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How to Keep Track of Your Gift Cards

If you have a stack of them and expect to get more, don’t leave money on the table

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Chances are that through the years you’ve received a dozen or more gift cards. And chances are they’re piled up in a drawer or, in the case of electronic gift cards, buried in your email inbox.

That could mean you’re tough to shop for because family members think you already have everything. So you may be poised to get even more gift cards this holiday season.

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From a buyer’s perspective, gift cards are easy to give. Virtually every type of store you step into today — big-box retailer, convenience store, discount department store, pharmacy, supermarket — has racks of gift cards, often near the cashier, for everything from coffee shops to restaurants to electronics retailers to sporting goods stores.

Why we neglect gift cards

“I was astonished to read that $15 billion in gift cards go unused,” says Danetha Doe, personal finance expert and founder of the website Money & Mimosas. That figure, from 2021, has risen to about $21 billion, according to a YouGov/ July 2022 survey.

“I can see how it happens,” she said. “It can be inconvenient to use a gift card. If it’s a physical gift card, you have to remember to bring it with you to the store, and if it’s a digital gift card, it can easily get lost in your emails.”

Anna Kocharian, Consumer Reports’ shopping and deals editor, echoes Doe’s rationale.

“People simply forget to use their gift cards [because] unlike ... cash, which tends to go straight into a wallet, gift cards are often saved for specific occasions or stowed away for later use,” she says. Store- or restaurant-specific gift cards can be limiting in the same way.

“Chances are you’ll hold on to those gift cards for the next time you end up at said store or restaurant,” Kocharian says. “But as more time goes by, the likelihood of using that card will decrease.” 

Why it’s time to use your gift cards

If you don’t use your gift cards, or use only some of their value and forget about them, you’re leaving money on the table. Plus, you may face fees that deplete their balances. If you’ve thought of your gift cards as a rainy-day fund, now is the time to tap that cash.

“Using gift cards is always a good idea, especially now, as folks are extra mindful of how much money they are spending,” Doe says. “Additionally, using gift cards now will ensure that you are able to redeem your funds.”

If you wait too long, sometimes you’ll find you have less money available than the amount you were given. “That inactivity fee will reduce the gift card balance or worse. The gift card could expire and/or the company could go out of business.”

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The federal Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 gives you some protections from fees that weren’t available when gift cards soared to popularity in the early 2000s. In November 2001, Starbucks became the first retailer to debut a reloadable card that a recipient could use more than once. Now:

• Any expiration must be disclosed. A card that has been activated cannot expire for at least five years.

• Fees can’t immediately accrue. A dormancy fee can’t be charged unless 12 months or more has gone by without any activity. And any fee can’t be charged more often than monthly.

• The amount and frequency of fees must be spelled out. A card must disclose any inactivity fee, the fee’s amount and how often it will be assessed.

Federal law or any additional regulations from your state won’t help if you discover a card from a long-gone company such as Borders, Dressbarn or Hancock Fabrics. Some companies that have been reborn after bankruptcy, such as Brookstone, Coldwater Creek, Linens ’N Things, Radio Shack and Sky Mall, won’t honor gift cards bought before their filings. 

And know that using a gift card with a small balance may cost you some of your own cash, too. “A card with $3.64 left on it isn’t going to go very far, which means that the next time someone wants to make a purchase, they’ll have to pay out of pocket to supplement the cost,” Kocharian says.

How to manage your gift cards

Although apps specifically designed to manage your pile of cards are available, a simple solution is get out your laptop or tablet and start a spreadsheet. Try to keep track of these seven pieces of information for each card:

  1. Company
  2. Amount
  3. Date received or activated
  4. Card number, including any PIN or other numbers on the back of the card
  5. Potential fees or expiration date
  6. Any contact information for the company that’s on the back of the card, such as a phone number specifically for gift card holders
  7. Where you’ve stored the card
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If you receive a gift card in a greeting card or small box, don’t leave it there. Keep all of your plastic gift cards in one place — or maybe two if you think you might use a few when you’re out and about.

“You can never go wrong with keeping a spreadsheet with your gift card information,” Doe says. “Of course, a financial expert would recommend a spreadsheet!”

Kocharian agrees: “A safe way to manage gift card balances is to consider jotting them down in a spreadsheet, a notebook or even the notes app on a smartphone.” The key is to keep all the information about your stash of cards in one place that you can find easily and add to as needed.

How to keep track of your balances

If you’ve spent some of the value of a card, remember that any amount a store clerk may have written in marker could be outdated. When in doubt, companies provide information on where consumers can go to check their balances.

That’s usually a retailers’ website. Search “how to check a [retailer name] gift card balance.” Some offer a toll-free phone number that may be in fine print on the back of the card. If you put a piece of masking tape on the back of each card, you can write the amount yourself and update it as you spend it down.

Gift card management apps and websites are available. But Kocharian of Consumer Reports is not a fan.

“I would advise customers to avoid using third-party apps or services to check your gift card balances because they could potentially lead to theft or scams,” she says. “The most secure way to manage a gift card balance is to go directly to the gift card issuer.”

Steps to take if you lose a gift card

Some prepaid cards, especially those valid at more than one retailer, might require you to register them, according to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This gives you more protections in case of loss or theft. If you misplace a gift card that you registered with the retailer or gift card company, it may be easier to track down the number through them.

If you’ve misplaced a digital gift card, first do a search in your email for keywords like “gift” and the name of the retailer. Perhaps you have an email receipt, which could potentially include the card number.

If you received the lost card as a present, try contacting the gift giver to see if that person has retained a record of the transaction. This is where keeping track of the numbers on the back of your cards can pay off in the long run.

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