By Martha C. White
December 25, 2019
Jeff Greenberg—Universal Images Group via Getty

We don’t know what kinds of holiday presents you exchange with your friends and family, but we’re certain it’s safe to say this: You’re getting a gift card this holiday season.

Gift cards are perennially one of the best gift ideas, from the perspective of givers and receivers alike. According to the National Retail Federation, more than half of holiday shoppers who got started before Thanksgiving bought gift cards, and the frenzy didn’t stop there.

With less than a week to go before Christmas, another NRF survey found that more than one in four Americans had purchased a gift card to give as a present this holiday season — which means odds are pretty good that you’ll find a gift card for Amazon, Target, Starbucks or some other store or chain in your stocking.

People like giving and getting gift cards for the same reason: It’s a ridiculously easy and practical gift to buy, and the recipient gets to pick out exactly the present they want. Win-win.

Retailers like gift cards, too — but for different reasons. They make more money when you spend above than the value of your gift card, and they benefit if you neglect to use that gift card, which a surprising number of us do.

According to GiftCards.com, 29% of people say they’ve gotten a gift card that they never used, and 20% say they’ve forgotten to use gift cards. Billions of dollars held in gift cards sits unused each year.

This year, be smart about your spending by making the most of gift cards you get. Here are the best strategies to maximize their value.

Use gift cards wisely (and quickly).

Thanks to the sweeping credit card legislation passed in the wake of the financial crisis roughly a decade ago, gift cards are required to have a minimum five-year expiration date. But that doesn’t mean you should chuck gift cards into your junk drawer.

For starters, you don’t want to be one of the one in five people who forgets about a gift card. Five years is a pretty generous window of time, but the longer you go, the greater the risk of forgetting about it or losing it. And gift cards slowly lose their value over time, simply by way of inflation.

Take careful note of special gift cards that are given as promotions for holiday-season purchases, which were specifically excluded from the five-year expiration date. Stores like giving out these bonuses because it increases the chance you’ll come back and buy more. But these gift cards can expire in as little as 15 days, and 90 days is about the most generous expiration we’ve seen for promotional gift cards.

Shop post-holiday deals and sales.

Among the two-thirds of Americans who told the NRF they plan to shop the week after Christmas, roughly half say they plan to take advantage of post-holiday sales — and 27% say they’ll be paying with gift cards.

This is a good tactic if you get a gift card for a store you patronize regularly; use that store credit to take advantage of post-holiday deals at Walmart, Target, Amazon, Best Buy, Macy's, Kohl's, or wherever else. The key to getting the most out of a gift card is treating it like your own cash and shopping carefully. If you wouldn’t pay the full list price for an item out of your own pocket normally, then you shouldn’t pay full price just because you happen to have a gift card. Look for good deals and sales.

Regift it (or use it to buy great gifts).

Even though the biggest appeal of gift cards is that they cut down on the chances of someone hating the present you pick out for them, we’ve probably all had that experience of getting a gift card to a store where you never shop or a restaurant you don’t particularly like.

You can still make that gift card’s value work for you if you think creatively, though. Even if you would never shop at the place for yourself, this could be a great way to stretch your gift-giving budget for others. Or, provided the card itself isn’t printed with a holiday motif, simply regift the card outright to someone more enthusiastic about the retailer.

Sell gift cards or trade them.

If all else fails, there are gift card marketplaces where you can buy, sell and trade gift cards. You won’t get the full cash value, but it beats letting the value go to waste entirely.

There are a handful of these sites out there, including Cardpool and CardCash, so if you have an unwanted gift card, do some “comparison shopping” to find out where you can get the highest exchange.

How much you can expect to get for selling an unwanted gift card depends on the retailer or brand of card: Grocery, big-box and electronics store cards tend to command the highest percentages, but you’ll probably be able to get at least 50% of the value of any gift card you’re looking to sell or trade. (The sites buying gift cards take a cut of the transaction too, of course.) As a rule of thumb, you can get a higher value if you’re willing to trade for another gift card instead of cash.

These marketplaces aren’t limited to just retailers, either: You can find gift cards for digital “stores” like iTunes, Netflix and Google Play, fast-food and sit-down chain restaurants, event tickets and travel.

(For a truly exhaustive list, check out this list of the most valuable gift cards.)

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