How to Make The Most From Your Gift Cards

by Katy on January 1, 2017 · 20 comments

If you’re like 93% of Americans, you’ve either given or received a gift card this holiday season. It’s no wonder that gift cards have become the go-to gift for those we hold near and dear, as well as others we hardly know. Buying a gift card allows the recipient to choose something they actually want, yet it shows that the giver put at least a little bit of thought into the gift. It’s no wonder that gift cards have become so popular.

However, it can be overwhelming to suddenly have a wallet full of seemingly random gift cards. Before you start to spend your bounty, you should first investigate how to get the absolute most from every single one of your cards.

Like, follow, subscribe and then download the app

National stores will almost always have a social media presence that you can work to your advantage. This means that you can discover discounts, especially if you’re a new customer. So “like” them on Facebook, “follow” them on Twitter and then subscribe to their e-mails to get the most bang for your buck. Don’t forget to download their app to your smartphone and allow push notifications for maximum buying power.

Search for promo codes

Always do an internet search for the name of the store plus “promo code” before you shop either online or in person. This simple trick will lead you to sites such as RetailMeNot, which boasts that it has “500,00 coupons for 50,000 stores.” Always updating, these discount websites will usually lead you to codes for both discounts and/or free shipping.

Shop through a cash back website

Websites such as eBates and TopCashBack function to unlock sales, as well as give you a percentage of your purchase back in the form of cash. Although many stores offer just a small 2-6% percentage back, other stores can be as high as 40%. It’s worth it to spend a minute or two to check and see if your gift card can earn you at least a couple of dollars.

Investigate if other stores accept your gift card

Many national companies are part of a corporate network, which means that their gift cards can be used at multiple other stores.

Here are just a few examples:

  • A Gap gift card can also be spent at Old Navy, Banana Republic or Athleta.
  • An Olive Garden gift card can be used at Longhorn, Bahama Breeze or any other Darden restaurant.
  • A Safeway gift card can be used at Tom Thumb, Von’s, Randall’s, Carrs and Pavilions.
  • A Kroger gift card can be used at Fred Meyer, Ralph’s, Food4Less or Smith’s.
  • A Land’s End gift card can be used at Sears.
  • A Cinemark gift card can be used at Cinéarts, Tinseltown or Rave Cinemas.

The list of gift cards that allow for purchases from multiple retail outlets is seemingly endless, so make sure to both read the small print on the back of your card as well as click on your store’s website to investigate before choosing where to redeem your card.

Time your restaurant visits thoughtfully

If you’re lucky enough to possess a restaurant gift card you might want to consider sitting in the bar instead of the main restaurant. Happy hour menus are usually much more budget friendly than standard entrees, and can allow you to stretch that gift card until it begs for mercy. Either check the restaurant’s website or call your specific location to clarify happy hour times and any restrictions.

Sell or swap your card

If you’ve received a gift card that’s simply not to your liking, you still have some great options. Websites such as Gift Card Granny, Plastic JungleCardpool and eBay allow you to sell your gift cards to recoup most of the original cost. No, you won’t get the full amount of your gift card, but at some point it’s better to get something rather than nothing. Want to trade for another gift card rather than sell it? That’s an option as well.

Know your balance

That gift card from great aunt Ethel might be for a mysterious amount, but it’s easy to figure out the actual value. The small print on the back of your gift card will almost always have the website and/or phone number to clarify the gift card balance. If you’re already in the store and unsure of your card’s balance, any checker can easily swipe the card to provide this information.

Base your purchase on the value of the card

This may sound like an obvious tip, but it’s not exactly the most financially responsible practice to justify a $300 purchase based on a $50 gift card. Sure, it’s normal to up spend a gift card by a couple of dollars, (and retailers count on you doing this) but unless that large purchase was already within your planned budget, it’s best to keep this spending rationalization in check.

Save your gift cards for a vacation treat

Gift cards can be a great way to keep vacation costs down, especially when your wallet holds cards for movie theater chains, restaurants or coffee shops. Investigate ahead of time how close you’ll be to your gift card’s retail location, as well as whether it might work with a corporate partner.

Do your own gifting

Whether you’re shopping for others or straight up regifting, gift cards are a great way to decrease your spending. Sure, it might not be the intention to have bought for others, but being able to save money is always a welcome gift.

Be aware of any limitations 

Although the 2009 Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act did away with the most fraudulent gift card practices, there’s still some small print to be aware of. Some states allow for a gift cards to decrease in value if left dormant for a full year, and certain purchases such as lottery tickets, cigarettes or alcohol may be prohibited. Some retailers may not allow for gift card usage in their outlets, so call ahead to pin down the rules and regulations.

Conclusion

Whether you received one or multiple gift cards over the holiday gift giving season, be sure to make the most of them. If you’re deliberate about how they’re spent, you can easily increase their value using the above tips and tricks. Whatever you choose to do with your gift cards, just make sure to remember where you put them and then spend with intention.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Frugal In The Valley January 1, 2017 at 5:06 am

I have a couple I might sell as I have no use for them, good ideas.

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Kim January 1, 2017 at 8:11 am

I have two things I do to make sure that I use my gift cards in a timely manner and to make sure I use every penny. First, I keep them all together in a small zippered change purse in my handbag. It’s a freebie from the state fair that my now college age son used for his lunch money in elementary school! That way I am sure to have them when I want to use them.

The second thing I do is I have a mini Sharpie marker that I also keep in my handbag. If I only partially use the card value, I write the remaining balance on the card so I know how much is left and I don’t overspend or forget to use it.

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tia January 1, 2017 at 8:30 am

Wow, lots of good info! Thanks!

