Gift Cards... Put Them To Good Use!

So, you have identified a gap in your budget, and you are trying to figure out how to fill that gap.  One way is to take a few minutes to round up all those gift cards that you have received and have not yet used.   Even if your budget isn't stretched, there is no reason to have all that money just laying around in your house, pocket or purse.

So, put down whatever you are doing, unless you are at work of course, its time to go on an excavation dig, so empty those bed-side table drawers,
those wallets, also check that little pocket in your briefcase, your banking file in your office, and anywhere else that you might have stashed a card, and don't forget the bottom of your purses. 

So you have located a stack of cards, half of which you forgot you had - I recently found quite a high value card from William Sonoma which I wish I had found before I went out and spent big bucks on an item.   Retailers have noted that if a card isn't redeemed within 24 months, it is unlikely ever to be redeemed, as noted in the Wall Street Journal over the years - 2005 to 2011 - approximately $41b. of gift cards have gone un-redeemed.  Come on now, who can afford to throw away good money...so let's fill that budget gap, or let's do a turbo re-gift, use those gift cards to purchase gifts for others on your list - think of it this way - it really is only money packaged neatly with sentiment.  Redeem them and fill your budget gap, or use them to buy gifts on your gift list for others, or pamper yourself. 

Get out a sheet of paper, a fine point Sharpie, and you may need a magnifying glass, the fine print on the back of those cards is exceedingly fine, for good reason, and generally not to your benefit.  (Of course you could do make this list in the notes section of your smartphone, but I would omit noting the card number in that case.)

List all the gift cards on one side of the paper, then list the associated customer service numbers beside each card.   Then call each card and verify the following:
- the balance on each card
- the expiration date if any, (if no expiration date make a note of that too, so you don't have to call again to find that out six months down the road - you know life happens and we forget things.)
- are there fees that accrue against the card diminishing its face value if it isn't used in a specific time frame, for any reason - e.g. in some cases if you have not used the card in 2 years (or any time period, based on the policy of the store or vendor) then a portion of the face value is deducted each month thereafter that the card is not used.
- if your card provider will replace a card if lost or stolen - then note on your sheet the card number (its generally on the back under the UPC code).

In some cases there will be a website which you can access and make this determination yourself.

I use a fine point Sharpie to note the balance, the expiration date etc. on the back of the card.  By the way, I keep that Sharpie in my bag so that I can make updates in case I don't use the entire balance on a card on one shopping trip.  Make the note at the time of the trip, don't wait until later.  It takes 2 seconds.  Keep the gift card list in a safe place with your financial records, only for your reference, as in most cases if you lose a gift card, or if it is stolen you are out of luck... check the fine print (of course, before you lose it.)   If you cross off each card, once its spent you then have a list of the available cards and the total amount of "extra" money that you actually have at your disposal, you may be surprised at the total amount, once you add it all up.

In the future when you get a gift card -
- use it as soon as possible
- use the customer service number immediately to find out the information noted above, & use that Sharpie.
- if there is no expiration date, give yourself one - so that you use up the card and not forget that you have it - ostensibly flushing the gift down the drain - making the vendor or the state a winner and both you and the gift-giver a loser.

Some states are attempting to get laws in place to allow unused gift cards to be treated as unclaimed property, thus profiting the state.

Don't go shopping without checking your gift card list first.   The objective is to use up those funds before you use your cash.

And finally, if giving a gift, just give cash, it is so flexible - it has more features than a gift card - the recipient can use it anywhere - no fees attached, and they really get to choose something that they want without the limitation of a particular store.  As the gift giver you can bet it will get used, rarely get lost and it may even be used to start or bolster a savings or investment account - no greater gift.     

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"No matter who you are, making informed decisions about what you do with your money, will help build a more stable financial future for you and your family." Alan Greenspan