As you shop around for gift cards this year, consider the following tips to maximize your purchases.
- Avoid fees when possible. Some cards charge activation fees and can diminish in value if the recipient fails to use them quickly. Check out the findings from Bankrate's 2008 Gift Card Survey to see which cards come with fees and expiration dates.
- Look for incentives. Some retailers may offer preloaded gift cards as a shopping reward. "Mall-based stores will do things like 'if you hit $150, we'll give you a $20 gift card,'" says Horne. If you need to make purchases in these stores anyway, then the free gift cards could become gifts for other people. Just make sure you're not blowing hundreds of dollars to get a gift worth $15.
- Personalize it. The perception that gift cards are impersonal is the No.1 reason people don't give them. To fight that idea, some retailers have taken steps to personalize their gift card offerings with customizable designs, a wide variety of images, or the ability to upload a picture, add the recipient's name or a message. For example, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, American Express and Visa all provide at least one of those options.
The issuer may charge a fee for personalization. For instance, Starbucks tacks on a $4 fee for its customized cards. Discover Card charges $6.95 to send a greeting card that matches the gift card.
You can always take personalization into your own hands by placing the card inside another gift, such as a wallet, purse or basket filled with goodies.
- Watch out for struggling businesses. Retailers that go bankrupt can leave their gift cardholders with worthless plastic. Verify that the gift card issuer isn't in trouble when you purchase the card. Advise the recipient to redeem it sooner rather than later.
- Consider the recipient's lifestyle. Nothing says impersonal like a gift card the recipient won't or can't use. Think about a person's habits and location when you're comparing cards. An aunt who raves about library book borrowing may have little appreciation for a bookstore gift card.