Money made the top of the list as a “meaningful reward for a job well done” in a recent survey by the Society for Incentive & Travel Executives Foundation. Some 91 percent of respondents — a cross-section of working Americans — said they preferred cash bonuses, followed by special training/professional development (74 percent), recognition at a company meeting (70 percent), stock options (65 percent), and travel (61 percent).

That doesn't necessarily mean that nine out of 10 employees would prefer cash, though, says Frank J. Katusak, executive director of the foundation. “We think it's more a result of … the economic times,” he observes. “We have found … that the trophy value of merchandise and trips is so much higher than cash.” In other words, people are more comfortable bragging about the trip of a lifetime than about the size of their bonus.

The classic criticism of cash incentives is their transparency. “Cash is cash is cash,” says Jim Feldman, CEO of James Feldman Associates and Incentive Travelers Cheque in Chicago. “The advantage to the administrator is it doesn't take any brains to give it away. The downside is it's taxable and not recognizable. To many, it's not meaningful.”

Others say that the difficult economy compounds the problem. “I stridently believe that cash will do only one thing: be used immediately to pay bills, and be quickly forgotten,” says Rich Kaback, vice president of travel services and incentives for Melville, N.Y.-based Don Jagoda Associates.

One solution is gift certificates or stored value cards, which essentially replace cash and have the same the flexibility. Recipients also have a constant reminder of their company every time they open their wallets.

Even small denominations can have a positive effect, says Michael Ahern, CEO of Seattle-based GiftCertificates.com. “In a bad economy, companies may be giving out less in bonuses, but they can't stop recognizing employees. A $25 gift certificate isn't seen as insulting, but anything you can buy in that range might be.”