A Buyer’s Guide for All Those Gift Cards We Received: 7 Approaches

Barely a week has passed and you already forgot you had them. This year, don't let your gift cards go to waste until you find it in an envelope next October, do something smart with it.

Ah, gift cards. Whether you think they're one of they laziest gifts to give, or love the freedom they offer, we all end up with gift cards after the holidays from office White Elephant exchanges or outlying uncles.

It can be a daunting task deciding exactly which purchase to put that $25 Best Buy gift card toward, especially if you rarely buy anything from Best Buy. But the decision must be made, otherwise you're literally throwing away money.

According to the National Retail Federation, gift card receivers have yet to redeem $41 billion worth of gift cards since 2005. That's a lot of billions. And I know you can relate. I'm not the only guy who has found a $40 Visa gift card in an old wallet.

We're here to offer up some suggestions so you can quickly, and intentionally, off-load those free dollars you have sitting around. Because as the old saying goes, use it or lose it.

Approach 1: Don't Treat It Like Special Money

One of the reasons I'm not a huge fan of receiving gift cards is because for some reason I always place special importance on what I should use the card for. “Do I really want to use my $25 gift card to buy this Blu-ray? Or should I wait, since I know other things are coming out later…”

Ditch the anxiety, and use the gift card during your next purchase at whatever retailer it's for. Buying toilet paper and deodorant from Target? Use your gift card. Thanks Uncle Ned, you just saved me $17!

Printer ink and batteries

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Approach 2: Blow It on Essentials You Hate Buying

Even at pennies a disc, I hate buying buying DVD-R's and CD-R's, especially since I use them less and less. Got a gift card to a place like Best Buy but never buy anything there? Load up on refillables like ink cartridges, printer paper, or batteries. (Especially the odd sized ones like D or C that you never seem to have around when you need them. For AA or AAA use your gift card to invest in a rechargeable pack.)

While it's not an exciting gift, you have to decide which is more important to you: Getting a cool $25 gift, or not having to pay $30 for a box of printer paper that your girlfriend plows through on baking recipes.

Approach 3: Lemme Upgrade

Dated Beyonce lyrics aside (what?), a gift card from one of the major retailers, Amazon, Target, Best Buy, etc. is the perfect way to replace older items you're not likely to drop “real money” on. Still using the hand-me-down plate set your mom gave you for college? Pick up a respectable set with your gift card. (Maybe these will even be microwave safe!)

Other upgrade ideas:

  • Buy a box of glassware, and ditch the mishmash
  • New silverware that doesn't bend every time you try to scoop something
  • A decent set of sheets. I once read a detailed academic paper about how old, stained bed sheets were a faster turn-off for women than being an overweight and ungroomed man-boy. Just kidding. But seriously, get yo'self some new sheets. Using clean sheets regularly will help reduce acne on all parts of your body.
  • Wooden hangers. Using the wire hangers from the cleaners may be slowly killing your clothes.
  • New underwear. Yes, I know the ones you've got are comfortable. But they're old. And they're showing their age. Maximize your spending by buying them at a discount store like Marshalls or TJ Maxx that carry designer underwear for a fraction of the price at a department store. Or if you're like me and are fine with Hanes, $25 will buy you, like, a thousand pairs.
  • Cookware. That scratched up non-stick frying pan is probably causing you to die a slow death. Instead, opt for our favorite: Cast iron. At under $30 it's a smart lifelong investment, and the food cooks more evenly and tastes better too.

Collage of glasses, silverware, pan, hanger

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Approach 4: Use It on a Regular Purchase, Knowing You've Got a Credit For Yourself

Another thing I tend to do is to hold onto versatile cards like a Visa Gift Card, waiting for that next large purchase like a cell phone upgrade – except I always forget I have one, or don't want to use it because I think there's something bigger coming along. Instead, use your gift card on every day items the next time you're at the grocery store. Then, when you do make a big purchase, you have a $25 credit in your checking account from the money you didn't spend at the grocery store. It's all the same money, you're either spending cash on groceries, or on the phone upgrade but this way we're guaranteeing the gift card doesn't fall into gift card limbo and never get used.

Approach 5: Buy Something You Wanted for Christmas Before You Forget

While the most flexible, credit card gift cards like Visa also represent gift giving as a simple exchange of money from one party to another. But lucky you, you've got one! The sky's the limit. Use that short list of gift ideas you made and pick something from it – before you completely forget. For some fun things you might not normally splurge for like a remote controlled helicopter, Johnnie Walker Black, or cedar shoe trees check out our annual Gift Guide for Guys.

Johnnie Walker bottle

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Approach 6: Buy Another Gift Card

Sometimes someone gives you a gift card from a place that there is physically nothing that you need to buy from. Use your gift card to buy a different card for something you'll use. Almost every retailer sells iTunes gift cards, and many places have whole gift card kiosks that sell cards for specialized stores, restaurants and online services. You'll have to double-check the terms of your card, some likely don't allow you to buy another gift card with a gift card. With that once useless gift card you can treat that special someone to a $25 steak dinner at Applebees.

If you find the terms of your gift card don't allow this, try swapping or selling it online at a place like Gift Card Granny.

Approach 7: Hold Onto It for an Emergency Gift

We've all been there – What!? Today's your buddy's birthday? Your co-worker's last day? Your boss's sendoff before she has a baby? Well, lucky for you, you stuck that Target gift card in your desk drawer just for this occasion. And if you're a real forward-thinker, place a general, blank card in there too. Also great for those awkward scenarios where someone has given you a gift and you're empty handed.

Andrew Snavely

Andrew founded Primer in 2008 and brings 15+ years of men's style expertise. Known for his practical, relatable approach to style and self-development, he has been a recognized speaker at conferences and has styled work for top brands. Off-duty, he loves photography & editing, and enjoys road trips with his dog, Leela. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, educated in DC, and living in LA for nearly 20 years, Andrew's diverse experiences shape the relatable and real-world advice that has helped millions through Primer. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.