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Bee January 1, 2017 at 10:03 am

Great info! I sold a gift card on giftcardgranny.com this morning. I was never going to use this card and my attempts to re-gift it did not work out. It took just a few minutes to sell. Although I could have received slightly more on eBay, this was hassle-free.

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Mariana January 1, 2017 at 10:35 am

This holiday season I received a completely useless $25 gift card to Intermix store. (I just went online and saw a few skirts on clearance to $250). Thanks but no thanks.

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kathleen January 1, 2017 at 11:51 am

I have had a little bit of trouble using a Longhorn Steakhouse gift certificate at an Olive Garden restaurant. They did eventually let me use it, but said that Darden was in the process of selling one or the other maybe? The Darden website still lists both, so not sure what the problem was, but it may be helpful to call ahead and check that a card is usable at your destination before assuming it will be and getting stuck with a big check and unusable card.

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Tess January 1, 2017 at 1:00 pm

I love gift cards to restaurants!!! I just used one at the Cheesecake Factory.

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Alison January 1, 2017 at 1:10 pm

While cleaning out a drawer recently I found a Future Shop (Canada) card for $100 that I bought to give a friend as a thank you. I never gave it to him, and now Future Shop not longer exists. They were taken over I think by Best Buy, and the Best Buy website says they will honour it. I hope so, it’s a few years old though, but I’ll give it a try. The only thing is, I don’t need anything at Best Buy!
Super NCA fail on my part if they don’t take it.

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Susan January 2, 2017 at 1:09 pm

Best buy sells other gift cards like iTunes, xbox, google play, netflix, and some restaurants, so maybe you can use it to buy some more useful giftcards either for yourself or for gifts in the coming year.

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Patti January 1, 2017 at 1:22 pm

I gave movie gift cards to my friends this Christmas – it is an experience gift so no clutter and we have all made plans to go to the movies together. For one of them, this was a very exciting proposal as she will NOT go by herself (she’s single). I am looking forward to the movies myself as they will be “chick flicks” or movies more my style than the ones I go to with my husband.

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Primal Prosperity January 1, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Check out this program: http://rockstarfinance.com/rcf-one-pager/

You can donate your gift cards to the Rockstar Community Fund, or give it away yourself to help local community members in need.

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Mrs. Picky Pincher January 1, 2017 at 3:12 pm

This is a great point! I’m sure many of us have been recipients of gift cards that were unwanted or we didn’t know how to maximize them to their full potential.

We got gift cards for a steakhouse and for movies, which are treats we rarely indulge in with our own money, so we’re saving them for a rainy day! I’ll try to hold out for our anniversary so we don’t have to spend money on a small celebration.

We did get a $25 gift card to a restaurant we would *never* eat at. I think we’ll end up selling the gift card online so we can at least get a little cash out of it. Waste not, right?

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JD January 1, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Thanks for this! I have one I can’t use. Maybe I can sell it!

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Michele Cooper January 2, 2017 at 4:06 am

These are great suggestions. I think it’s usually good to use the gift cards within a year of when they were purchased. So that you don’t lose any value of the cards over fees. Make smart purchase, don’t buy anything just to buy. If you’re stuck with a gift card to can always re-gift it or you can buy a present for someone.

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Lindsay January 2, 2017 at 6:42 am

We used our Starbucks gift card to cut costs on our New Orleans honeymoon, and I used the other gift cards I received to shop ahead for gifts for this year. I’m doing an ultra-frugal year in 2017, so planning ahead for frugal gifts is crucial.

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Roberta January 2, 2017 at 7:48 am

Two more things: Starbucks cards can be used at Teavana (for you tea drinkers out there!) and they usually have cheap, healthy meals available if you’re out and desperate for food. I’ve used them in hospital lobbies, places like that.

Also, at least here in California, if you have $5 of less on the card at the end, you can ask for the change as cash, rather than needing to come back to the store (and spend more than the value).

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Diane C January 2, 2017 at 9:25 am

IIRC, in CA the cash-back amount has been raised to $10 and gift cards can never expire.

We recently found an “expired” Home Depot card in a book from the library book sale for $50 that was over ten years old. They took it with no problems. We then donated the $50 back to the library. Happy!

Also, Home Goods, TJMaxx and Marshalls gift cards are interchangeable.

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Jessica January 3, 2017 at 8:52 am

Totally agree on using it at other stores. My daughter received some pants that did not fit her from J. Crew, and I was issued a store credit. That can be used at the factory outlet, where the $ will go much farther.
Additionally, I would recommend using them quickly, before you lose them and while stores have great after-Christmas sales. I was able to use a gift card at a local clothing store for an amount that would usually only buy a single dress to buy a dress and two cardigans…

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Shevaun January 3, 2017 at 10:15 am

We usually use gift cards immediately (so we don’t forget to use them or lose them) and then write the gift-giver a thank you card saying what we bought. For example, for my newborn son’s baptism, our beloved babysitter gave us a $25 card to Wegmans (a grocery store). We bought four boxes of baby vitamins (breastfed babies need vitamin D, so sayeth the dr.), enough to get him through 8 months. My mother got us a $100 card for Aldi for Christmas, so I did a big grocery run and took a photo of the overflowing cart to send to her.

We also try to buy things that only *that* store has, or that has the best bang-for-buck. For example, we used a $20 Tim Horton’s card to buy a bag of ground coffee to make at home. We’ll get a lot more coffee-goodness out of the back than only 4 or 5 cups of the restaurant-made brew.

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Annye January 3, 2017 at 10:44 am

“A Land’s End gift card can be used at Sears.”

I’m not sure this is true anymore. I know you can use a Sears or Kmart gift card at Sears, Kmart, or Land’s End, but I think Land’s End gift cards are now only valid at Land’s End and landsend.com.

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