Got a Gift Card? 5 Tips to Use It Wisely

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  • If you ended up with a gift card you can't use, sell or trade it.
  • Add gift cards to your wallet (or online account) ASAP to make sure you don't forget about them.
  • Watch those expiration dates so you don't lose out.

Hooray, gift cards!

Sifting through your holiday loot? I hope you received some gift cards, as they are one of the best holiday gifts for adults. If you did, it's important to use them to their maximum benefit (and for your maximum enjoyment, whether that's spending them on purchases you have to make anyway, or using them to buy yourself a fabulous present). To that end, be sure to follow these tips.

1. Decide if you can use the card

First things first! You're going to want to make sure you can actually use the cards you received. If they're for a retailer you don't like, that stinks, but there's still a way forward -- keep reading. If you live in a different part of the country than your loved ones, you might have gift cards for retailers or restaurants that don't have any locations in your area. While this is also a bummer, it's best to find out sooner rather than later, so do a quick Google search if you don't know off-hand whether a card is usable.

One option you might have is to use the card online and have purchases shipped to you (and hey, this way you'll avoid the flood of in-person shoppers using their gift cards). If it turns out that the gift card is for something that must be enjoyed in person (like a movie theater) and you have no locations nearby, it's time to sell it or trade it.

2. Sell or trade it

Some enterprising companies have gotten into the gift card resale business; one such company is called CardCash. I used it a few years ago to get 80% value back from a gift card I couldn't use. It was very easy to deal with, and I chose the cash back option (although I could have also traded my card for another one). But there are other ways to find a new home for that gift card. Trade it with a friend or relative for something you like better, or offer to sell it directly to them. They will likely want to confirm the full value of the card (and I don't recommend being dishonest about this).

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3. Deploy it immediately if you can use it

All set with the gift cards you want to keep? Now you can spring into action by popping it off the cardboard backing it might have come stuck to, activating it (if needed), and adding it to your wallet so it's ready to go the next time you're in that store. I recommend putting it in a part of your wallet where you'll see it. Nothing worse than going shopping then not noticing until later that you could've saved some of your own money by using a gift card.

If it's a gift card for an online retailer (in which case, it might be in email form, rather than a physical card), it's best to go ahead and add it to your account. Amazon in particular makes this process very easy; you'll just need to type (or copy and paste) in the code for the card and it'll automatically become your default payment method for future purchases.

4. Add leftovers to your Amazon account

Speaking of your Amazon account, if you have a Visa or Mastercard gift card (rather than one tied to a particular retailer) with a few dollars left on it, you can convert it to an Amazon gift card via Amazon Reload. You'll need to know how much is left on the card, and can add it as a payment method to your Amazon account and add that exact amount on Amazon Reload, which will convert it to Amazon gift card dollars. Pretty cool! Just make sure you then delete it as a payment method after this (and toss out the card once it's empty).

5. Pay attention to expiration dates

One last tip for spending your gift cards wisely: Watch those expiration dates. Some gift cards come with fees if they go unused for a certain period of time (like 12 months) and could expire altogether eventually. So it's best not to let a gift card get lost in your wallet or purse, lest you lose that money.

Gift cards are great. They let you give your checking account a break and still cover your everyday costs. Plus, they offer the opportunity to buy a pretty sweet present for yourself, all thanks to the thoughtful person you got the card from.

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