Getting the most out of holiday gift cards

gift card dog

Merry Christmas! Image: gmilldrum/Flickr/CC BY

Gift cards have become a modern staple of the holiday gift-giving ritual. They are easy, convenient and allow for a little more personalization than cash. But how often have you received a gift card only for it to be forgotten in the back of your wallet until it expires? Here are a few tips to maximize the value of those wallet-stuffers.

A good season for retailers

It has been a good holiday season for the retail industry. Sales for the week before Christmas were up by 4.5 percent from last year. And millions of gift cards were counted among those purchases. The National Retail Federation estimates that 27.8 billion was spent on gift cards in 2011. Eighty percent of holiday shoppers this year bought one or more.

Bonus for retailers

Traditionally, 50 percent of gift cards are redeemed in January. But consumer advocates say that 2 to 5 percent of them are never redeemed at all, and retailers count on that. It is estimated that $41 billion has been lost to unredeemed gift cards in the U.S. since 2005.

Retailers are also fond of the gift cards because they know that many people will spend beyond the card’s value.

Maximizing value of gift cards

The best advice in using a gift card is to redeem it quickly before it is forgotten. Gift cards received for Christmas have the advantage of being given just in time for post-Christmas and year-end sales. Taking advantage of them is an excellent way of getting more value out of the card.

Sell or trade cards

What to do when small balances are left on cards? Or what do you do if, say, Grandma gave you gift card for Starbucks but you like Seattle’s Best? Those cards can be sold or traded at websites like,,, and You lose part of the card’s value in the transaction but generally walk away with about 90 percent intact.


Another option is to invest the value left on unused cards. Sites like will put the value on those cards in money markets and other low-risk investment opportunities for a small fee.

For charity

You can really show your holiday spirit by giving those unused cards to charity. Check into your favorite one, or here are a few places to look into:, or


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