Love Them or Hate Them, Make the Most of Gift Cards this Holiday Season

Today’s guest post comes from PT, who writes at Prime Time Money: a site dedicated to helping you save more money, get out of debt, and live a more frugal life. Be sure to check out the rap video PT made about saving money for his first baby, due in 2009.

giftcardsb120408.jpgThe holiday shopping season is upon us. Many consumers will be heading out stores soon to find the best deals on stuff they want or stuff they want to give others. “Stuff” has it’s place in this gift-giving season, but gift cards are actually one of my favorites items to give and to receive for most situations. I like gift cards because they’re a consumable gift and they take some of the hassle out of shopping. Gift cards aren’t without their downside though. Some people aren’t a fan of them, calling them restrictive and impersonal.

Whether you love them and give them out, or hate them but still get a few, here’s a few tips for making the most of your gift cards this holiday season:

Giving Gift Cards

If you’re the type that loves to give out gift cards, check out these tips:

Choosing Between Generic Card or Store Brand Cards

There are two basic categories when it comes to gift cards. Those that are basically like a prepaid credit card (generic), and store-specific cards. What type you get depends on the type of person you’re buying it for. The most hard to shop for group of people, teenagers, are also the one’s who would be most likely to want a generic gift card or even just cash. Any other person and you run the risk of seeming too impersonal. So, if you go generic, make sure it’s for a teenager.

For most everyone else, a store-specific card would be appropriate. Do your best to match the store with what you know about the person. If they’re a reader, give them an or book store gift card. If they like sports, consider a gift card to a sport apparel store, or to a ticketing website, where they can find tickets to all types of sporting events. Gift cards for consumable experiences (movies, restaurants, events) are always best in my opinion. I love gifts that don’t clutter up someone’s house.

However, please be careful what store you purchase your gift card for. Stores that go out of business or go bankrupt might not honor the card after a certain point. So aim for cards from stable companies.

Also, it’s important to note that some generic gift cards often come with fees. Stay away from these types.

Don’t Buy Gift Cards for These People

Unless they ask for it, I wouldn’t suggest getting a gift card for your significant other. This is the one person in the world that you should know exactly what to get and not resort to a card. Additionally, you wouldn’t want to get young kids a gift card either. Kids enjoy unwrapping actual gifts. Lastly, older people who don’t go online or out that much wouldn’t have much use for a gift card either.

Use a Gift Card to Inspire

Gift cards can be used to inspire a person into certain actions that you or they desire. For instance, if you know someone who never takes the time to treat themselves, consider giving them a gift card to a spa or ice cream shop. Know someone who talks about learning a musical instrument or being more physically active? You can get gift cards for music lessons or sports/active programs. I once gave a restaurant and movie gift card to my bro-in-law because I wanted him to take my sister out on more dates with just the two of them. Sneaky, but it worked!

Look for Kickbacks

Some gift cards come with an incentive for the person doing the giving. Last year I bought a $25 restaurant gift card, and received my own $10 card for free. It was for a place that I frequent, so I felt like it would be put to good use. You might consider this even if you aren’t giving the card away.

Receiving Gift Cards

If you receive a gift card this year, keep these points in mind:

What to do with Gift Cards You Don’t Want

Let’s say you get a gift card that you didn’t really want. For instance, you’re not a coffee drinker and you get a gift card from Starbucks. What a waste, right? Well consider these options:

  • Re-gift the card to someone you know is a coffee drinker.
  • Browse the various gifts, music, and food at your nearest Starbucks. There may be something besides coffee that you’ll like.
  • Use one of the websites that will allow you to trade for a different card or send you a check for your unused gift cards.

Use Them or Lose Them

Unfortunately, some gift cards come with expiration dates. So make it a point to place all your gift cards in a highly visible spot so that you’re sure not to forget about them and let them expire.

Have any other tips related to gift cards? Share them in the comments below.

Photo courtesy of DBarefoot


  1. @Vincent Scordo
    I think it’s better to give a gift card instead of cash, because at least from my personal experience, any cash that I am given either goes directly into my bank account or is put towards bills. It rarely gets used on buying myself a gift. I think the point of a gift card over cash is that it sort of forces the recipient to treat themselves to something.


  2. I like getting gift cards for things like books, but I think the best gift card would probably be Amazon, right? I mean, you can buy anything you want there and the prices are good. I agree about putting a little more thought into it though. If the person has a favorite clothing store, that’s one way to go.

  3. Keep in mind that one of the reasons stores love to offer gift cards is they expect people to purchase more than the card is worth. If you get a gift card be reasonable with your purchases so you don’t waste you money due to a gift. If you’re giving a gift card keep in mind the person you are giving it to. Are they the type who will go on a crazy shopping spree because you gave them an excuse to go to the mall. A gift card for that type of person might not be a great idea.

  4. I agree with FFB, I always spend more than the gift card amount when I use them. This is due to two things 1) I want to use the full amount on the card so I don’t leave any cash on the table and 2) usually the card doesn’t cover the full amount for something that I really wanted from that store. Thankfully, I rarely get gift cards.
    I just prefer to start pestering my friends right around Thanksgiving time for what presents they may be looking for. It helps to remind them that if I don’t know what they want, they aren’t getting anything from me. There is a small caveat, in that if I know they’ve pretty much gotten everything they want lately then I may give them some cash to help out with their bills or what-not or just take them out to dinner or something.

    I know that this Christmas my list is very short and I pretty much have everything I want — except for cash! 🙂

  5. What about the threat of the store going bankrupt? If you gave someone a Sharper Image gift card last year, they likely didn’t get to redeem it as the store went bankrupt and stopped honoring gift cards.

