Tactics for Effective Use of Christmas Gift Cards

Quite a few of my friends and family opened up gift cards for various retailers during their Christmas celebrations (I didn’t receive any, thankfully). While such cards were almost always received with a polite smile and a “thank you,” I know from personal experience that a gift card is sometimes a challenge.

Sometimes, the card is related to a retailer that doesn’t have a location near you. I’ve received cards in the past from retailers that don’t exist in the state of Iowa. This isn’t as bad as it once was thanks to many retailers allowing use of their gift cards at their website, but you’re still often paying for shipping on the item you get and it’s impossible to, say, use a restaurant certificate online.

Sometimes, the card is related to a retailer that you don’t use. I am a vegetarian, so a card to a steakhouse isn’t particularly useful to me, for example. I’ve seen people receive gift cards related to hobbies that they don’t enjoy. I can also recall at least one incident where a friend received a gift card to a retailer that she didn’t use for ethical reasons.

Sometimes, the card is small enough that you’ll have to supplement it with cash to use it. A $10 or even a $25 card to a nice restaurant is a great example of that. If you go to that restaurant – unless you go alone and are picky on what you order – you’re going to be spending more than the gift certificate’s face value. This means you’re going to have to spend money out of pocket on something you wouldn’t likely buy anyway just to use up a gift.

Sometimes, you just forget. I had a Starbucks gift card in my wallet for several months. It had enough value on it to get four or five cups of coffee, but I’m not a big coffee drinker (I rarely indulge these days), so I’d usually not think about it at all.

These factors – and many others – cause gift cards to simply go unused by recipients, meaning that they have something of value in their hand that they’re choosing to waste.

Don’t let that happen to you. Here are four tactics I’ve used to extract value from gift cards.

First, I try to use them quickly. The longer a card sits around, the less likely it is to get used for something worthwhile. If I receive a gift card for Kindle books, for example, I’ll try to pick them out within a day of receiving the card. If I receive a card for a restaurant, I try to go there as soon as I possibly can.

Second, if I’m not interested in the retailer on the card, I re-gift the card. I’ve even re-gifted cards from retailers that I actually might use if I know someone else that would really use it. For me, the best way to do that is to keep a “gift drawer” in our home where I stow away gifts for people when I acquire them, often with a Post-It note indicating who the gift is for. That way, when the next gift-giving occasion comes along, I can simply find the gift in there.

Third, I’ll donate unwanted cards to charity. A gift card makes a great item for a silent charity auction. I’m asked several times a year for items for various charity auctions and gift cards are great items to use here. Plus, if the charity is a registered one, the donation is tax-deductible.

Finally, I’ll sell unwanted cards. There are several sites that do a reputable job of re-selling gift cards, such as GiftCards.com. In the last month, I’ve done business with them and it was quite successful. On the flip side, of course, if you know you’re going to be using a particular retailer, you can usually buy gift cards under face value at a site like GiftCards.com.

The best solution of all is a simple one, though. Don’t give gift cards. If you want to give someone a good experience or a luxury item, either specifically pick out that item for them or give them cash. Gift cards are a middle ground that reduce flexibility without thoughtfulness.

As for me, I’m simply glad that no gift cards found their way to me this year, nor did I give any gift cards.