Got a Gift Card to Spend? Here's Why You Should Use It ASAP

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  • Last year, Americans reported having $15 billion in unused gift cards.
  • Inflation is impacting the buying power of those cards.
  • If you can't use the card yourself, try to sell it or trade it with someone.

The clock is ticking on those unused gift cards.

Have you cleaned out your wallet lately? Open it up, take a look, and you may be surprised to find that you have a random gift card hanging around in there. Forgetting about a gift card isn't uncommon; in fact, a survey by Bankrate found just last year that Americans have $15 billion worth of unused gift cards. And these days, those gift cards are losing value. "Wait a minute," you may be thinking, "that was a holiday gift from my boss last year! I haven't even used it yet. It'll still buy just as much at my local Starbucks!" Will it, though?

Inflation strikes again

If you've been following the news (or reading The Ascent) lately, you've likely heard lots of stories about inflation. On July 13, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its new Consumer Price Index summary, showing that prices overall were up 9.1% in June over the last year. Living costs are up across the board, from the price of gas to groceries to utilities. And your Starbucks gift card won't go as far as it would have even in December 2021 when you received it at the company holiday party. Starbucks is among the many businesses, especially restaurants, that have raised prices in 2022, citing inflation and the resulting rising costs of food and supplies.

Another reason to use that gift card

It's important to note that most gift cards also charge fees or even expire altogether after a certain period of time (usually 12 months). So if you find a rogue gift card in your wallet or in an old birthday card, act now to make sure you can get your money's worth out of it.

What should you do with the gift card?

First things first: If you've had the card for a while (say, at least a year), or have used some of the money on it already, you're going to want to figure out how much is left on it. Call the phone number on the back of the card, and you'll be asked to provide your card number to find out the card's balance. I usually write the remaining balance on the back of the card, and alter it as I use it. Ideally, now you would spend the card balances on something you want or need from the issuing retailer.

Unfortunately, sometimes you end up with a gift card that you just can't use. Maybe it's from a retailer you don't shop at, or one that you don't have geographic access to. This happened to me a few years ago, when a relative in another state gave me a gift card to a movie theater chain that has no locations anywhere near me. In that case, you can still get some money out of the card to add to your savings account.

You can still profit from an unusable gift card

In the case of my movie theater gift card, I sold it online via a company called CardCash. I didn't get the full face value of the unused card, but I received about 80%, which was certainly better than no money at all. The process was very easy: I was prompted to enter the name of the company offering the card, the amount, and the gift card number (and didn't have to mail the physical card). From there, I got a cash offer (and I could claim it via check, ACH deposit to my bank account, or PayPal), but was also offered the chance to trade it for other gift cards, in some cases worth more money. Some gift cards are considered more valuable than others; you'll likely get a higher price for cards from more popular/widespread businesses.

So if you don't like Starbucks, or would just rather have some cash instead, see if you can sell the card. You could also check with friends and family to see if anyone is willing to trade gift cards with you. Maybe you don't like Starbucks, but your sister has a Target card and wouldn't mind swapping.

In these trying and expensive times, it's important to focus on saving money and improving our budgeting skills. Spending or otherwise getting some profit from an unused gift card as soon as possible is just a smart move.

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