6 ways you can still enjoy unwanted gift cards
By Erin Peterson
Gift cards top the wish lists for nearly half of all Americans during the holiday season, but not everyone ends up thankful for them as some $30 billion never get used. But you don't have to let that plastic languish in your kitchen drawer. You've got several smart options if you want to get some value out of the cards -- even if you never buy a thing from the store that issued the card.
1. Sell them for cash. A number of websites, including Plastic Jungle, SwapaGift.com and GiftCardRescue.com offer you cash for your gift card. Though you won't receive the face value of the gift card, you can get close, says Kwame Kuadey, CEO and founder of GiftCardRescue.com "We have payouts between 65 percent and 90 percent, with an average of 80 percent," he says. "You'll receive the most for popular stores including Target, Walmart and Whole Foods." The sites will tell you in advance how much they'll pay for the card, and you'll receive payment a few days after mailing it in. Most sites will accept cards from hundreds of regional and national chains.
To get the most for your card, remember that timing is everything -- sellers are more likely to get the most for their cards just before the holidays, when supply is lower and demand is high. After the holidays, when these sites are inundated with cards, you may get slightly less money for your cards.
2. Swap them for other cards. Both SwapaGift.com and Plastic Jungle offer the chance to exchange one gift card for another, although the process itself can be a bit clunky. Savvy users have also cashed in numerous low-value cards to get a single high-value card. In-store options are also a possibility, says Shelley Hunter, founder of Gift Card Girlfriend: Go to the issuing store and see if it has a display of other stores' gift cards, then use the gift card you have to buy the gift card you really want. "I got a Babies R Us gift card that I couldn't use, but I went to the store, where they had a gift card kiosk, and bought a Subway card. It required a trip to the store, but I was able to pick out something I knew that I would eventually use." You can find gift card kiosks at grocery stores, drugstores and many big-box retailers.
3. Re-gift -- wisely. A gift card that's useless to you might be perfect for someone on your holiday list. But before you attach a bow, follow a few common-sense guidelines, says Hunter. "Take off the backer card it comes on if it's been damaged, and make sure it hasn't been partially used. Double-check to see that PIN information hasn't been scratched off," she says. "Make sure it looks new."
4. Donate them to your favorite cause. If you're looking for a simple way to do a good deed, Plastic Jungle has made it easy for you to donate part or all of the value of your gift card to a worthy organization. Simply sell a gift card on the site, then designate a portion (or all) of your earnings to one of the nearly 100 nonprofits that have partnered with the site, including chapters of the American Red Cross and Big Brothers Big Sisters. They'll even ask your favorite charity to join if they're not yet listed. Even better news: The charities aren't the only ones to benefit, says Kristin Donelson, vice president of marketing for the site. "We'll take care of the details for you and issue an acknowledgement of your gift that you can use come tax season," she says.
5. Think local. If you've got a gift card to a local restaurant or retailer that isn't accepted by larger gift card sites, you may still want to call around to local schools or charitable organizations -- many are happy to accept the donations. "They might bundle it into a package for an auction fundraiser, or use it to buy supplies to further their mission," says Hunter.
6. Buy gifts for others. You may not be able to find the perfect present for yourself with a gift card, but you may be able to find just the thing for a relative, friend, or co-worker. "Think of it as a way to get a gift for somebody else," says Hunter. "The bottom line is that you can buy somebody a present without using your own money, and that's valuable."
See related: 2011 gift card comparison chart, Discounts: 18 ways to get gift cards for less
Updated: December 28, 2011