Editorial Policy

Don’t Pay Face Value for that Gift Card

Allie Johnson

November 20, 2012

A gift card can make a quick-and-easy stocking stuffer, secret Santa present or holiday gift for that choosy relative on your list. And, there’s a bonus for you: It’s easier than ever to get these handy pieces of plastic for less than face value.

One word of advice, though: when buying a gift card at a discount, put your recipient first and your savings second, recommends Dan Horne, a gift card expert and associate professor of marketing at Providence College.

“If you can do both, that’s great,” he says of getting a deal and making the recipient happy. However, getting the perfect card for less can be a challenge. For example, if you’re shopping for your fly-fishing uncle, he says, you might not be able to find a discounted gift card to his favorite outdoor supply store.

“A gift card is a very thoughtful gift if you really put thought into who a person is,” Horne says. “Make sure it’s something they really want, so they don’t have to sell it on the secondary market or throw it in a drawer and never use it.”

With that in mind, here are six ways to get gift cards for less:

1. Go to a gift card swap site: Gift card swap sites allow you to buy others’ unwanted cards for less than face value, although many of them offer more electronic gift certificates than physical cards. Blogger Julia Scott, who dishes out savvy spending advice at BargainBabe.com, has found the best deals at PlasticJungle.com, which offers discounts ranging from 3 percent to 35 percent, depending on the card. Gift cards for stores that offer a range of merchandise tend sell at less of a discount than those for more specialized stores, Scott says. For example, PlasticJungle.com sells Wal-Mart cards for 2 percent off face value, while Scott spotted a Frederick’s of Hollywood card for 35 percent off. She also found good deals at Cardpool.com, and she recommends GiftCardRescue.com if you’re looking for a wider selection of cards. Reputable swap sites will guarantee that the card will have the balance stated, she says.

More from our 2012 gift card package

“It’s totally safe,” Scot says of using a reputable swap site. “You’re buying it directly from the site, not dealing with some random person you don’t know.”

2. Visit a warehouse store: You can get deals for buying everything from toilet paper to mayonnaise at warehouse stores — so why not gift cards? Stores such as Sam’s Club, Costco and BJ’s Wholesale Club do offer some gift cards for less than face value. The downside is, like most items these stores sell, you sometimes have to buy the cards in bulk.

“Say you went out and bought a 10-pack of gift cards at Costco for 10 percent off, and of the 10 people you gave them to, only eight really wanted them,” Horne says. “Is that worth the discount?”

3. Consider restaurant gift cards: You’re more likely to save big on a restaurant gift card, than, say, a discount store gift card, because restaurants have higher profit margins, Horne says. Because a gift card is almost like cash, retailers with low profit margins can’t afford to sell their cards for much less than face value.

“Restaurants know they’ll make money if someone walks in the door with a gift card,” Horne says, noting that a family of four walking into Applebee’s, for example, will likely order more freely, buying profitable items such as drinks and appetizers.

“Restaurants can afford to give away more upfront to get someone in the door,” Horne says.

You’re most likely to find gift cards to chain restaurants — so that might not be the best present for a foodie or a locavore.

“If they like Applebee’s and you know they go there, it’s a great gift,” Horne says.

4. Check auction sites: Sellers on auction sites such as eBay offer an ever-changing variety of slightly discounted gift cards for stores ranging from Godiva Chocolate to electronics retailer Bose. So, it might be easier to find a gift card there to suit a recipient’s tastes.

But you do have to be cautious, Scott says. She recommends vetting sellers carefully by looking at their sales histories and feedback from other customers.

“If the seller has sold many gift cards and has all positive reviews, then you’re probably safe,” Scott says, adding that she prefers the security of a swap site. She warns consumers, though, to steer clear of sites such as Craigslist where a seller could easily scam a buyer.

“I would not buy a gift card there — no way,” she says.

5. Earn gift cards for free: Some sites, such as Swagbucks.com, let you earn gift cards just by surfing the Internet using their search engine, answering surveys or referring friends.

For example, Scott says she just scored a $100 Starbucks gift card by trading in the points, known as Swagbucks, that she had accumulated on that site.

“It takes a while to earn [gift cards], but they’re really free,” Scott says. You can also earn gift cards by making online purchases using rewards sites such as MyPoints.com and Ebates.com, which sometimes runs promotions that offer a free $10 gift card to Macy’s, Kohl’s, Target or Wal-Mart as a reward for joining, after you purchase $25 worth of items online through the site. And don’t forget about your credit card reward points, which you can also use to score gift cards.

6. Look for holiday promotions: Many retailers offer incentives in the form of an extra gift card when you buy a certain dollar amount of merchandise or gift cards. For example, Barnes & Noble has a free $10 electronic gift card when you buy $75 in gift cards through Dec. 2, 2012. Sam’s Club is offering a free $10 gift card when you buy $50 in eligible items in a store or online through December 31, 2012. Applebee’s has an offer of a $10 digital gift card when you buy $50 in digital gift cards. And, if you want to treat yourself while holiday shopping, Jamba Juice is offering a free smoothie with the purchase of a $25 gift card.

If you plan to buy gift cards for anyone on your holiday shopping list, it never hurts to look for a deal, Scott says. It does take some planning, she says, because you have to hunt for bargains rather than just running out to the store to buy a bunch of cards. But, it can be worth it, and your recipient will never know you got a discount, Scott says.

“It’s the gift and the thought that counts, not how much you paid,” she says.