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Get the Most Out of Holiday Gift Cards

Dec. 16, 2015
Personal Finance
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By Richard M. Rosso

Learn more about Richard on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

Americans like gift cards – a lot.

Every year, 93% of consumers purchase a gift card, spending a staggering $100 billion, according to statistics from Despite how popular gift cards are, some of us still leave unused balances on our cards each year.

Retailers rack up the sales, but consumers are shortchanged by their own inaction. This year, maximize your gift cards. Here’s how:

1. Spend the entire balance at once.

Sometimes we might hoard balances until we forget the card, lose track of the balance or the card expires. Instead of being disciplined in your saving, this is your time to splurge. Spend the entire balance at once, in a single location. Make a list of what you plan to purchase and go for it.

2. Go over the line.

Here I am, a money guy, advising you to spend more. Don’t attempt to come in at or under the limit of the gift card. Remember, your goal is to spend every dollar. Set a boundary — I recommend $10 to $15 dollars above the limit — to ensure that you fully exhaust the balance.

3. Set your own gift card expiration date.

While federal rules state that gift card balances cannot expire for at least five years, some cards do charge inactivity fees. Forget about this expiration date set by the issuer and set your own instead. I suggest setting a deadline no longer than one month from the date the gift card was received. Otherwise, the odds your balance will go unused increase.

4. Sell your unused balance.

Once your personal expiration date has been reached, sell your balance at a discount, using the free app Raise, or another online marketplace. I recently reached a personal expiration date for a $50 Kohl’s gift card. I sold it for $41 on Through the site you can get an offer, submit your gift card information, and receive money once the order is confirmed and the card’s balance is verified. It’s quick and easy. You can also use these online marketplaces to buy discounted gift cards.

5. Request (or give) digital gift cards.

Trash the plastic. Electronic gift cards, or e-gift cards, are delivered through email, text, social media or mobile applications. Most digital gift cards can be used in stores. They’re easy to send and receive, and most importantly, balances can be tracked in real time, which means you’re more likely to spend your balances in full.

Gift cards are popular and can make great holiday gifts. But a gift card balance should never go to waste – at least not on your watch!

Image via iStock.