How to Use Up Remaining Balances on Prepaid Gift Cards

By Linsey Knerl. Last updated 23 March 2011. 50 comments

Looking in my wallet, there are no less than 5 prepaid debit or gift cards hiding at any one time. While I seem to have no trouble using up store gift cards (Walmart or Amazon, for example), I just can’t seem to rid my life of these nagging, tiny balances that make it inconvenient and a little embarrassing to shop. With some research and a lot of trial and error, I found some ways to get my money’s worth out of these well-meaning assets — every last penny.

First, I won’t trouble you with advice on using store or retailer cards. I’m sure you can figure out how to use the last $2 on your Starbucks card (if you haven’t figured it out, just walk into any Starbucks. They’ll apply whatever remaining balance you have to your next purchase. Or you can simply reload it.) While the strategy to using up remaining balances on Visa, AMEX, and MasterCard are similar, it’s not always so clear cut. And let’s face it, I’m less likely to whip out my Visa with the $2.23 balance and buy anything at a store — especially since it may cost the retailer between $1.00 and $2.50 just to process it.

Know What Your Balances Are

This seems obvious, but there are times that I may have one or two cards floating at the bottom of my purse that I’m not sure how much is left on them. While I prefer to use the web address printed on the back of each card to find the balance, some will only allow you to call an 800 number. Another thing to note is that in order to check your balance online, you may be required to register that card. (Walmart and AMEX do this, specifically.) The benefit to doing this is that your balance is stored online, and in case of a lost card, you can at least make purchases online with it — or possibly get a replacement. The drawback is that you may not want to keep the card forever (see tips below) and you don’t want to register a card that someone else may try to register in the future.

Make Note of Your Balances

Again, simple idea here: Some of the newer gift cards have a little box on the back of the card that let you write in the amount you have left after each purchase. Others give you nothing, so I suggest wrapping a sticky note around it with the balance written on it, or you can tear off just the sticky part and “label” you cards. The next time you’re waiting to check out, you can easily identify which card will have the balance closest to your purchase amount.

Analyze Your Spending Habits

I don’t shop at some major stores — ever. It’s not that I don’t like them; I’ve just found them to be too far away geographically, or out of my comfort zone. For this reason, I’ve become very familiar with the stores I use most, and their policies for using prepaid gift cards. Walgreens, for example, has no issues about letting me pay for a purchase with multiple methods of payment. This makes my local Walgreens store a great way to “ditch” balances with little interruption to my shopping routine. If I’m taking advantage of a Walgreens Register Rewards deal, and want to buy several packages of diapers, I can just ask the cashier to apply $2.36 of my purchase to the gift card, then pay the remaining balance with my regular credit card or cash. Easy peasy. Other stores are really great about this too. (Just know what credit cards each store takes. Several of my faves don’t take American Express gift cards.)

Recycle Into Other Gift Cards

When researching ways to dump my gift cards, I ran into a lot of suggestions to convert them to Amazon gift cards. As an avid Amazon shopper, this idea really appealed to me. While the smallest gift card you can buy is $5, you don’t have to buy in increments — so you can buy a gift card worth exactly $5.36 and have it sent to you via email the same day. You can then apply the gift card directly to your Amazon account balance, giving you an extra $5.36 of spending power the next time you shop. Some have reported this same kind of goodness with (which also allows you to buy iTunes gift cards and some restaurant cards like Chili’s and Subway in select increments only).

What type of credit card are you interested in?
How much do you spend per month?
Do you carry a balance?

My personal experience with this method has been hit or miss. While the Amazon site doesn’t mention anything about holding a particular amount of your gift card to ensure it’s valid, it seems that this may be the case. Frequent purchasers of Amazon cards recommend holding back $1 of your balance in case of an “authorization” amount that will later be returned to your card balance. (Of course, who wants $1 left on their card?) Some have suggested immediately converting a $20 prepaid card into one $10 Amazon gift code, waiting until the purchase clears and the $1 authorization amount is credited back, and then buying another $10 code. (Apparently, the $1 authorization is only applied the first time you use a particular card.)

