Unlocking the Value of Your Gift Cards

Gift CardsThe holiday season is upon us and with that comes time for gift-giving. Gift cards are popular gift ideas and can be an easy way to check someone off your list. But to be honest, I am not a big fan.

Bah, Humbug!

The main problem I have with gift cards is that the value is locked into the gift card and you have to spend to release its value. It is estimated that consumers will spend upwards of 29 billion dollars on gift cards this year. That’s a lot of money locked into plastic!

I have a lot of gift cards floating around. I actually keep track of them in my net worth spreadsheet. Looks like I currently have over $350 of plastic money sitting around. They are technically assets, so they can be counted as part of my net worth, but more importantly, I track them so I don’t forget about them!

I have a habit of holding onto gift cards for extended periods of time, to the point where I don’t even remember where they are from. Often times, they are for places where I don’t shop very often. The store is far away and I’m never on that end of town or I just don’t shop there anymore. So I need to keep track of them all.

Some gift cards incur fees if they remain inactive for a certain length of time. One more level of tracking required! And how is that even allowed? My brother had purchased a gift card for me for my birthday for the mall, and after 12 months of inactivity they start charging me a monthly $2.50 administration fee. How is that fair?! My brother paid full price for the gift card, in cash. He was basically pre-paying a purchase for me and now they want my balance to drain if I don’t use it? Baaah

If you want to use the value of the gift card, you are almost guaranteed to have to spend more than what is on the card. Rarely do purchases come to a nice round number after taxes, so if you have a $30 gift card you will probably need to spend at least $35-$40 to use it up, leaving you with an extra $5-$10 to pay out-of-pocket. This is fine if it was a purchase you had already planned on making, but when it’s a place where you wouldn’t normally shop, your gift ends up costing you money out-of-pocket.

61% of gift card holders spend more than the amount of their gift card, and 75% of those who overspend spend 60% more than the value of their card.

Giftcardgranny Statistics

The worst is when someone offers you a gift card to a restaurant or store where the gift card amount would never cover anything available. So while gifting the $10 gift card to the Keg Steakhouse is a nice thought, you are basically encouraging your friend to drop another $50 in order to have a meal there for two. I certainly understand why businesses love the idea of gift cards!

So what can you do to unlock the value of your gift cards? How can you avoid spending the added dollars in order to redeem the gift?

Regift it

One option is to regift the card to someone else. If this person is going to shop at the retailer anyways, then you are giving them something of value and maybe saving yourself some money by not having to spend on a gift for them. But if you gift it to someone who’s in the same situation as you, then you are just passing along the problem to the recipient. What kind of gift is that?!

Donate it

If you donate your gift card to a charity, you can help them out while writing it off as a tax deduction. Just make sure they can actually use the gift card. You can also donate it to a silent auction fundraiser, where it will be raffled off with other items to a lucky recipient.

Sell it

Another option is to sell the gift card for cash. If you know someone who would use it, offer it to them at a discount price. Or, sell your gift card online. There are sites that will pay you a discount price for your gift cards, and then resell them at a slightly higher cost. Try some of the following sites:






I decided to try out one of these sites for myself, to see how it works. I went with CardSwap.ca since they are Canadian and I my gift cards are all in Canadian funds. I sent them two gift cards: one from American Eagle Outfitters and one from Garage Clothing. Both these gift cards were prizes I received online from entering contests or responding to surveys, so no one is going to be offended that I sold their gift. I also don’t shop at these stores and only go in expressly to try to off-load these cards on something I actually want. But I think I had been holding on to them for 2+ years by now.

I originally had just over $32 on each of the two cards, for a value of about $64. Cardswap gave me a quote for $42.79, including free shipping of my gift cards to them. The other option is to get Cardswap points that can be redeemed towards other gift cards, and they give you a slightly better offer. But then I’m still stuck in the same situation and haven’t unlocked the value of my cards.

Reluctantly giving up about a third of my gift card value, I sent them in. Within a couple of weeks, I received a cheque in the mail for $42.68. Value Unlocked!*

Achievement Unlocked

What do you do with your gift cards? How do you keep track of them? Have you ever used one of these sites to buy or sell a gift card?

*And promptly spent $42.56 on two workouts tops from Lululemon (they were on Clearance!).



20 Comments on Unlocking the Value of Your Gift Cards

  1. Kathy
    December 10, 2013 at 8:01 AM (8 months ago)

    I received two different gift cards within this year and had the hardest time spending them. One was for Apple but wasn’t enough to get an I-pad. The other was a store card. I went to that store numerous times and just couldn’t find anything I wanted. If it had been a pre-paid Visa or MC, I could have used it anywhere. At the time I didn’t know you could sell them. Do you know how much they discount them?

