bitcoin

This year I made like Santa, if Santa were a cryptonerd who only delivered presents purchased with virtual money.

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Peter Arkle for TIME
Peter Arkle for TIME

My editors thought the best present they could give me this holiday season was a bitcoin, the increasingly popular form of digital currency that uses cryptography instead of government regulation to validate transactions. It was a kind gesture, and it made me very worried about my reputation at the office.

But never one to turn down free money, I happily obliged. If I secured a bitcoin, I had to make one promise: to use a bitcoin and only a bitcoin to purchase Christmas gifts for my family and friends.

Created in 2009, bitcoin is a libertarian’s dream currency: unregulated and pseudonymous for users. Mocked by the business press as a shady fad, bitcoin saw its unit value pass that of an ounce of gold on the day after Thanksgiving, hitting $1,242, and peaking at a 9,000% gain for the year.

Despite its fringe reputation, bitcoins have been jingling in some distinguished pockets lately. Billionaire showman Richard Branson announced recently that he’ll accept them as payment for flights into space, and outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke praised digital currencies like the bitcoin in a recent letter to the Senate.

So my editors did something most young reporters only dream of: they wired me a bunch of money and trusted me to not skip the country with it. Then they ushered me into the bitcoin marketplace just as the holiday shopping season got under way.

There are some benefits to doing your holiday shopping using bitcoins. For one thing, bitcoins are a far more secure method of payment than your credit card, so if you use them, there’s little reason to fear identity thieves as other shoppers might.

“It keeps your personal information hidden, so it’s a much more secure way of shopping for presents online,” says Stephanie Wargo of BitPay, a company that helps merchants use the currency.

And there are thousands of vendors online who accept bitcoins as payment.

The independent jewelry shop Cisthene, run by husband-and-wife duo Jen and Dennis Altman of Asheville, N.C., year as a fee-free alternative to credit card payments. So far, bitcoin sales have been minimal. “We’ve had three orders in six months,” Dennis told me.

Make that four: I purchased a leatherwrapped crystal necklace (.0998 BTC) for my mom.

Next, Fred Ersham of Coinbase, a leading digital wallet company, recommended I try BitDazzle, which he described as “an Etsy for bitcoin.”

“They have literally so many different things,” he assured me.

He was right. You can buy everything from furniture to hand-sewn cloth diaper covers there.

The more purchases I made, the easier it got. I bought socks made out of Alpaca wool for my dad from a farm in Massachusetts (.0206 BTC). For my stepmom, I bought a bottle of Pinot Grigio (.0402 BTC) from City Wine Cellar, a Staten Island wine store that accepts bitcoin for online purchases. I logged back onto BitDazzle and got my little sisters a machine that projects stars onto the walls and ceiling (.09537 BTC). For my cat (what, you don’t buy Christmas presents for your pets?) I commissioned a portrait (.0294 BTC) from a Vancouver artist named Cliff Blank.

“Vancouver is the first place in the world to have a bitcoin ATM,” Blank said. “So it’s really going full steam here.”

Buying online was pretty easy, but what would happen when I tried to buy things with bitcoins in the real world? Turns out, it’s not as simple.

On a recent rainy night, I took some friends and co-workers to a New York City bar named EVR, co-owned by bitcoin entrepreneur Charlie Shrem. The 24-year-old has made millions off the digital currency. His bar is the only one in Manhattan that accepts bitcoins. Shrem’s girlfriend Courtney is a waitress there, and she set us up with plates of wings and fries and glasses of champagne and vodka sodas (.2649 BTC).

EVR was fun. Paying at EVR was not. Thanks to the complicated digital transaction process, it took 20 minutes to get bitcoin change out of one digital wallet and into another equipped with a mobile app–a lot of trouble compared with just forking over your Visa. (Coinbase, where I kept my bitcoins, had its app pulled from the iTunes store a few weeks before.) Scanning the QR code was easier, though. Finally, the payment was transferred.

There is another downside: very few brick-and-mortar stores actually accept bitcoins today. That’s how I ended up at Subway in Allentown, Pennsylvania, over Thanksgiving break. The guy making the sandwiches accidentally rang us up for 17.23 bitcoins—over $20,000—before realizing it should be $17.23 instead. Crisis averted!

