Editorial Policy

5 Tips for Making the Most of Your Gift Cards

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

December 28, 2011

QHi Eva,
I&#039ve received more gift cards this Christmas than I know what to do with. Do you have any ideas for what I can do with them? Can I swap or sell them? — NateTh_negotiate-lower-intertest-cc

AHi Nate,
What a great problem to have! Finding that ideal Christmas present is never easy and gift cards often seem like an easy way to please. However, like you, many people find that redeeming their cards can be a problem.

If it&#039s any comfort, you&#039re in good company. A surprising number of gift cards go unused every year. In fact, Tower Group analyst Brian Riley estimates that a cool $41 billion in gift card value went unredeemed between 2005 and 2011, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The good news is you have five years to redeem those gift cards. However, out of sight is out of mind, and the best way to make sure those gift cards don&#039t languish away in a drawer is to use them early on.

Here are five tips to get you started:

1. Hit the after-Christmas clearance sales.
Okay, you may be maxed out on shopping, but for those gift cards that can be redeemed with retailers you like, why not take advantage of the January clearance sales to get the most value from the card? Don&#039t really need anything? Use the card to get a head start on birthday presents for the year ahead. Ask Eva

2. Trade your gift card in for some cold, hard cash.
You would think it&#039s hard to go wrong with a gift card that lets the receiver buy what they want. However, we all end up with those unusable gift cards for Joe&#039s Fresh Seafood Restaurant in Podunk, Alaska. (Okay, maybe not that extreme, but you know what I mean.)

Fortunately, one person&#039s unwanted gift card is another person&#039s (discounted) treasure. Check out online gift card broker sites such as GiftCards.com, PlasticJungle.com or Cardpool.com where you can sell gift cards in exchange for cold, hard cash. Yes, you&#039ll have to give up some of the redemption value of the card. But, for many people, that&#039s a small price to pay in exchange for an easy way to redeem gift cards that otherwise go unused.

How much you will get for the card will vary, depending on the popularity of the retailer. A $100 Home Depot gift card, for example, can bring in $86 in cash (mailed to you via check) on GiftCards.com. But a $100 certificate for Joe&#039s Crab Shack will yield just $72. (Of course, if seafood really is not your thing anyway, that might be just fine.)

3. Play your cards right.
Retailers love gift cards because most people spend more than the face value of the card when they redeem them. If you&#039re planning to use a gift card for a larger purchase than the value of the card, consider buying another, discounted gift card with that retailer at the online gift card exchange sites listed above.

4. Track your spending.
It's a common predicament. You purchase a few items and then you end up with a handful of gift cards with small balances — to the tune of $5 to $15. Sound familiar? One of the reasons why so much value on gift cards goes unredeemed each year is precisely for this reason. It&#039s just too easy to forget about a gift card with a $2.12 balance on it.

Luckily, there&#039s an app for that! If you&#039re an iPhone or iTouch user, download the app Gift Cards Balance Tracker, which will automatically keep all gift card balances updated, once you enter the card tracking numbers. You can also track balances using services such as PlasticJungle.com by entering the gift card info into your personalized account. Most major retailers will also provide easy access to check your balances if you register your name on their websites.

5. Gift it.
Perhaps the best use of an unwanted gift card is to trade it in for that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when helping others. Not surprisingly, many website services will help you do exactly that. Check out GiftCardGiver.com, for example. This website collects unwanted gift cards and distributes them to nonprofit organizations that use the cards to help people in need. It&#039s an easy way to get the most value of the gift card — and it's guaranteed to make you feel good as well.