Gift Cards: Use Them or Lose Them

The days immediately following Christmas rank as some of the busiest shopping days of the year. And if you received gift cards in your holiday stocking, it is a good idea to use them sooner rather than later. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Reduced Value. If your state does not have laws protecting the value of the cards, you may find the redeemable amount has been drastically reduced after a few months. Even before the expiration date on the card, some retailers begin charging "account service charges" against the value of the card for each month that the card is unused.

2. Bankrupt Retailers. Unfortunately, a fair number of retailers have recently declared bankruptcy or at least closed their storefronts and transitioned over to internet-only companies. Don't assume you can tuck the card away for a rainy day, especially if the card is for an apparel store where you may prefer to try items on for proper fit.

3. Gift Card Fraud. Be cautious when buying gift cards from the public racks featured in some stores. It has been reported in the news that crooks are copying the card's unique number and PIN number, waiting a few days for the card to be purchased, then calling the telephone number on the card to determine the dollar amount added to the card before they go on their online shopping spree. By the time the recipient gets the card, it's all used up.

To prevent this type of fraud, avoid buying from the miscellaneous cards available on public racks and, instead, buy from the store where the card will be used. Better yet, look for cards that are kept behind the counter. Employee fraud is possible but a lot less likely than the fraud occurring on cards kept in the public kiosks.

4. Lost Cards. I can't tell you how often I find organizing client's gift cards buried in paper piles, in drawers, or in old purses and wallets. In many cases, these cards have long since expired. According to, 27 percent of those who received gift cards in 2006 did not use one or more of them nearly a year later.

I am convinced that main reason people fail to use their valuable gift cards is because the cards simply are not with the person when they need them. I recommend that you either keep the cards locked in your car's glove box or keep them in a special place in your wallet or purse. I have a card-sized change purse that I keep all of my coupons and gift cards in and it lives in my purse all the time. That way, if I happen to be in or near a store, I can easily redeem the card.

Some retailers will even let you register your card on their web site so that you can get a new one if you lose yours. You can also easily check your balance once the card is registered.

Interestingly, the Associated Press reported in an article on December 26th, that fewer people bought gift cards this holiday season and opted, instead, to take advantage of the awesome discounts that were being offered by starving retailers. It will be interesting to see if this trends continues.

You can bet I'll be keeping track of that Natural Body gift card my parents gave me this Christmas! There is an hour-long massage in my near future.