Life and Money With Helaine by Helaine Olen

Putting Unused Gift Cards to Good Use

Hi, Helaine: For a recent significant birthday, I received a number of gift cards as presents, but I didn't use most of them. They are collecting dust in my wallet. Now that it's the holiday season, am I allowed to regift the cards, as long as I make sure not to give them back to the person who gave them to me? Or do I buckle down and find something to buy with them? -- Not a Proud Cardholder

Dear Not a Proud Cardholder: Years ago, we were told it was tacky to purchase a gift card in lieu of a gift for any reason, unless we knew for a 100% fact that the place was the recipient's favorite store or restaurant. Those days are behind us. Most of us will buy a gift card for someone at least occasionally. We do it because we are pressed for time, or because we don't want to buy something someone might not want. If we turn to a gift card to deliver just the right gift, we think we are expressing a kind thought while at the same time ensuring the recipient will get something they want.

It's also true gift cards are marketed incessantly -- and there's a rather obvious reason for that. It's easy money for a retailer or restaurateur or other service provider: An estimated 5% of the money put on gift cards will never be spent. Federal law also permits companies to charge fees on an unused balance after a year -- something some, but not all, states ban. Finally, research shows that people using gift cards will spend more than people using their own money.

I would hate to see these cards go to waste. There is a compromise position here: Use the card to buy gifts for your friends, and then wrap them up. That might just be the win-win you are looking for. You could also sell the cards online -- there are a number of sites that permit you to do just that.

But if you don't like either of these options, you can regift the cards. Make sure to check the balance remaining on the cards before regifting them. It would be rather embarrassing to discover you thought you were giving out a $25 card, but your friend got $23.01 because a company charged a $1.99 fee on it. You can easily do that by calling the phone number on the back of the card.

(To ask Helaine a question, email her at askhelaine@gmail.com.)

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