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Making the Most of Gift Cards

Did you know billions of dollars of gift cards go unused each year?

Photo by Blake Wisz on Unsplash

This past holiday season, did Santa leave a generous gift card to your favorite retailer in your stocking? While you might've been stoked to receive such a thoughtful surprise, your gift cards might easily be forgotten and go unused. In fact, in 2020, over $3 billion worth of gift cards went unused. It's quite easy to do: we get busy, forget we have them, or misplace them. Don't let your gift cards fall into an abyss. After all, gift cards are essentially money locked in a prepaid plastic card. Here's how you can make the most of them:

Use Them Sooner Than Later

Did you recently find a gift card wedged between some coupons, or perhaps in the crevice of your couch from a few years back? The good news is that thanks to the federal law the Credit CARD Act in 2009, gift cards and gift certificates can't expire before they hit the five-year mark of when they were issued. So if you received your gift card five years ago or earlier, they are still good to use.

However, it's probably best to use your gift cards sooner than later. That's because of inflation: the value of your gift cards will be less the longer you wait. Plus, there's a chance the retailer may go out of business, or perhaps your interests and tastes change and you might have trouble finding something you like.

Give Them a Purpose

Think about exactly what you might use a gift card for, and when. Assigning a task to your cards will help ensure they get put to use. For instance, if you received a gift card from a sporting goods store, plan to use the funds on your gift card before you go on your annual family camping trip in the summer. Or if you received a gift card to a surf and turf restaurant, you can swipe your card for a Valentine's Day sweetheart with your significant other.

Keep Track of Gift Cards on an App

Gone are the days you need to jot down the amount and retailer of each gift card on a pad of paper, or, if you're a true money nerd, on a spreadsheet. Instead, consider using a handy app that's designed just for keeping track of gift cards so you don't forget to use them. Popular ones include Gyft and Card Smash.

Another way to keep track of your gift cards is to designate a single spot in your purse or in your home to stow them away. Or better yet, keep them in a highly visible place, like next in your top dresser or a filing cabinet. In turn, you'll minimize the odds of losing them.

Redeem Gift Cards During Certain Times of the Year

Consider using gift cards to help you save. For instance, maybe you're working on aggressively paying off your credit card balance to zero after a holiday debt hangover. Or maybe you've decided to momentarily hit "pause" on nonessential spending and go on a spending fast. Or, perhaps you don't have as much squirreled away for your sinking funds and back-to-school shopping for the kids is just around the corner.

Whatever the case may be, consider stacking your cards so you use them during a certain time of year or toward a specific purpose. That way, they can help you save during spendy times of year, or when you're trying to pay off debt.

Sell Gift Cards

Should you find it difficult to use your gift cards, or you have a small balance that you most likely won't use, you can sell or exchange your gift cards. The amount you earn depends on the platform, and in some cases, you might be able to sell them for near the face value.

You can check out Gift Card Granny, CardCash, Raise, or CardSell and compare rates between them to see which might offer the highest amount for the gift cards you want to get rid of. Beyond these gift card selling platforms, you can try your hand at selling your gift cards on online marketplaces such as Facebook Marketplace, eBay, OfferUp, and Letgo.

Host a Virtual Gift Card Swap

If you're looking for a fun way to get rid of unused gift cards, consider organizing an online gift card swap with your friends. Chances are they'll have cards you'll be interested in, and vice versa. While the denominations of the gift cards might not be dollar-for-dollar, you can feel good knowing that a pal will get some use from stuff you don't want.

Don't let those gift card go unused. By keeping them top of mind and employing a few simple tactics, you can make sure every dollar on your gift cards is well spent.

Jackie Lam

Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Business Insider, and GOOD.