Getting the most from holiday gift cards and certificates

Using Holiday Loot

by Linda Shapero


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It's post-holiday time. Once again, your cousin got you a gift certificate from an online retailer you don't like. Mom and Dad got you a gift card worth $100 but at another store where you don't usually shop. And your brother got you a gift certificate at a bookstore you love. Well, one out of three isn't bad!

So now you need to decide what you want to do with all this paper and plastic that translates into cash for you to spend on yourself. The possibilities are endless and what a delicious dilemma! No matter what you choose, there are a few things to keep in mind before you go shopping.

First, you'll want to check the gift cards and gift certificate to see if there are any restrictions you should know about (like expiration dates, store return policies, etc.), so you know what to expect if you need to do a return.

In the case of the gift certificate from your brother, it seems like this was a good match for you, so all you have to do is find the time to go to the store itself, or perhaps online, and pick out whatever you want. The nice thing about bookstores, too, is that they have so much to offer in the way of variety, not just books.

You may want to pick up some CDs, stationery, or gift items on sale, in case you're thinking of an early start on next year's holiday shopping list. If not, that's okay. Blow the wad on you, since that was the idea in the first place.

Next, we have the gift cards. In case you're not aware of this and many people aren't, there are several websites where you can trade gift cards with other recipients who want to get rid of theirs, too. Sadly, there are a lot of well-meaning gift givers out there who are clearly missing the mark. Unfortunately, there are also some people hawking gift cards that have been stolen or obtained fraudulently by use of someone else's credit card. A few sites that will help you make sure you aren't being swindled are Plasticjungle.com and Cardavenue. Both of these sites make sure all gift cards are legitimate before listing them, so you won't have to worry about being taken for a ride.

So far, so good, but now comes the part where you have to pay careful attention. Awhile ago, I happened to hear a report on NPR about all of the people who don't use their gift cards in a timely manner. It seems that there are quite a few out there. They either forget about them, as they are buried deep in their wallet, or just plain forget them. Then, if and when they finally decide to go shopping, they are in for a surprise because either the company has gone out of business or is not honoring the cards that were sold at the time theirs was purchased. The bad news is they may have to fight for a refund or credit. And even so, they may not succeed.

With the economy in the dumpster right now, this is important knowledge because we never know which retailer may be filing next for bankruptcy.

If you are lucky enough to have received such nice gifts, run out and use them, the sooner the better to avoid those problems, even if you do have to make an exchange first. And count your blessings that you are surrounded by caring people who choose to remember you at the holiday season.

Here's a tip for next year that you might want to consider, too. If you are involved in a gift exchange at home or at work, you might want to think about having all participants buy different gift cards of the same face value to exchange in the group.

My sister and her family did this last year. The fun part was when some of them decided that they weren't thrilled about the particular card they received, so they continued to trade with each other until they all went away happy. She said that it was almost like a day on the floor of the stock exchange with all the trading and noise. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

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