I was never able to get many of the prepaid cards converted successfully, and had my orders canceled, with no record of any transactions being processed on my prepaid card accounts. Just today, I called Amazon customer service and was told that this was an issue on the end of the bank who issued the card, and that they no longer do the $1 authorization fee. My purchase should have work if I had the balance to pay for it. (As of today, I am unable to use one American Express gift card, one MasterCard gift card, and one VISA prepaid debit on the Amazon site.) I guess this may not be the most efficient method, but if it works for you — kudos!

Be Kind

Perhaps the easiest way to use up gift card balances is to pass them on to others. It’s kind of like dumping your problems on other people, except there’s free money involved. If you don’t want to deal with a $3.56 gift card balance, I’m sure there’s someone who would love to. Examples of places that will usually not turn down cards include local women’s shelters and some churches. Be sure that you are upfront with the amount on the card, the date the balance must be used by (if any), and any fees that may be charged as a result of purchase. (One of my AMEX gift cards, for example, charges a $4.95 fee with each transaction.)

One way I’ve recently used a $10 gift card to a store that closed in my area (so I couldn’t use it) was as a “bonus” tip for a server at a restaurant. I wouldn’t recommend substituting your cash tip for a gift card tip unless it’s of such a generous portion that the inconvenience of using it is outweighed by the value, but “bonusing” on top of the cash tip probably would be well appreciated!

Cash Out

There are a few scattered reports of banks that will cash out any amount of gift card, provided you are a customer and show proper I.D (names mentioned included Chase). There may or may not be a fee attached. Also, residents of California can legally cash out any gift card with a balance of less than $10. See your state’s Department of Consumer Affairs website to see if similar legislation has been passed in your area.

Sell, Trade, Recharge, or Regift

There are many people who try to sell their unused gift cards on Ebay. This may work for larger cards, but it’s still a hassle. I’d much rather make it work some other way. Also, sites that allow you to trade unused gift cards are becoming popular — but again, I don’t want to have to mess with mailing addresses and postage for a tiny balance. There is still the possibility of “reloading” a card, if it’s allowed (some cards aren’t made for this).

Maybe you could regift a card that had its original balance on it? (Giving a $5 balance on a clearly branded $25 card, for example, seems a bit tacky.) Any other ideas?

For additional reading, see Bankrate’s excellent article on gift cards.

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

Additional photo credit: Linsey B. Knerl
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Guest's picture
s anthony

Why all the answers that take so much effort? This isn't a problem at all. I always just use my unused balances to buy gas. Stick the card in and it will pump right up to the last penny before turning off.

Guest's picture

Exactly what I do!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for bringing this up, Anthony!  Yes, this would seem like the obvious choice for a larger gift card ($75 or more, for example.)  For many,  depending on where you are pumping, and what kind of card you are using, there is no legit way to use up small amounts for gas ($3.33, for example.)  You could possibly go inside the gas station and run the card like a regular counter purchase, but many cards will be declined at the pump itself.  See language below from the American Express gift card site:

"If you use your Gift Card to purchase gasoline, we recommend that you pay inside, not at the pump. If you pay at the pump, the terminal may be pre-programmed to confirm that you have sufficient Available Funds on your Gift Card to pay for an average purchase of gas. Before you are permitted to pump gas, many pumps seek a pre-authorization for $75 and this amount could increase from time to time ("Pre-Authorization Request"). If you have insufficient Available Funds on your Gift Card to cover the Pre-Authorization Request, your attempt to use your Gift Card at the pump will be declined. If you have sufficient Available Funds on your Gift Card to cover the Pre-Authorization Request, you will be permitted to continue your transaction at the pump. However, if the dollar amount of your actual gasoline purchase is less than the amount of the Pre-Authorization Request that we approved, a "hold" on your Available Funds will result equal to the difference between the two amounts. Once the Merchant sends us the final amount of your actual gasoline purchase, we will remove the "hold" on your Available Funds for any additional amount exceeding this final amount. This may take 3 to 7 days and during this period you will not be able to use any Available Funds in a "hold" position. TO AVOID A DECLINE OF, OR A HOLD ON, YOUR GIFT CARD, WE RECOMMEND THAT YOU PREPAY FOR YOUR GASOLINE INSIDE THE STATION."

