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6 tips for organizing gift, debit and credit cards

Here's help for whipping that pile of plastic into shape

By Erin Peterson

Good things come in small packages, but between gift cards, debit cards and credit cards, you can end up with a lot of plastic.

Organize credit cardsAs your card stash grows, you'll want to organize your cards. There's a price to pay if you don't. Tower Group researchers estimate that about $8 billion in gift cards will go unused, for example, and using the wrong credit cards may mean forgoing rewards.

So get the most from your cards by keeping them organized. These six tips will get you started.

1. Keep them together.
2. Write it down.
3. Use a spreadsheet.
4. Track them online.
5. Make a trade.
6. Dump them.

Physical organization
A gift card or credit card is only useful if you have it when you need it, so keep your plastic right where you want it.

1. Keep them together.
If you have gift cards stashed in your junk drawer, wallet and desk drawer, it's time to consolidate.  "Cards should be gathered in a central location," says John Trosko, President of the Los Angeles chapter of the Association of Professional Organizers and author of the OrganizingLA blog. "It's best if you keep them in the car so you've got them with you when you go shopping." His clients often use small plastic accordion folders to keep the cards organized. Some of his most stylish clients have used Kate Spade pencil cases to keep their cards together.

Scott Bilker, creator of DebtSmart.com and author of Talk Your Way Out of Credit Card Debt, owns more than 80 credit cards and argues that says visual access is key. He keeps his plastic stored in business-card folios so he can find the card he's looking for just by flipping through a few pages. In a pinch, the plastic pages used to hold baseball cards can also do the job.

2. Write it down.
After a few months, you may forget if that electronics store gift card has $15 or $150 left on it, which may make it tougher to decide if you should buy a CD -- or an iPod. Trosko advises keeping a permanent marker on hand to write the balance on the front of the gift card, both when you get it and every time you use it.

A similar trick works for Kara McGuire, a personal finance columnist  for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She juggles several rewards card, and says she'd often find herself standing at the cash register, trying to remember which card had the best rewards offers that month. "I started putting a thin piece of masking tape on each card that said 3 percent dining out, 6 percent gas," she says. "It's helped me keep track of them."

Electronic organization
A second layer of card organization can give you peace of mind if your cards are lost or stolen -- and it will help you stay up to date on discounts and deals.

3. Use a spreadsheet.
Though Bilker has developed his own software to manage all of his cards and rewards, he says a basic electronic organization system is easy to set up in a spreadsheet or word-processing document.  "You should have a list of all your cards, rates, balances, rewards, how you get the rewards and credit card contact information," he says.

Bilker writes down any changes in terms or updated reward information on the envelope of credit card statement he receives, then spends a few hours every other week updating the information on his computer. That way, he knows at a glance which cards to use to reap the biggest payoffs. "I've saved $4,000 a year with this method," he says.

Especially savvy users can use a spreadsheet to track offers and time their large purchases.  "If you've had a great offer in the past, keep an eye out for it again," Bilker says. "If you don't get it, call the card issuer and say, "Hey, I got a deal on home improvement purchases last year. Is it available again this year, and if so, when?"

4. Track them online.
Bank of America is one company that offers an online organizational tool. With the help of its "My Portfolio" service, users manage and track all of their online accounts -- not just those from Bank of America. "You have to give them your passwords and login names for all your credit cards, which is a concern for some people," says Jonathan at MyMoneyBlog, who asked that his last name not be used because of the personal information on his site. "But for me, the convenience is worth it."

At Leveragecard.com, users can sign up for a program that allows them to register gift card and loyalty cards. The site tracks balances and even offers interest payments on those cards that have online balances. It will also track when the gift cards expire. Better yet, it offers some protection against loss. "If you lose a card, you'll still have your card and PIN number, which you can use online in many cases," explains LeverageCard CEO and founder Mark Edward Roberts.

Culling the flock
Shedding extra cards can be as rewarding as shedding unwanted pounds. Here's how to do it while still getting some value.

5. Make a trade.
If you find yourself stuck with gift cards you're sure you'll never use, you may be able to swap them for ones you do find valuable. Sites such as CardAvenue.com and CertificateSwap.com offer the opportunity for users to trade their least-wanted cards with others, for a small fee. Such sites generally offer trade insurance or will independently verify the amount on a gift card to reassure users that they're not getting duped. "If people are looking to get rid of a stack of cards, they can register them and create a wish list of the cards they'd like to receive in trade," says Bryan Oekel, a CardAvenue.com spokesman.

6. Dump them.
For a fee, you can exchange your gift cards for cash. Although eBay is popular choice, there's no guarantee you'll get much for the card. At SwapACard.com, the site will pay a fixed percentage -- usually between 50 and 70 percent -- for cards from top retailers such as Home Depot, Target and JCPenney. Users can receive the money in the form of a check or have the site use the traded-in value to pay bills.

If there are credit cards you're ready to drop, do so thoughtfully. You'll want to keep your oldest accounts active, since a long credit history can boost your credit score. If you still have accounts you want to close, make sure you've paid off the balance, call the issuer to cancel the account and shred the card.  Check your credit report a month or two later to make sure the account has actually been closed.

Having an organized wallet of credit and gift cards may be reward enough, but you'll get a secondary benefit that's even more valuable: an ability to use the cards to your greatest financial advantage.

Published: February 4, 2008


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