Getting More Gift Out of Gift Cards

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I have some issues with gift cards. To me, gift cards play off a widespread yet totally illogical sense of etiquette, in which giving cash seems crass, while giving gift cards—which are celebrated mainly for being as good as cash—is deemed more thoughtful and appropriate. Gift cards can also prod consumers to spend thoughtlessly and shop foolishly, mainly because these cards can be used like cash only buying with one doesn’t feel like buying at all.

Another problem is that consumers who are aware that billions of dollars worth of gift cards go unused regularly may be inclined to use them asap—because even if the value is spent in foolish ways, that’s better than seeing the cards go entirely to waste.

While gift cards are celebrated for giving consumers the ultimate freedom to get whatever they want without paying out of pocket, all of the above factors should make consumers realize that it’s the retailers and restaurants that come out on top from gift cards, not the folks who receive gift cards in their stockings that they may or may not ever use. Because it’s in the business’s interest to push gift cards, some companies—restaurants especially—are going so far as to offer bonuses with every gift card sold. A typical offer grants a $10 bonus gift card when a customer buys a separate $50 gift card.

The fact that businesses offer what seems to be free money to consumers should tell you just how much in profits companies expect to make via gift cards.

All this said, I know there are tons of people—some in my family—who prefer gift cards mainly because they don’t feel comfortable giving cash. With them in mind, here are two resources that’ll help gift card buyers get the most out of the gift cards they pick up:

Wealth Informatics published a humongous list of 109 restaurants offering bonuses for gift cards purchased this holiday season, with the restaurants ranging from Steak ‘n Shake ($5 certificate with $25 gift card) to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (10% bonus card for cards over $250) and beyond.

A MoneyWatch’s Consumer Reporter post lists several sites, including Plastic Jungle, GiftCards.com, and
Gift Card Granny, where you can buy gift cards for cheaper than face value. A $100 Macy’s card, for example, might be sold for $89.

Of course, that $89 is wasted if no one ever uses the card.

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