Getting the Most Bang for Your Gift Card Buck

by Julie Ann

According to First Data, a firm that conducts an annual study on the gift card industry, 82 percent of those surveyed received a gift card in 2010.  Given the steady yearly increase in the giving of gift cards, the chances are high that you were a recipient in 2011.

So what did you do with those gift cards you received this past Christmas season?

Rush right out and spend it, right?  If they’re still sitting in your wallet, here are several factors to consider before plunking your gift card down to pay for purchases.

Registration: The first thing you should do when you receive a gift card is check to see if you can register it.  This will protect you if the card is lost or stolen.  Remember, these cards are to be treated like cash and adding a layer of protection is always wise.

Reloading:  Many businesses want you to reload your gift card and continue to use it for purchases.  Often these businesses will reward you for using the card.  One such example is Starbucks.  Over a year ago, someone gave me a Starbucks gift card.  I registered it online and now earn gold stars for free drinks every time I use the card to pay for my coffee, plus I earn a free drink on my birthday and other special deals.  Recently a friend gave me another Starbucks gift card.  I registered it and transferred the amount on the card into my account.  This is a great way for me to limit my Starbucks purchases to funds available on the card and earn free stuff, and it’s easier than cash.

Read the Fine Print:  Somewhere in teeny, tiny print on the card, there will be the terms and conditions for using the card.  For example, I have an iTunes card in front of me.  When I read the fine print, it tells me that I can only use it in the iTunes store. I have to be a certain age to open an iTunes account. I can’t redeem the card for cash or refunds, and they aren’t responsible for any damage, etc.  Be sure to read the terms and conditions, paying extra attention to any expiration dates or other restrictions that may prevent you from using the card.  Remember millions of dollars in gift cards go unused every year because people didn’t read the fine print!

Remember, it’s a gift:  First of all, because it is a gift card, I like to make sure that I use it to purchase something I would like to receive as a gift but that I wouldn’t normally buy myself.  After all, the gift card giver probably didn’t intend for you to spend the card on toothpaste, soap and deodorant, but rather a fun treat for yourself.

Consider the Cost:  One of the things that stores like about gift cards is the chance that you will spend more money than you have on your gift card, thus earning them a higher profit.  If someone gives you a $50 gift card, keep in mind that you will have to pay from your pocket any amount over $50.  Be prepared to shell out more (essentially buying yourself part of the gift, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense) or find something near the gift card amount.

If You Can’t Spend It:  What if a co-worker who hardly knows you gives you a gift card for a restaurant or store that you despise or an out-of-town relative gifts you one for a business that doesn’t have a store near you?  You have a couple of options.  First, you could consider re-gifting the card to someone you know who can use it (and won’t figure out you’re re-gifting it!).   Or you can hop online and find a gift card exchange where you can trade for a useful gift card or even cash, such as plasticjungle.com.  There are various rules and sometimes fees associated with these gift card exchange sites, so as always, read the fine print and make sure you know how everything will work.  Just run a search for “gift card exchanges” to find a site. If you are an eBay user, you can sell it there.

Of course, an even better idea for unwanted gift cards is to find a needy family who could use a night out at a nice restaurant or a local shelter that could use the card to buy supplies for the homeless (a side note: it is always a great idea to have a few extra gift cards any time of the year to help out those less fortunate).

As convenient and popular as they are, gift cards do come with a few strings attached, things to look out for, and occasionally minor inconveniences.  However, they seem to have become a staple of the gift-giving season, so be smart and get the most bang for your gift card buck.

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