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 10, 2013 at 8:45 AM (8 months ago)

      They claim they will offer up to 90% of the value, but that must be on the really popular cards like Target or Walmart. I got about 66% of the value of mine. But it depends on the store, as both my cards were of the same value and I got a little bit more for one than the other. Might be worth checking a few of the sites and seeing which has the highest offer!

  2. Ashley
    December 10, 2013 at 8:05 AM (8 months ago)

    Haha- love that last line about promptly spending the money :) At least it was on something you wanted!

    I try to spend just under whatever the gift card is worth- that way no money comes out of my pocket! For example, if I have a gift card for a clothing store, I’ll spend $36 of the $40 (you’re right, you can NEVER get it exactly to the balance of the card!) and then I find someone in the store who looks like they’re going to buy something and I hand the card off to them, saying that there’s $4 left on the card. It helps them save a few bucks and it gets rid of the card for me, without any money out of my pocket! win/win :)

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 10, 2013 at 8:43 AM (8 months ago)

      That’s a great idea! Use as much of the value of the card without going over and then making someone’s day by handing them the rest :) Brilliant

  3. donebyforty
    December 10, 2013 at 10:20 AM (8 months ago)

    I would love it if we just started giving cash instead of gift cards. If we could just get over the stigma of currency (which is odd anyway) all these problems of tracking and spending a certain amount would go away. Plus, you can save and invest cash. So we have that going for us, which is nice…

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 10, 2013 at 10:55 AM (8 months ago)

      Or give the gift of an investment directly! Open someone an account and put in a little cash to get them started :) Although you can’t really open someone an account without their permission..

  4. Donna Freedman
    December 11, 2013 at 3:34 PM (8 months ago)

    An aggregator site called Gift Card Granny lets you see which resellers are offering the best rates. Go there and click on “sell a gift card,” then type in the name and see who’s giving you the best deal.
    Note: Allegedly the highest rates of the year will be offered on Gift Card Exchange Day, which is the day after Christmas.

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 12, 2013 at 9:06 AM (8 months ago)

      Thanks for the tips, Donna!

  5. Mo' Money Mo' Houses
    December 14, 2013 at 10:22 AM (8 months ago)

    Wow, I didn’t know some places charged an inactivity fee! Yikes!

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 14, 2013 at 12:20 PM (8 months ago)

      Yeah seems kind of unfair. I remember when they used to have expiry dates about 1 year after purchase. Now THAT was unfair, but they’ve since outlawed that.

  6. Bridget
    December 14, 2013 at 12:37 PM (8 months ago)

    I have $100 in gift cards right now… and I’m going to spend both and probably spend more than the face value of each card hahaha I am the worst.

    I never thought of regifting them though and that seems like such an obvious choice!

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 14, 2013 at 2:25 PM (8 months ago)

      Yeah regifting is an easy solution when it’s a popular gift card. I sometimes win Tim Horton’s gift cards through work and even though I would use them myself, they make good stocking stuffers.

  7. Jay@MoneyBulldog
    December 16, 2013 at 1:54 AM (8 months ago)

    Yeah, I try my best not to waste these giftcards. I treat them like I treat money, I try to not go over too much though unless I really have to to buy something I need.

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 16, 2013 at 8:54 AM (8 months ago)

      On the back of most cards it says “Treat this card like cash”, definitely true! If you lose it, that’s losing money.

  8. Broke and Beautiful (@brokeandbeau)
    December 16, 2013 at 2:56 PM (8 months ago)

    I only like gift cards if they are to some place I’m going to spend money anyway. Grocery stores are always winners for me.

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 16, 2013 at 3:53 PM (8 months ago)

      Which is basically like getting cash. Might as well make it a prepaid credit card! Or a cheque :)

  9. moiandmoney
    December 16, 2013 at 8:10 PM (8 months ago)

    I always check to see if you can buy gift cards with your gift cards. I love gift cards so much, I stop by and get gift cards before I go somewhere. :)

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 17, 2013 at 9:30 AM (8 months ago)

      Buying discounted gift cards can definitely save you some money. Just make sure you will actually use them, and on things you would have bought anyways.

  10. Newlyweds ona Budget (@NewlywedsBudget)
    December 17, 2013 at 12:02 PM (8 months ago)

    I hardly ever ask for gift cards because I hate being in this situation. However, when I do receive them I usually try my best to spend them because I like getting stuff in the mail, so I will mostly order online. I don’t think I ever spend double the gift card amount, I usually try and spend as close to the gift card amount as possible

    • ThisLifeOnPurpose
      December 17, 2013 at 1:56 PM (8 months ago)

      Probably a good idea, since I think it’s easier to spend the exact amount of the gift card online, since you can sort items by price and find something in your price range.


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