So it's not always so simple (especially if you are buying gas and have kids in the car, or you are buying gas after merchant hours.)  Hopefully, your cashier will work with you to use the amount you have left in a reasonable manner :)

Thanks for your comment!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

the only piece of plastic i have ever owned is a visa debit card and i really do not think i will ever need another one. i think of it as a necessary evil

Guest's picture

I can point to specific instances this past year where this situation bit me in the butt. More and more people are granting rebates in the form of debit/gift cards. I agree, I haven't had an issue when it was a card issued for a specific place (Target, for example, seems to like this promo), but I've received 2 different Visa cards as rebates from AT&T. No restrictions on use, but I was not careful to note purchases against them. When I tried to use them at several retailers, they would be declined for insufficient balances, and I was informed I couldn't just "use what was left" if I didn't know the balance. I wound up discovering both in the back of my wallet, expired, knowing full well a large portion went unused.

I will keep this list in mind - at the very least, I would have preferred to donate the cards so SOMEONE got the benefit.

Guest's picture

doesn't Amazon allow you to purchase from them via multiple payment options? i.e. you can put 15 dollars on your gift card balance and 5.36 on your visa prepaid balance? Seems that would save some time.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Yes, you can do this.  The issue is that you'll have those gift cards floating around until you use them for your next Amazon purchase and you can only use ONE per transaction (plus you'll need to have enough Amazon gift certificates already stored in your account to cover the rest of the purchase because they won't take more than these two methods in one transaction.) Some people would like to "bank" all their unused pre-paid balances as Amazon gift codes, as you can store them up until you have a nice-sized balance to buy something larger in one purchase.  Make sense?

Short answer = yes, you can use prepaid cards as a regular method of onpayment at Amazon, provided you can cover the rest in Amazon credits.

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

Seriously? This shouldn't be a big problem. Just call the number on the back for the balance and mark the front with a permanent marker. Some cashiers do this for you when you get store credit for a return.

Or, just swipe your card at the self-checkout at Wal-Mart. It deducts the amount automatically, without needing you to know the exact balance. If you're in the regular line at Wal-Mart, have the cashier punch in the full amount and then swipe the card. So if you have a total for $30 and a card for $ unknown, have the cashier punch in $30.00 and it will automatically deduct what's on the card. You only need to know the exact amount if you want an exact amount taken off the card and not the whole amount in a split tender transaction, ie 4 guys with a total of $88 who want to split using debit cards, so punch in $22 & swipe 4X. This method works at the grocery stores too.

As an ex-cashier, I once had a lady who had about 10 visa gift cards with a few dollars on them each. I ran them all on the same transaction just fine without knowing the exact balances.

Guest's picture
Thrift Master

Either the Walmart cashiers don't know what they are doing or you are wrong...I doubt the former because it is not just my local Walmart, I live in an area where there are three Walmarts that I can go to and in all of them, every cashier that has rung me up for the full amount, the card declines i.e. it simply is not capable of figuring the amount left and charging exactly that. I always have to tell them the exact balance left, then change payment method, hit credit and then process the balance due on my regular credit card. This is true in Target too. I am on big on rebates (done 1000's of $). I have used every penny on prepaid rebate cards (VISA and Amex), I once did $0.01 at a Target. I regularly do small amounts less than a dollar or $2's and $3's. I am not embarrassed or shy about it because it is my money. When I have used store gift cards, I have had a store charge me $0.10 when that was the balance due after I used the gift card, so why should I be embarrassed? I have also used every penny of store rewards (Staples, Office Depot, Office Max etc.). While I never game the system and follow the rules legit, I will never let go of my money. I am sure the store cashiers will think to themselves, what a cheapo I am...who cares.

Guest's picture

In reply to Linsey Knerl, I'm working at a gas station this winter. One man comes in several times a month with gift cards that have small amounts on them, never more than $5. He uses them to buy the balance in gas... filling his small jerry cans for his power tools.

Guest's picture

I agree, you definately want to use those last few dollars on any prepaid card or gift card. The numbers are staggering on the amount of prepaid cards and gift cards that never get redeemed or remain partially unused. It is big business for banks and retailers.

