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8 need-to-know tips for gift cards

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4. How stores treat cards
Retailers can't account for the sale of a gift card until the card is redeemed for merchandise. If you don't redeem a card within a certain period of time, your state's escheat laws kick in and the unused money goes to the state or is divided between the state and the retailer.

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While you may think this is unfair, think of it from the retailer's point of view: How do you balance the books when you have thousands of dollars of outstanding sales yet to be logged?

To avoid having to think about these laws, just use your gift card in full as soon as possible. Then you'll get the full value of the gift, just as the giver intended.

5. Register your card
After you get a gift card, go online and register it with the retailer or issuer. Registering the card will allow you to check the balance anytime, either online or via a toll-free number. If the card is lost or stolen, you can probably get a replacement, usually for a $5 fee. And if the card has expired, you can call the retailer and see if they'll still honor it.

6. Check balance before shopping
Many retailers don't have the capability to check the balance on a gift card in the store. So once you've registered your card, check the balance before going shopping with it. Most issuers have a toll-free number that will allow you to see what the current balance is.

7. Personalize cards
While the attitude that gift cards are an impersonal gift is waning, most retailers and issuers offer a variety of designs. Some let you emboss the card with the recipient's name. In conjunction with its photo service, Wal-Mart allows you to purchase a gift card online, upload your favorite photo and then pick up the finished plastic at the store of your choice. What could be more personal than that?

8. Think outside the box
As the popularity of gift cards has risen, so has their prevalence. Every type of business has figured out a way to implement gift cards into their business. Spas and golf courses, nonprofit organizations, and state parks issue them. Don't know when your grandmother would like to travel? You can buy a gift card for air travel from American, Continental, Hawaiian, Southwest and US Airways. Gift cards from other airlines are sure to be taking off soon.

You can even buy health care with a gift card: Highmark, an insurance company in Pittsburgh, offers the Healthcare Gift Card ($4.95 plus the amount loaded onto the card), which can pay for health expenses such as co-pays, medical equipment like a blood pressure monitor or a gym membership.

So if retail shopping or restaurants don't excite you, there's probably a gift card for any other experience you might want to give.

But most important, think of a gift card as cash. If you had $50 in your wallet, you'd spend it, wouldn't you?'s corrections policy -- Posted: Dec. 21, 2007
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