INDIANAPOLIS — Though she has plenty, Alicia Quash-Scott said she hardly ever uses her gift cards.
“I’ll have them in my wallet, in the store, and then I’ll get home later on and be like ‘oh my goodness I was just at the store today, I completely forgot,'” she said.
Quash-Scott is among the nearly half of Americans still holding on to unused gift cards, store credits and vouchers, resulting in billions of dollars in unused cash.
“It’s always been a slight majority of them get used, and the rest end up in a wallet some place at best,” said John Talbott, Center for Education and Research in Retail, Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.
Whether you plan to gift or end up getting gift cards this year, experts hope you’ll consider a few suggestions to maximize your purchase or use.
If you’re purchasing a gift card, consider going digital. Experts recommend choosing digital gift cards as they’re easier to track, and some retailers offer mobile apps that you can store it in.
“Then you can use the whole amount, do it right away, you don’t lose it,” said Andy Mattingly, Forum Credit Union. “More and more places are only doing digital cards because it’s easier for them to handle, and they don’t have to pay for the cardstock and everything else.”
Generic gift cards, like Visa, can also be a good option, especially if you’re unsure about who you’re buying for.
‘If you don’t have any idea of what they want to do, then a Visa gift card is great because they can use it for whatever they want,” Mattingly said.
“Sometimes, when I get a Visa gift card, and I don’t have something specific to use it for, I will just apply it to my cable bill or my mobile phone bill,” he added. “You can use the whole amount, and it’s done, and I still feel like I’m getting something because I’m not paying as much in the bill.”
If you’re purchasing a generic gift card for someone, make sure it’s secure before you buy.
“One of the big things that scam artists will do this time of year is they’ll go in and copy down the numbers. They’ll peel off the back, and copy down those numbers, and check every day, waiting for them to be activated,” Mattingly said, “and as soon as they’re activated then they go and use them.”
Mattingly said shoppers can check for security by looking on the back of the card for tampering.
“Most of the time, those numbers are covered up that are on the card and a pin number. You want to make sure that those haven’t been tampered with,” he said. “The problem is we’re all in a hurry, and they don’t do the one on the top, they’ll do some in the back, and you’re looking at the first couple and you don’t pay attention to all of them.”
If you receive a gift card, experts said the bottom line is try to use them.
“You do want to read the fine print as some will start charging a fee after a couple of years,” said Mattingly, “and you do have to worry though that some retailers might go out of business if you wait too long.”
Ashley Cross dealt with a similar situation when Dottie Couture suddenly shut down in October, leaving her out of money.
“Dottie Couture often has, once a year, a buy one, get one gift card, and it’s a great deal. So I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “I bought it in September, and then abruptly got an email shortly after in October that said ‘oh I’m so sorry, we have to shut down.’”
“It took me back because I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who to contact,” Cross said. “I knew I was probably out of the 50 dollars.”
Experts said unused gift cards can also cause risk to companies if not redeemed.
“A gift card doesn’t count as a sale. It counts as a liability on the balance sheet,” said Talbott. “Over time, you can imagine unused gift cards, this liability just accumulates for these companies.”
“Don’t get me wrong, gift cards are a wonderful thing for businesses, but it gives them cash, and they don’t really get rid of any inventory at that point,” he added, “but the other side of it is it’s peculiar from an accounting standpoint because it doesn’t count as revenue until it’s redeemed.”
With that, experts urge you to be thoughtful of who you’re buying gift cards for and the likelihood of that person using them.
“When you’re buying a gift card for someone, know where they go, and if you know they use the mobile app for a retailer, focus on that,” said Mattingly.
“If you want to have somebody be really pleased, then give them a place where they can go where there’s enough breath of product that they can find what they like,” said Talbott. “On the other hand, we have a local business store here called Andrew Davis, which is a lovely menswear store. I would say if I were purchasing a gift there, let’s say a tie for my son, I would buy the object because then, you don’t have any concern that you can’t return it or do something with it.”
If you find your own gift card stack piling up and unused, there are ways you can clean house. Experts recommend not only regifting them to other people, but also to charities or organizations, who could use them to buy supplies.