Get the most from your gift cards

Those holiday gifts you received are just like cash. Sandra explains how to spend them wisely.

Photo: onurdongel/iStockphoto

“Fifteen…. Forty…. Sixty-five…” Bronwyn and Isobel are adding up the total value of the Toys R Us gift cards they’ve received for their birthdays in October, and for Christmas.

As impressive as their mental math skills, for this money-aware mama, is the fact that they’ve been accumulating them, and agreed to pool their plastic “funds,” in order to buy something substantial.

Gift cards are convenient for the giver — there’s no guessing (or being completely wrong) about your giftee’s size or what she wants. They’re also great for the recipient, in that you can put the value of the card towards a bigger purchase that’s been out of your budgetary reach, cover off a necessity or treat yourself to something you wouldn’t have indulged in otherwise. (You can also re-gift them, but I’ll deny I ever said that!)

At the same time, gift cards can be financially dangerous. As in, “Sure, I’ll get that $200 bag, because I have the $50 gift card to put against it, so…” It’s easy to justify spending outside your budget, or purchase stuff you don’t really want or need just ’cause you have the gift card.

To make sure you and your family get maximum value from the gift cards you received this holiday season, follow these easy guidelines:

• Think of gift cards as cash. If you wouldn’t buy an item using your own cash, don’t buy it with a gift card. Also, you wouldn’t store cash in random places around your house, so allocate a safe, single place and put all of your gift cards there for safe keeping.

• Keep track of expiry dates and potential fees. Depending on which province you live in, stores that issue gift cards may have the right to subtract from the purchased value of the gift card if you don’t use it by a certain date. (Check the Canadian Consumer Handbook for a province-by-province listing of information; search Gift Cards.) Expiry dates are allowed across Canada — meaning, if you don’t use the gift card by the specified date, you (and your gift-giver) lose the entire value.

 • Consider swapping. Not a fan of the store whose gift card you received? Many people appeal to their neighbours or friends on Facebook, who might be interested in buying the card at a slight discount. There are also online swaps such as CardSwap and Gift Card Granny, which allow you to exchange your unwanted card for cash (be aware you’ll get less than face value) or points towards goodies at a store you do like. (Or re-gift that card. But remember: I didn’t tell you to do that!)

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