Prepaid cards usually have a target market of the unbanked, but now they are more widely used and will continue to grow. So if you get a prepaid card or gift card, remember to use it all up!

Linsey Knerl's picture

That's a great tip for filling up cans of lawnmower gas :)

I don't know that our small gas station would be so accomodating (even though they are supposed to allow you to charge any amount, some stations still huff at purchases smaller than $5).  That's good advice, however.  I'll keep that in mind!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I'm confused...why is it embarassing to use the last dollar or two of a gift card? Just use it and then pay the rest with cash or a debit card. Almost every store automatically takes multiple forms of payment. Just give the smallest one first and then a new total is calculated. Then give the next highest one, and so on until you have to pay the balance with real money.

Trust me, cashiers could care less how you pay and they aren't making judgments. ;)

Just seems like a very long post for a very short solution.

Linsey Knerl's picture

It's understandable that this wouldn't even be an issue for many people.  But when you combine the fact that some stores just don't train their cashiers to even be able to take coupons -- much less use multiple forms of payment, it can be a hassle to even use the small gift cards.

For the most part, large retailers who are used this this thing shouldn't see it as a big deal (and therefore, the customer would have no need to feel odd), but in some smaller rural areas, places where you still have to sign a paper slip to use a credit card (or heaven forbid, one of those manual imprint deals), you are talking about a huge deal to use multiple forms of payment.

I was also inspired to write this when I saw so many people asking about it on deals and freebies board.  So I knew that at least for some people, it was an issue.

I'm glad that from what I'm hearing here, most of our readers haven't had it be an incovenience :)  Maybe you all are just that savvy?

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I'm glad that you wrote this as I found it very helpful. With my new Perkstreet account, I am looking for options to use up the MC gift cards they send me. It's especially a problem because I'm overseas on US military base, where your usual repertoire of stores don't exist( no Walmart, for sure )

Amazon gift cards are a great idea, another one ( that costs you money, however ) that I want to try is to use it to fund a Paypal donation to myself.

Another thing, I noticed the base commissary(grocery store) doesn' accept my Paypal Debit MC, so I'm scared that they won't accept the gift cards either!

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the article -- I had wondered but hadn't investigated why my gift cards and rebate cards (not ones that I bought myself but ones given to me obviously) didn't pay for purchases partially. I have no problem giving multiple forms of payment but apparently anything less than a full amount of payment just doesn't register, so to speak. I'll try being very specific to the cashier next time -- thanks! 

Guest's picture

You have to love Washington State in this regard. When the gift card reaches less than a 5.00 balance you can ask the store to cash it out.

I have gotten into a few arguments over this, but just whip out the state law and show the cashier when they continue to refuse.

Guest's picture

I'm really mystified why make life so complicated with all those gift cards, debit cards, you name it. So much turbulation.
I use cash for small purchases, a Visa credit card for larger ones or something I want to keep record of, and occasionally a check that I keep in my wallet.
Gift cards are a way for corporations to make free money your money; all those little balances and misplaced and outdated cards add up to million$!
Oh yes, if you pay the Visa balance at the end of the month you've got free credit.

Guest's picture

Really, gift cards are the biggest scam.

I don't give gift cards anymore. We've been given cards for Christmas and a local merchant will go out of business with no recourse for the holder or giver of the card.

Gift cards force people to either buy more or less of what they want/need or leave a balance that benefits the corporation.

I will give gas gift cards because the most people purchase gasoline and will use the whole amount.

Guest's picture

Got an email that confirms amazon is still doing the $1 authorization:

"When you sign up with us, or add a new credit card to your account, we contact your credit card's issuing bank to confirm that your credit card is a valid number and hasn't been reported as lost or stolen. This is communicated via a $1.00 authorization. However, we don't actually proceed with the charge; this is simply one of the security measures we use to protect our customers. The authorization charge will usually drop off your account in a few days depending on your bank. Normally, this would not be an issue but if you only had enough on your card to complete your purchase then it does cause a problem."

