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Holiday Gift Cards: Cashing In (Not Stashing Away) That Plastic

Dec. 28, 2012
Holiday Tips & News
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The December holidays are the season to give (and give and give) and receive … gift cards. Now more than ever, people are swapping gift cards instead of wrapping gifts to place under the Christmas tree or hand out at Hanukkah.

There are advantages to giving a gift card – you know the person will get the item he or she really wants, and it feels more personal than just handing over cold, hard cash. Those pluses are probably why they’re so popular, and why they also bring in so much money.

Gift cards are undoubtedly big business. According to a recent Baltimore Sun article, gift cards are the most popular gift purchase of the season and sales go up into the billions of dollars. Gift card purchases are expected to hit $110 billion this year, according to CEB TowerGroup.

That’s a lot of plastic presents being purchased.

Putting Those Cards to Good Use

You’ve probably gotten your fair share of gift cards this season and want to make sure to maximize their potential. One of the first things you should do after the holiday festivities are over is to organize your gift cards.

Make a list detailing where each card is from and how much it is worth, and note if you received multiple cards for one store. That way, you’ll have a better idea of how to plan your spending.

Treat your cards as if they are cash – keep them in a safe, secure, easy-to-remember place so you don’t forget to use them in the upcoming months. (According to the Sun article, more than $30 billion worth of gift cards go unredeemed. This means $30 billion just disappears into thin air.)

Don’t waste your own money or your family’s or friends’ hard-earned cash.

Here are five steps toward getting the most out of your gift cards:

1. Check for an Expiration Date

Expiration dates on gift cards vary from store to store. Make sure to check out your card’s expiration policy so you don’t miss out on cashing in.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, in 2009 Congress passed the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which provides that gift cards “cannot expire within five years from the date they were activated, and generally limits inactivity fee on gift cards except in certain circumstances, such as if there has been no transaction for at least 12 months.”

Check to see what the specific laws are in your state.

2. Budget Your Gift Card Spending

If you are on a budget, gift cards can be a nice break from breaking out your credit card, but make sure you don’t purchase more than you would have if you didn’t have a gift card in hand. If you end up spending more than you would on an average shopping trip, a gift card could be more burden than blessing.

Make sure you know how much money is left on your card before you start buying, and weigh whether the item you are looking at is an impulse buy or something you would buy normally.

3. See If You Can Get Cash Back

You might have a gift card for a store or restaurant you don’t often visit, and the amount you plan to spend in the shop or eatery is less than the value of the card. Some companies give cash back on the difference, while others insist you spend the full amount at their establishments.

Ask about each business’s policy before you spend more cash on something you don’t really want just to use up your balance.

4. Swap What You Won’t Spend

Sometimes you get a gift card for someplace you know you’ll never go to. What do you do with all that plastic money that is just sitting there?

Thankfully, lots of websites are out there that will let you trade and sell your unused cards.

A couple: The website GiftCardRescue will buy your unwanted gift cards and offers discounts on other cards. is another trusted source for those who want to swap those unwanted cards and turn them into cash or gift cards you know you’ll actually enjoy.

You can also talk to family members or friends about cards they received and feel them out to see if they would be interested in doing a gift card swap.

5. Relax, Enjoy … and Give Thanks

People give gift cards for a variety of reasons: They give you the freedom to purchase something you really like or experience a nice meal without spending your own money. Gift cards are supposed to make your life a little less stressful and a little more fun.

Once you’ve done your research on your gift cards, take a moment to appreciate the nice gesture your friend or family member made and thank him or her for such a wonderful gift.

Have fun shopping!

Original image from Shutterstock