Years ago, a friend who needed cash sold me a $100 Nordstrom gift card. I wish I knew where the heck I put it.
Gift cards are a popular holiday solution, especially recently, as supply chain disruptions and shipping delays have made gift buying more challenging. Most gift cards are spent within a year, but billions of dollars remain unspent and about 1% to 2% of gift card dollars typically go unused, according to Amy Dunckelmann, vice president of research operations for Mercator Advisory Group, a global payments consultant.
This year, my New Year’s resolution is to find and deploy every single gift card lurking in our household by Jan. 15, which is this year’s National Use Your Gift Card Day. For help, I turned to two gift card experts who offered suggestions on how to keep track of cards and use them to the best advantage.
Make a plan for the cards you won’t use
Gift cards come in two flavors: those you’ll use and those you won’t. If a gift card isn’t right for you, ask yourself who might be a better fit, says Tracy Tilson, founder of UseYourGiftCard.com and the creator of National Use Your Gift Card Day.
You could regift it to a friend or neighbor, donate to a charity or hand it to a first responder as a thank you for their hard work during the pandemic, Tilson suggests.
“It’s a good way to create some goodwill if you’re not going to use them,” Tilson says.
You might sell the card to someone you know or trade it for one of their unwanted cards. Gift cards can be sold or swapped online but scams abound. Buyers may ask you to read off the card numbers to “ensure the card is legit” and disappear with the card’s value once you do. Or the card you get in a swap may be phony or already used. Avoid private-party sales to strangers, such as those on Craigslist or Facebook. If you want to use an online site, make sure it has a post-transaction money-back guarantee.
Set reminders for the cards you want to use
If you’re planning to use a card, employ your phone and a calendar to help keep track, says Shelley Hunter, spokeswoman for GiftCards.com, an online provider of gift cards. Hunter keeps a running list of her cards on her phone and makes a note on her calendar when she plans to use one.
“On Saturday, I’m probably going to go out to lunch with my boys, so I will put on the calendar, ‘Lunch with boys. Use Panera gift card,’” Hunter says.
Even if you don’t have a specific plan for a card, consider putting a “use by” date on your calendar so you don’t forget it, Tilson says.
Hunter also recommends treating cards like cash. If you got a $20 bill as a gift, you’d probably put it into your wallet right away, Hunter notes. Consider doing the same with gift cards you plan to use.
“I put them next to the debit or credit card that I use most often,” she says.
Tilson agrees. If she puts gift cards elsewhere in her wallet or purse, “I forget about them.”
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Keep expiration rules in mind
How much time you have to use your gift cards may depend on where you live and the type of card.
Under the federal Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, gift cards can’t expire for five years although issuers can charge inactivity fees if the card hasn’t been used within 12 months.
Some states have additional rules. Where I live in California, store gift certificates and gift cards can’t expire. Inactivity fees are mostly forbidden and balances below $10 can be redeemed for cash. The law doesn’t apply to general-use gift cards, however, if the expiration date is printed on the card. (General-use cards include gift cards issued by Visa, Mastercard, Discover and American Express that can be used wherever those brands are accepted.)
You can find other states’ rules by searching the National Conference of State Legislatures’ site for “gift card.”
In general, though, the quicker you use your cards, the better. You’re less likely to forget about them and more likely to enjoy the value the giver wanted you to have.
About the author: Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet. She is a Certified Financial Planner and author of five money books, including “Your Credit Score.”