So what did I learn? There are some reasons to think bitcoins could be the future—especially if someone like Bernanke is giving them a closer look. But for now, I’ll probably stick with cold hard cash—unless, that is, my editors are buying.

21 comments
Mcfly
Mcfly

Check out https://btcgate.com I recently bought a mini projector for my Iphone. The site has free shipping which is great. My projector arrived 8 days later...really satisfied with the service. They sell a bunch of other cool stuff too...

StevenSilz-Carson
StevenSilz-Carson

Did anyone else notice the conversions between $$$ and BitCoin are completely screwed up?  No wonder we are a third-tier nation in math, even simple math.  Someone does not know "how to work" a decimal point.

Geterrrrrrrrdone
Geterrrrrrrrdone

Bitcoin, that is something to watch.  People seem to be liking it now.

ErikVoorhees
ErikVoorhees

Bitcoin is still rough around the edges, just like the internet was in 1994.

daemon
daemon

I did the same thing this year except... I did not use retailers directly... instead... I used Gyft.com.


Amazon cards, Target cards, Old Navy cards, Zappos cards, Hot Topic cards... the list goes on and on and the mobile payment portion is integrated with the blockchain.info app.


I personally have my wallet set up in an advanced manner... I used a vanity address I hashed myself, imported the privkey to my Bitcoin wallet on my local PC where I mine, then also imported it into my blockchain.info wallet. This enables me to use the same Bitcoin stash from home and from my phone. Shop at Target... get to the counter... get the total and in about 20 seconds... I had the gift card to pay for it.


Same with Amazon... built my cart... ordered the gift card.


Sent other cards to my spouse and she used them for the rest of the gifts. Easy to send them as a gift via email or text message and opens right in the Gyft app.

grungymike
grungymike

This is a fascinating concept, but not a new one. About 40 years ago a bunch of people started a barter coop based on "points". You earned points by "selling" a product or service, and could spend your points by purchasing products or services from others within the coop. They didn't last a year, it was either the IRS or Treasury that shut them down. I'm very surprised that our current federal messiah hasn't attacked the bitcoin as an illegal currency. Not that I want them to, just surprised...


CEXio
CEXio

Yeah, and now you can mine Bitcoins INSTANTLY on the cloud with services like:


https://cex.io/r/1/captain12/0/

CEX lets you mine Bitcoins on their cloud service, so you don't even need your own hardware anymore. It's instant, scalable, and liquid - allowing you to resell your mining space at any time.

CliffBlank
CliffBlank

Thanks Jessica for the write up. Woz was fun to paint! Have a Merry Christmas!

MelvinaRoselyn
MelvinaRoselyn

The people who bought BTC early on sure are lucky.



eagle8
eagle8

Got a bigger pic of that BTC shopping list artwork? That looks cool! 

mikewkennedy
mikewkennedy

now all your family members know what you got them!! where's the surprise in that?!?

StevenSilz-Carson
StevenSilz-Carson

@daemon What is a "vanity address" and why do you want one?  Also, "why did you 'hash yourself"?

zyo
zyo

@grungymike Bitcoin has been review by 2 panels of the Senate, it's not illegal for sure. Unlike other system you can think off, Bitcoin is the first decentralized currency to ever exist... nobody can be call, sue, shut down or arrested. A bit like the email, torrent or the internet protocol itself. It's been created specifically to be goverment resistant.

blaha
blaha

@CEXio If mining through you is profitable, why aren't you using all your equipment to mine bitcoins, instead of renting it out? Bitcoin is great- you're a scam.

ChrisRump
ChrisRump

@eagle8 it's printed full page in the magazine.  Unfortunately, zooming in on the graphic you'll find that the first half of the items have bitcoin prices that were erroneously inflated by a factor of 10; the socks are listed at B0.206 instead of the corrected version of 0.0206 BTC on p. 9 here.  Although this is just some sloppy editing, it also points to a potential problem in dealing with this currency if all the amounts are very small decimals and people aren't so careful with their math!

JessicaKRoy
JessicaKRoy

@mikewkennedy TRUE! But I also bought them presents with my own money so they can have surprise stuff to open on Christmas, so basically they get double presents this year. :)

grungymike
grungymike

How about adopting them to the price of a barrel of oil? Then we could have Georgie II invading the Homeland in order to protect the dollar.


Just kidding folks...