How to Ensure Your Gift Cards Don’t Go to Waste

Money Saving Tips, Personal Finance, Shopping Tips
gift cards

Gift cards have a funny way of sinking to the bottom of your purse or hiding beneath a mountain of papers in your cluttered junk drawer. It’s like they’re begging not to be used. But leaving them to collect dust is a missed opportunity.

Here’s how to avoid squandering your gift cards.

Use them sooner rather than later

By law, money on a gift card cannot expire for at least five years from the date the card was purchased or from the last date money was added onto the card, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Many cards won’t have an expiration date, but check the fine print so you don’t hang onto yours for too long. Expiration dates must be clearly disclosed on the card. When in doubt, use it up.

Look into alternatives

If you’re not so hot about the gift card you received as a gift, explore other options. You can use some gift cards at more than one retailer, so you may find one that better suits your taste. For instance, you can redeem a Gap gift card at other Gap Inc. brands such as Banana Republic and Old Navy.

Another option is to sell your card for cash or swap it for a card you like better at online exchange marketplaces like Gift Card Granny and CardCash. You’ll generally get only a fraction of the value back — not the full amount that’s currently on the card. But it might be worthwhile if you have no plans to use the original card.

Watch out for bankruptcies

Finally, stay on top of retail news, especially in light of brick-and-mortar store closures. Shelley Hunter, the gift card expert for GiftCards.com, says those cards become vulnerable once a store files for bankruptcy.

Hunter explains that stores in risk of closing frequently stop accepting gift cards after a certain date, and customers don’t always get the memo. “Where that gets confusing for consumers is oftentimes the stores are still open,” she says.

So how do you know when your retail gift cards are in trouble? If you’ve had one sitting around for a while, check the Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Gift Card Watchlist for 2017 at GiftCards.com. Here you’ll find a list of deadlines to use up gift cards at stores that have filed for bankruptcy and links to file a claim for stores that closed before you got a chance to redeem your card.

Gift cards are one of the most convenient presents to give. Follow these tips, and they don’t have to be complicated to receive.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.