Guest's picture
Michael Hottman

Another way to use balances on cards is to pay bills like your cable or other utilities online. This can allow one to use every last cent from the comfort of your home to clear out small or large balances off visa or amex cards. And you pay a bill you are going to pay anyway. I use this all the time for those rrbate cards I get and the I dont have another card to carry around.

Guest's picture

One of the best pieces of advice I read about using up a prepaid credit card is to use it to purchase a store gift card that you frequent and will definitely visit. That has saved me headaches about keeping track of the balance etc. So with rebates where they give you a prepaid VISA or MC, I'll purchase a gift card, usually a Target one because it's nearby and I always shop there, for the total amount and I'm done.

Guest's picture

I agree that using up balances should be used on purchases you would have made anyway such as gas and groceries, unless you are completely out of debt, why not make those cards give you a little bit of breathing room (as small as it might be anything helps :))

Guest's picture

It almost smells like a scam where visa is requiring you to know the exact remaining balance to use the card, and counting on you giving up the small balance - multiplied by millions.

Kinda like the "fractionof a cent" scam in Office Space.

Guest's picture

I just used my Visa gift card with $0.72 remaining to make an Amazon gift card and it works... no $5.00 minimum! Very useful idea thanks, I wasn't sure how I was going to get this money off the card

Guest's picture

Indeed i just used up about 10 prepaid visas this way, and was able to order a new CD. with the "gift" cards.

Guest's picture

I just used a visa debit card with $0.69 left on it to buy an amazon gift card. Sweet! Amazon automatically combines your gift cards together so no worries about having to split purchases!

Guest's picture

I just did this with an AT&T rewards card, 4.24. No surcharge. Should have just bought the gift card (cards actually- AT&T gave me 2) to begin with.

Guest's picture

Nonsense. The Card companies already figured all of this out. Unless you have been asleep for the last 5 years, you'd know that all of these cards are pretty much restricted from "cashing out" and most do not offer recharging unless it's directly issued by the store (Target, WalMart).
Donating to charity is a joke. most charities will not take less than $10 off of a credit card ( the only possibility is which unfortunately requires sending in the actual card, hence allowing any downstream user to see my past transactions.
Unfortunately this is designed like this to eek out yet another margin for the Card Companies....

Guest's picture

Similar to the gas idea, you can use up any remaining amount on prepaid card at your local supermarket. Just hit "debit" and it will take the remaining balance - in my case, $3.28 then you use a different card for the remainder of your payment. DONE !

Guest's picture

FYI, perhaps Amazon has changed their terms. I just used two gift cards (one for $5.44 and the other for $2.33) and sent myself two Amazon e-certificates, then applied them to my account. They were delivered within seconds and I've already used them! Looks like Amazon doesn't have a minimum gift certificate amount anymore. Yay! Thanks for this article. I never would have remembered to even try Amazon without it!

Guest's picture

I zero out gift cards by making charitable donations to my favorite nonprofits... every little bit helps.

Guest's picture

I have done the thing where you ask the cashier to run the gift card for the balance amount and then use a different payment source for anything still due, but it's a hassle and I prefer not to do it. Gas, same thing.

Some commenters mentioned just swiping the card and it uses up the balance - that usually works for store branded cards, but Visa, Mastercard, Amex cards (like you get for rebates) don't seem to do that - if anyone knows otherwise, could you please explain how I can make that work?

What I do is Amazon e-gift cards. I shop at amazon, and they don't expire their gift cards, so it's a good value. But I can also use the amazon gift balance to purchase a gift card to a local store or restuarant, so I'm not even limited to shopping at amazon this way. Amazon lets you enter the exact amount you want to load onto their e-gift-card, so that 3.56 balance on prepaid visa can be converted into a 3.56 amazon credit with no extra fees. I just did this today, and there was no problem with a $1 hold or anything.

Guest's picture

These credit card giftcards are great for people like myself who are too paranoid to disclose their banking info online when wanting to make online purchases. The downfall: those pesky activation fees that range from 3-5$. They must make oodles of cash just From those alone. With an actual credit card they charge for penalty and with the giftcards they charge you to use your own money. That's why I would rather give someone cash in a card than one of those if I want to gift someone spending money, they would still make money if they only charged a 1$ activation fee. That turned out to be more of a rant than I intended. It is totally worth it though when you find great deals online then you can look at it as an investment. But I personally only buy them when I am looking to purchase something specific online.

