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Plastic Presents: Getting the Most Out of Gift Cards

Those little plastic presents known as gift cards have a way of disappearing the longer they hang around your house.

“An estimated $5 billion worth of gift cards will be lost to fees and expiration dates, misplaced, shoved in a drawer, or otherwise neglected this year,” says Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research for

To help ensure you don’t waste another penny of their value, Woolsey offers these eight suggestions:

1. Get organized. Store them all in the same place so they’ll be easy to find when you’re ready to spend them.

2. Keep the paper trail. If your card came with a receipt, hang on to it, along with the card. It could help you claim the funds if your card is lost or stolen. As a back up, the card giver should also keep a copy of the receipt.

3. Log in online. By registering your cards and personal identification numbers online, you can keep track of your balances and have further proof of ownership. Most major retailers allow you to register at their Web sites, and some offer extra perks just for signing up. If you have many cards to keep track of, there are Web sites that allow you to track all of your balances in one place.

4. Read the fine print. If you won’t use your card right away, read the terms and conditions at the retailer’s Web site for expiration dates or inactivity fees. Congress passed a new law to prohibit inactivity fees for the first year and extend expiration dates to at least five years, but the protections don’t kick in until August 2010. And, says Woolsey, the new law doesn’t apply to prepaid, reloadable debit cards or gift cards earned through a credit-card rewards program.

5. Spend every penny. Don’t throw your card away if there’s only a few dollars left on it and you can’t find something small to buy. Instead, ask the retailer for a split-tender transaction, where you use the last bit of your gift card toward a purchase and pay the balance with cash or credit. Most retailers can do this.

6. Trade or swap. If you get a card you know you won’t use, you can sell or swap it online. Sites like, or typically will buy your gift card for 60 to 80 percent of its value. On the sites, you can choose to receive cash or a gift card from a different retailer. Before dealing online, be sure you read the fine print and understand any transaction fees the sites might assess.

7. Regift. A card you don’t want could become the gift that keeps on giving. Just drop it in a gift bag the next time you can’t think of a good birthday present.

8. Donate. Sites like and allow you to put your unwanted cards (or just a portion of them) toward charitable causes. See if your favorite charities can accept your gift cards as a donation.

Originally published on USAA

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