Holiday gift fads come and go, but there’s one gift category that remains a perennial favorite: Gift cards.
There’s little to wrap and the recipient can buy what they really want with a little boost from the sender, helping gift cards to rank among the top gift categories for holiday shopping year after year, according to the National Retail Federation. But it’s not always a flawless exchange.
There’s always that well-intentioned loved one who made a misstep and presented you with a gift card to an auto store but you don’t own a car, or gave you a steakhouse gift card but you’re a vegetarian. All of that accumulates to an estimated $20 billion in unused gift cards and other credits, according to a 2020 Bankrate survey.
The good news is if you’re not thrilled about a gift card to a certain retailer or restaurant, you still have options. Here’s what you can do.
Once the holiday decorations are packed up and put away, shoving a gift card in a drawer and forgetting about it is only natural, especially if the associated store or restaurant doesn’t excite you.
Instead, you should treat gift cards just as you would cash. It’s actually okay to let it burn a metaphorical hole in your pocket, said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst.
“It’s usually a good idea to use a gift card as soon as possible,” he said.
If you’re socking away gift cards to help offset the cost of a big purchase, keeping them for a while is a fair strategy, but “people are better off using gift cards sooner rather than later,” Schulz said.
But it’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to hang on the cards for so long that fees start accruing. Gift cards are generally fee-free for the first 12 months post-activation, Schulz said, but if the card hasn’t been used for at least another 12 months, so-called inactivity fees can crop up monthly.
“That’s a really big reason to make sure that you don’t just wait around to use that card,” he said.
There’s also the option of regifting. Whether you want to disclose that it’s been regifted or not is completely up to you.
Making a donation “can be a really good use of a card that you might not want,” Schulz said.
But if you want to see your contribution put to action on a more local level, donate to neighborhood charities when appropriate, said Michael Bonebright, spokesperson for DealNews. Say you have a pet supply store gift card but aren’t a pet parent, call area animal shelters to ask if you can make a donation and then drop it off in person.
You can take a “slightly different approach” if the gift card is from a struggling retailer by not using it at all, Schulz said.
“If [you] don’t use the card, that card just becomes profit for the retailer because the card is never exchanged for goods,” he says. “That makes it essentially a monetary donation to a retailer during a time in which many retailers could really use it.”
Receiving cash to buy the gift you actually wanted is what gift cards are all about, so the only thing standing between you and buying what you really want is a bit of legwork.
Selling an unwanted gift card is “actually really easy to do” with a peer-to-peer marketplace like OfferUp or Facebook Marketplace, Bonebright said. Sites like CardCash, Cardpool, Raise will buy directly from you and either mail a check or deposit money directly into an account — usually for about 88% of the card’s value. Or, you can convert your gift card for one for Walmart or Amazon.
You can also take the route of using an online auction site like eBay, but you won’t necessarily make more off it.
“You're almost certainly not going to get the full value of it, no matter what,” Bonebright said, adding that auction sites have associated fees that take a cut of the transaction.
If you want to take the past of least resistance, “the easiest way to do it is just to exchange your gift card for another gift card,” he said.
Read more information and tips in our Spending section