During the recent holiday season, many of our loved ones thought long and hard about what to get us. Since we're such unique characters, many had trouble figuring out what we'd really like, and so they opted for something safe yet useful: the gift card, which is now the No. 1 gift choice in America.

A little piece of plastic, loaded with money, that we can spend at various popular retailers -- gift cards aren't bad gifts at all. The only problem is, much of the money spent on gift cards -- and we're talking billions of dollars here -- is going to end up down the toilet.

That's because many, many gift cards are never used. We lose them, they expire, or we forget about them. Whatever the reason, we end up giving the retailers the best gift of all: nearly 100% profit on that sale, a big wad of free money.

Here are some specifics, via the TowerGroup, a retail trade organization:

  • Gift card sales were estimated at $82 billion in 2006, up more than 20% over 2005 levels.
  • An estimated 10% of that will be forfeited.

The upside here lies with corporate America. According to Fred Hiers in the Ocala, Fla., Star-Banner, "Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) each recently added more than $40 million to their coffers from unused gift cards dating back to 2002. Limited Brands (NYSE:LTD) tucked away $30.4 million this year from unused gift-card sales."

What to do
So what should you do with this information? Well, as Justin McHenry opined at finance-weblog.com, "... if they were considerate enough to let you choose how to spend the money instead of taking unfortunate guesses at what you might want to wear, don't you owe it to them to use that gift card and get something for all their trouble?"

Here in Fooldom, we're often urging you to think twice before spending wantonly. Well, here's a time when you're being urged to spend. Go for it!

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Home Depot. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.