    Something to consider in these turbulent times.

  6. My brother usually gets me a gift card from Best Buy because he knows I love to buy movies or music CDs but doesn’t know the specific movies or music CDs I’d like to own. I actually look forward to getting the gift card.

  7. I would also add that as a recipient of a gift card, we should probably be sure to use that card a little sooner this year with the increase risk of bankruptcies. I usually hang on to gift cards for close to a year, so I’m definitely going to push myself to go shopping earlier rather than later with any gift cards I get!

  8. I personally enjoy getting gift cards, because I can do whatever I want with it. I think it’s easier and I can go on my timetable and get what I want. For that reason I give people gift cards and let them make the decision for themselves. The only problem with gift cards can be that sometimes you are required to spend more money to get something if the item you want is more than the card amount.


  9. I would rather get gift cards, because I can do whatever I want with it. I think it’s easier. For that reason I give people gift cards and let them make the decision for themselves.

  10. i use to earn giftcards for the holidays/birthdays. but that is the ONLY time i give them out… and it’s usually accompanied with a thoughtful gift as well.

  11. I agree with Writer’s Coin about Amazon gift cards especially. I personally always buy books through amazon and most of my family does too, it’s a lot cheaper. Plus there is so much to choose from!

    I also agree with not buying gift cards for significant others or young kids. I think teenagers may love them though! Sometimes they are tough to shop for!

  12. I wrote about gift cards on my blog several days ago (, though my emphasis was on special cards with added features.

    I’ve found that the best type of card for someone is for something you are sure they want to buy, but may not buy on their own. For instance, going to Neiman Marcus can get expensive, but if they go on YOUR dime, that might be the push they need to go in and treat themselves.

  13. Great comments, everyone. Thanks for swinging by FrugalDad and sharing your opinion. I’ve enjoyed seeing your responses to my post.

    FD – Thanks for letting me share this post with your readers. 🙂

  14. Great post, PT! Gift cards can be great, especially for certain people. (My brother is one of them.)He never really wants or needs anything, according to him, but he always finds something he wants when he goes shopping with the gift card.

  15. Good article on gift cards. A couple of days ago, at my blog,, I wrote about giving gift cards and the myths behind some of the store closings.

    Personally, I’ve decided that if I’m going to give a gift card, I’m going to give a Visa Debit card. This way it can be used anywhere.

  16. I do give gift cards and/or cash on occasion – usually it’s because the recipient would like to treat themselves to something but I know they don’t usually or because they are saving for something specific that they know is out of anyone’s budget for what they give them as a gift.

    However, any time I do a gift card or cash as a gift I also do a small gift that I’ve picked out personally or made specifically for that person – a magazine, a book, a scarf, a picture frame…

  17. CASH!!! Visa gift cards-you pay a fee! I’d rather have the $4.95 activation fee to spend. Gift cards expire, stores close or the clerk doesn’t know how to redeem–have had all 3 happen to me. If I get cash it goes in my wallet as do gift cards, but then I sometimes forget to use them. I end up spending A LOT of time trying to find something I want so I can use up the gift card.

  18. What #14, Jon Kepler said. My husband typically gives me a gift card for a store I love but shopping in it is an indulgence. The value to me in the gift is as much about the shopping experience as the items I buy. My parents generally give me a gift card to a clothing store I frequent. I use it in the January sales. I much prefer that to my ILs who spend more than that and give me clothing from the same store (sans gift receipt) that almost always is something I either don’t like or need.

  19. I would also recommend for teenagers using a cash card service like Facecard. I’ve been a member for awhile so I can give $$$ to my teenage cousins and they have told me that they’re very happy with it – they don’t lose the gift (like cash) and they can use it anywhere like a debit card.

    And it never hurts that when I forget to buy a gift, I can send money fairly quickly! LOL

    I’ve also done well with giving gift cards to teenagers – they can buy a lot more there than anywhere else.

  20. LOL! I am definitely a big regifter. No one would no. The best one is when you get a gift card and regift it back to them, then tell them that you got it because you knew how much they enjoyed it. Works every time.

  21. HI! For my birthday someone got me a Visa giftcard from Walgreen’s. I was so appreciative. However I noticed it cost them $4.95 to buy me that card, plus the value on the card. The worse thing was that because it was like a credit card but not registered (like in my name & address) no where would take it. I tried online at three different stores I liked. No good. I tried at the gas station, it also did not work. It finally worked at a store, but by then I was so frustrated. So these are not the same as cash. I think homemade gifts, food gifts (that are homemade preferably), or cash is best.

    Exception: I do give all the teachers, garbage men, and post woman gift cards to Dunkin Donuts. I can not give them cash and I know they do not need another $5 candle, etc.

    -Becky R in NJ

  22. Haha, I went to comment, then read the comment above. I was going to say that I was a teacher until this year and received Dunkin Donuts gift cards, which was awesome except I’m in a very small minority of teachers who hates both coffee and donuts!

    So my suggestion is: Use those unwanted giftcards for bloggy give-aways! My $10 parting giftcard from June, is currently up for grabs for whoever guesses my baby’s birthday and size.

  23. I only get gift cards for people. My kids are too picky and they are spread out over the country. I stumbledupon (literally, that tool is great if you shop a lot) a site called giftzip ( that, from what I can tell, is just a giant hyperlinked directory to retailers that let you send cards by email. It saved me a ton of time and I never had to set foot in a store or deal with traffic. Sue me if you think it is impersonal, my kids love it and I’m done shopping.