6 Surprising Ways to Make Your Gift Cards Count for More

Though not the most creative, a gift card can be one of the best Christmas gifts to get if you’re savvy about how to use it.

It can allow you to pay for that item you wanted to splurge on but couldn’t afford (iPad Mini?), or contribute to a few drinks out at a restaurant you don’t normally go to. Gift cards let you play Santa to yourself—count us in!

Gift cards are one of the the most popular gift at Christmas, with 81 percent of shoppers planning to purchase at least one gift card and spending an average of $156 on cards, according to the National Retail Federation.

The average gift card is for $43, according to the NRF. What you do with that $43 is up to you, but there are ways to maximize them, says Andrea Woroch, a consumer saving expert:

Review the details. While the CARD Act ensures gift cards won’t expire before five years, it’s still a good idea to read the rules on the card. Gift cards from credit card companies are allowed to include redemption fees. Reloadable prepaid gift cards aren’t covered under the federal law, so fees may be charged.

Register the card. Starbucks is the perfect example of why registering a card is important. I registered a new card a year ago at Starbucks, and when I lost the card recently, Starbucks sent me a new card with the money that remained on the card. I appreciated the perk of a free coffee on my birthday, but was more grateful for getting the old card replaced.

Find a sale. Stretch the amount of a gift card by using it like you would your own money. There will be plenty of after-Christmas sales, so finding something for half off is like adding 50 percent to your gift card.

Exchange unwanted cards. If you have to travel too far or don’t like the store the gift card is for, you can easily exchange it online at websites such as GiftCardGranny.com and PlasticJungle.com. You’ll get less than the face value of the card—usually close to 90 percent of the card’s value—so it’s worthwhile to shop around for the best price.

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Spend it all. Shoppers who pay with a gift card pay an average of 20 to 50 percent more than they would otherwise, Woroch says. Maybe it’s because they consider it free money and don’t mind paying more than they normally would for something. But if you want to get the most out of your gift card, Woroch recommends not going overboard and spending too much, while using every penny on the card. Retailers count on “breakage,” or leftover money on gift cards that never get redeemed.

Donate what you don’t want. Google “donate gift cards” and you’ll find plenty of charities that will accept your donation. If your favorite charity doesn’t take gift cards, use the gift card to buy the group something it needs.

Stay informed. Remember when Borders went bankrupt? Gift card holders were scrambling to redeem them before the stores closed, so keeping updated on the stores that you have gift cards for could help you be aware of any news that might require you to spend or sell the gift cad sooner rather than later.

Re-gift. If you’re stuck with a gift card you don’t like, give it to someone else who likes the merchant. Or buy them a gift from the store.

The best way to get the most out of gift card is to use it. You don’t have to use it as soon as you get it, but it’s smart to put it somewhere safe where you won’t forget it. If nothing else, set up a reminder to use it on your birthday as an extra present to yourself.