How to Use Up Remaining Balances on Prepaid Gift Cards
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 Walmart.com (which also allows you to buy iTunes gift cards and some restaurant cards like Chili’s and Subway in select increments only).
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!
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!
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.