Chances are you accumulated a gift card or two over Christmas, and you don't want them to go to waste. What rights do you have in terms of card expiry and use?Picture by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
It's worth noting first of all that the Australian rules for gift cards are quite different from other countries. The US, for instance, has wildly varying gift card rules depending on the state where they're issued. Australian rules are much more standardised. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has a good basic explanation of gift cards on its site. (Since cards represent a form of financial transaction, they fall within ASIC's purview.)
The most important thing to note is that, for the most part, retailers can set their own rules regarding cards. In particular:
If there's an expiry date, you need to respect it. Retailers can set expiry dates and are not obliged to accept expired cards if they state that expiry periods apply in their terms and conditions. You can always try sweet-talking them after the date, but success isn't guaranteed
You can't assume you'll get change. Most gift cards require you to spend the full value in-store, though some retailers will give change for small amounts. But that's at their discretion; again, if the terms state change is not given, you can't demand it as a right.
If it gets stolen, tough luck. While newer cards often use a pin number as a form of security and allow you to register online, it makes sense to treat cards like cash, since that's effectively what they are.
Make sure cards are activated when you buy them. To prevent fraud and theft, most gift cards don't actually work until they've been activated in store. Make sure that they're activated when you buy to avoid an embarrassing conversation with the recipient later on.
Gift cards don't have to be honoured online. While many large retailers will let you use gift cards in their online stores, this is — again — up to them. If they don't offer the option, you'll have to trek to a physical store to use the card. Similarly, many retailers don't sell cards online at all, have odd conditions attached (IKEA being an obvious example) or don't do a good job activating cards sold through those channels (stand up Big W).
For distant or difficult recipients, gift cards are a great idea, and spending them after Christmas should be pleasurable. Just make sure you do get around to spending them.
Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.