How to Stop Wasting Your Gift Cards

How to Stop Wasting Your Gift Cards
Photo: Lipa23, Shutterstock

Depending who they’re from, gift cards can be a lovely gift. (Read: Not from a life partner, who should intuitively know you want the Ninja AF101 Air Fryer with auto-shutoff and 30 included recipes.) Gift cards take up little space and allow you to shop guilt-free — perhaps even splurge on yourself — because hey, free money. But there are a few ways you can easily lose or diminish their value without meaning to. Avoid these pitfalls if you want to take full advantage of all the dopamine those tiny plastic cards have to offer.

Use them as soon as possible

It may be tempting to hold onto that gift card for just the right moment, or because you were always taught to save for a rainy day and you don’t want to spend it “too soon.” But that’s not the best strategy with a gift card. The store may go out of business, file for bankruptcy, or shut down all their stores within an 80 km radius of your home. (Gonna miss you, Lord & Taylor.)

Also? You may forget about or misplace them. According to financial services research firm CEB TowerGroup, in 2015 approximately $1 billion in gift card value went unused, largely due to them being lost, forgotten, or tucked away with value still remaining after an initial purchase.

So don’t store it in a drawer, waiting for inspiration to strike. (She says, staring forlornly at an envelope of cards received a decade ago, for stores that no longer exist.)

Treat it like cash (and make a copy)

Would you stash $100 cash on a high shelf next to a bunch of cookbooks to use for some unknown future purchase? Probably not — and you shouldn’t do it with a gift card either. Keep it in your wallet, easily visible and accessible each time you shop.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to either scan or take a picture of it with your phone (including the most important part, the back), so you have the necessary information to have it reissued in case of loss.

Keep track of its value (and consolidate)

One of the reasons we may hold onto gift cards is because we don’t know if they still have value. While you can sometimes check online, the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker warns that some websites that claim to check your balance use your ID number and pin to steal the value. If this is a concern, call or go in to your local store for an update.

If you make a purchase but still have a small amount left, ask whether the retailer will give you the remaining balance in cash. Certain states have gift card laws requiring it, when the remaining value is under $5 or $10. Some big box retailers will even allow you to convert a gift card (from a Red Lobster to Outback, for example). It’s always worth an ask.

If you receive several gift cards at a time, create a simple spreadsheet that lists their value, or use a gift card management app like Gyft or Card Smash to track them all. When gifted multiple cards from the same retailer, ask at a brick and mortar location whether you can consolidate the balances onto one card. Alternatively, write the balance on the back of the card with a Sharpie, or track it in the Notes section of your phone. If you need something more in your face in order to remember, there’s always the Post-It-on-the-side-of-the-fridge method, to keep it top of mind.

Resell, regift, donate

If someone gifts you Home Depot when you’re a diehard Lowe’s groupie, rather than waiting for the off chance that you find yourself wandering into the competition, consider reselling that card. Sites like Raise, CardCash, ClipKard (and these others) allow you to sell your gift card online. You won’t get the full value (many of them have quote tools to let you know in advance what you will get, which is typically 60% — 90% of the original value), but it’s better than losing all of it to loss, store closure, or absent-mindedness.

Alternately, regift the card to someone you know will appreciate it, or donate it to a local charity, school, or shelter. Goodwill and the Salvation Army accept unused gift cards, while sites like CharityChoice allow you to donate them online. So there’s no reason not to use — or share — the gift card wealth.

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