Many people think of gift cards as impersonal gestures — something you give to someone you don’t know well. But a recent GOBankingRates survey found that more than half of respondents actually wanted cash or gift cards more than any other gift this holiday season. Personally, restaurant gift cards have helped me dramatically scale back my dining-out budget without giving up a good meal out.
Every Christmas, restaurant gift cards are high on my list of must-haves. While the novelty of a new gadget or gizmo wears off after a couple of months, I get to enjoy gift cards all year long. As Cousin Eddie from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” would say, “That’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
I’ve managed to cut my restaurant spending by 60 percent since packing my wish list with restaurant cards. Here are my top tips for doing the same.
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Ask for Cards to the Restaurants You Visit Most Often
Sometimes it’s nice to try something new, but if you want to slash your restaurant budget, ask for cards to the places you know you’re going to go often. For my family, we get lots of fast-casual places and a few sit-down service restaurants. The fast-casual fare has the bonus of not requiring a tip, which stretches the gift card value further.
Another great idea: Get a few cards for places that deliver. Pizza or sub cards are great options.
Pay Attention to Christmastime Sales
Many restaurants will offer bonuses — such as, buy $100 in gift cards and get $20 free. Either the person buying the cards can add the bonus in when they give the gift, or they can keep it for themselves to offset their own spending.
One thing to watch for is that the bonus cards are often considered coupons, so you can’t use other coupons with them. They also may have an expiration date within 60 or 90 days after the first of the year.
Do You Know? The Best Gift Cards to Buy This Holiday Season
Stretch Your Cards Further
Gift cards act like cash, which means you can still use coupons even when paying with a gift card. Always look for ways to make that money last longer. I will sign up for the email list of restaurants to get email coupons and sometimes freebies on my birthday or sign-up anniversary. You can also sign your kids up, too, so they can get something free on their birthday.
Some places have a kids-eat-free night, also. If you’re serious, you can find out what days the restaurants around you offer that and try to time your visits to match.
Finally, I stopped spending $2.50 to $3 for soda when I go out. It’s just passed the point of being worth it for me. I would rather be able to go out once or twice more than pay the cost of another meal for drinks. But that’s a personal call.
Don’t Forget the Quick-Stop Places
If you frequently stop at coffee shops or gas station convenience stores, those could be another type of card to ask for. Those purchases are smaller, but they add up over time. Getting a gift card and making it last for a length of time is also a great way to help build your discipline.
More on Gift Cards: 15 Restaurants That Give Away Gift Card Freebies
Keep Tabs on Your Total Spend
Lastly, the whole point of doing this is to reduce your spending by using the gift cards. If you end up going out even more instead, then you’re not getting ahead. I notice my wife and I go out less in the early part of the year after all the madness of holiday eating, and then we ramp it up going into summer and through November.
Just being mindful of your spending on restaurants throughout the year will give you a new appreciation for the thoughtfulness of that seemingly impersonal piece of plastic.
This article originally appeared on GoBankingRates.com.