Guest's picture

Great tip!:
You can purchase Amazon online gift card with cards such as the visa debit etc cards. This is great as you can take the remaining amount on many cards and just buy e gift cards on Amazon with it, then purchase items with this credit. Works great!

Guest's picture
John Vargason


What I do is call after a couple of months of cards building up. I then write each card number with remaining balance on a sheet of paper. Depending on cards it takes a whole 15-30 minutes to do this. I wrap the cards in the sheet of paper secure the paper with a thin rubberband and stick the whole thing in my wallet. While out shopping I ask the cashiers politely if they'll do this kind of transaction. To date I haven't found anyone who won't, in the 2-3 years of doing these transactions. Just remember to be polite and remain

John V.

Guest's picture
John Gushman

I started using this new site to get cash for my prepaid cards called Prepaid2Cash - they transfer the balance of my prepaid card to my bank account! It was super easy.

Guest's picture

You have to either give them your bank account information or pay $3.50 to have a check sent to your home.

Guest's picture

The Amazon Gift Card idea is BRILLIANT!

Guest's picture

Yeap, brilliant. Had three cards with under $3 balances sitting here and one just expired the other day. That annoyed me, so searched and found this thread. $.50 minimum through my Amazon account. Perfect. Thanks for the post and replies! (07/2014)

Guest's picture

Did the Amazon trick, worked perfectly. Thanks for the advice!

Guest's picture

With Verizon, you can pay a portion of your wireless bill online with the balances on your viza/MC/AMEX cards as long as the balance is over $1.00.

Guest's picture

In San Francisco and many cities now, these are perfect for parking meters. I keep them on hand in my car once they hit a level that doesn't warrant anything but feeding meters.

Guest's picture

Just pay one of your utility bills online. You can usually pay almost any amount (there may be a minimum), but it's easy to do and you can get rid of all that plastic!

Guest's picture

One thing that's disturbing is how companies are now issuing out prepaid Visa cards instead of checks for items listed as coming with a mail-in rebate. The reason for this trend is.... they are saving money. Most people who use those cards (myself included) never actually use up the entire balance... a few dollars always seem to be left on the card which more than likely gets thrown away. For example, last month I took my truck in for an oil change and tuneup at my local Pep Boys... and the service manager who helped me NEVER even bothered to tell me there was a special going on with Rebates if you have a Tuneup. I just happened to find out while browsing the website. Well, I filled out the online rebate from with info from my receipt and they mailed me a $32 Visa card. I didn't know what I could do.. so I just ordered a few items I really didn't need... just to use the card before it expired. I still have a tiny balance on it that I have no idea what to do with... and it's quite embarrassing going to a store and whipping out a card that only has like a buck or two credit on it.

I think companies issues out these cards knowing the full balance is hardly ever used.

Guest's picture

For Gift Cards that have low balance- If you play Candy Crush Saga, Diamond Dash, Words with Friends, or any other game apps on Facebook, you are often prompted to buy gold bars, coins or something along that nature for a dollar or two by using a credit card. Some offer free stuff for just submitting a CC number and allowing it to be kept on file. These gold bars, coins, etc are used to trade for 'Helps,' 'Power-Ups,' Easter Eggs,' and so-on. Why anyone would use an actual credit or debit card is beyond me. If Facebook ever gets hacked (probably when), you will only lose the balance on gift card.

Guest's picture

The Amazon self-gift card idea is perfect, thanks!! .15 minimum. That's where I wanted to spend the card anyway!

Guest's picture

Thank you! Your Amazon tip just converted my useless gift card into a useful one. Darn gift card companies trying to snag your hard earned dollars. ;)

Guest's picture

Amazon seems like a great solution.
Do you need to open an amazon account to purchase these gift cards? Was thinking I would just purchase an amazon e-gift card for my nephew so he could buy a song or a game download. But dont have a need to create an account for myself. Thanks

Guest's picture
Scott Nelson

Try Google Wallet, I've had good luck consolidating gift card balances onto it. Most times the small fee is waived for very tiny balances.