Like Free Money? Bonuses Abound With Holiday Gift Card Purchases

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Why buy gift cards at face value when the holiday season is filled with deals giving 20% bonuses on card purchases?

According to a National Retail Federation survey, the top gift on consumer wish lists this year is, oddly enough, something of a non-gift. It’s the gift card, which essentially means that the recipient picks out his or her own gift. Considering the rise of the “self-gifting” trend, it’s no wonder that gift cards are so popular.

During peak gift-buying season such as Christmas and springtime around Mother’s Day and graduations, it’s become common for businesses—restaurants especially—to offer special bonuses with gift card purchases. These bonus card promotions might be thought of as the ultimate in self-gifting: Not only does the recipient get to choose his own gift with the card, but the giver also snags a bonus card as a reward for his generosity. (Sure, you could pass along the bonus to the recipient, but who does that?)

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Restaurants especially love such gift card promotions, which typically come with fine print requiring that the bonus cards be used days or weeks after the purchase was made—by which time the cardholder may forget about their existence. Even if the cardholder remembers to use the bonus credit, the restaurant still wins because it’s managed to draw in the customer for another lunch or dinner, when it’s highly likely that the table’s order will surpass the value of the card.

In any event, if used in a sensible way, bonus gift card promotions can offer good value, often amounting to a discount of 20% or so. Here’s a selection of this holiday season’s offers:

Applebee’s: Purchase a $50 digital gift card anytime through December 31, get a $10 bonus card that must be redeemed by February 28. (The value of the main card never expires.)

Benihana: Now through December 31, receive a $10 bonus gift card when buying a $50 card; bonus cards are valid for purchase from January 2 to March 31.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana: For every $100 in gift card purchases made through December 30, you’ll receive a $20 bonus card valid for use from January 1 to March 17.

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Buffalo Wild Wings: Buy $25 in gift cards and you’ll receive a mystery bonus card that could be worth $5, $15, $25, or $100.

Chipotle: Buy a gift card worth $30 or more by December 31. Bring back the receipt on your next visit to Chipotle, and you’ll receive a free burrito, bowl, salad, or order of tacos (a value of $7 to $8 or so).

CVS: A $5 bonus eGift card comes with every $25 spent on CVS gift cards.

Del Taco: For every $25 spent on gift cards, buyers get two free meal coupons.

Fleming’s Steakhouse: Get a $20 bonus card—that can be used January 1 to February 10 only—for every $100 in gift cards purchased.

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Olive Garden: Bonus $5 gift card with purchase of a $25 card—note, though, that the bonus card can only be used from January 1 to February 13, and it can only be applied to the purchase of two adult entrees. Other Darden Restaurant chains such as Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse have similar gift card deals.

Outback Steakhouse: Receive a $20 bonus card good at Outback or sister restaurants such as Carrabba’s, Fleming’s, and Bonefish Grill, with the purchase of a $100 gift card. Bonus cards are valid for use from January 1 to February 10.

Red Mango: A $5 bonus gift card is yours free with the purchase of a $25 card good for frozen yogurt, smoothies, and other Red Mango treats, available through December 30.

Ruby Tuesday: Purchase $50 in gift cards, get a $15 bonus coupon good for use from January 2 to February 28.

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Taco Bell: Pick out one item on the menu for free (max $5 value) with the purchase of a $20 gift card.

White Castle: A $5 promo card is yours, valid from January 1 to March 31, with the purchase of a $25 White Castle gift card.