You wouldn't throw money away, would you? Then make sure you
squeeze every cent out of your gift cards.
"We've all lost gift cards, we've all forgotten to use them, and
left balances on them, or wondered what was on them," says Hillary
Mendelsohn, author of "The Purple Book: The Definitive Guide to
Exceptional Online Shopping."
State laws have made it easier to pull the last few dollars out
of your gift cards, in cash, and other strategies can prevent you
from losing value.
Want to make sure you drain every cent from your gift cards?
These strategies will help:
1. Use it quickly
Inactivity fees and expiration dates can mean that when you
finally reach for the card, you will have less to spend than
While federal law mandates that gift cards have to be good for
at least five years, some states extend those dates further, or
prohibit expiration dates for some types of gift cards.
Mendelsohn urges consumers to check and keep track, "so you
don't lose the value of the card."
After a year of nonuse, card issuers in many states can impose
inactivity fees, says Christina Tetreault, a staff attorney for
Consumers Union. Issuers can levy those fees once a month until the
card is used. Other states prohibit inactivity fees, and not all
gift card issuers levy them.
You also want to avoid getting stuck with a card from a store
that later goes out of business, says John Breyault, vice president
of public policy for the National Consumers League. If you are not
using a card right away, keep tabs on the store, he says. And if it
is filing for bankruptcy (or looks like it may), use that card
2. Cash out your card
In some states, consumers with a "closed loop" gift card can ask
for the remaining balance in cash once the card balance hits a
certain threshold. A "closed loop" card is a gift card good for use
at one store, retail chain or group of related merchants. While use
may be limited to certain stores or chains, you typically don't pay
a fee to buy these cards.
You can make the cash request at the time of a purchase, but in
some cases, the clerk may not be aware of the policy, Tetreault
says. "Sometimes the clerk doesn't know," she says. "I'll say, 'I
would like the last few pennies back in cash,' and they're like, 'I
don't know if I can do that.'" On such occasions, she sometimes
goes to customer service. Other times, not. "Sometimes it's not
worth it for 57 cents."
3. Understand your card
They can be used at any merchant that accepts the card brand.
But that flexibility comes with a drawback: Buyers of "open loop"
cards typically pay a fee in addition to the card's face value.
A third type of gift card is the loyalty, award or promotional
gift card. Typically, these cards are given out as special bonus
when you switch telephone or TV service, or when you buy
appliances. Cards in this third category are not covered under the
Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of
2009. Unlike standard gift cards, which are under the law cannot
expire in less than five years,
rebate and promotional cards may expire quickly
-- in as little as a few months. They don't qualify for protection
under state laws, either.
How can you tell if your card does not qualify for these extras?
They won't say "gift card" on the face of the card. Instead,
they'll bear words such as "reward," "promotion" or "rebate."
Another telltale sign: The card will show an expiration date.
4. Make your cards easy to use
Keep the card where you will remember it when you go to a
certain store, says Breyault.
If you have a dedicated envelope or place in your wallet, "You
are much more likely not to forget you have them," says
Some people prefer to have gift cards in their mobile wallet.
"Gift cards have sort of gone more high-tech," she says. Two apps
she likes are Gyft for iPhone and GoWallet for Android.
Depending on the merchant and the card, you also may be able to
load your card balance into an online merchant account you can
access by phone. But for security's sake, do not link these online
accounts to bank accounts or debit cards, and disable any "auto
5. Split the transaction
Perhaps you only have a few dollars left on that gift card. In
such cases, many merchants will let you apply the remaining balance
to a purchase, even if you have to use cash, a debit card or credit
card to cover the rest of the total. "It's called a split
transaction," says Tetreault.
Tetreault says many retailers accommodate such transactions as
long as you notify them before the purchase begins. Most big online
retailers can do the same, she says.
6. Sell, trade, regift or donate
If you have a gift card you will never redeem, you can sell,
regift, trade or donate it. "The worst kind of gift card is the one
that doesn't get used," says Mendelsohn.
If you received a card for a store you'll never shop, consider
regifting, says Breyault: "Regifting is never a bad idea." You can
also swap cards with a friend or family member.
Another option is to donate the card, or even the remaining
balance on a card, to a charity. Some larger retailers will do this
for you, Mendelsohn says. There are also companies that collect and
pool gift card balances for charity.
You can also call your own favorite nonprofit, and see if it
will accept a donation from your gift card.
7. Keep the receipt
Not everything always works perfectly. If you want to make sure
you squeeze every dollar out of a gift card, save that receipt.
Receipts can help in several situations, including when:
- Someone fraudulently drained the balance before the card was
- The store clerk didn't activate the card properly.
- The wrong amount was mistakenly loaded onto the card.
Mendelsohn takes it a step further. "I give the receipt so [the
giftee] knows it's an activated card," she says. "So they have some
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