For those who need help completing their holiday or special
occasion shopping on time, there is a convenient alternative to
consider. Gift cards make great stocking stuffers for Christmas
and also convey your love, good tidings or best wishes when you
are unable to purchase a physical gift. Though some people decry
the impersonality of a gift card, they do have the distinct
advantage of empowering loved ones and friends to choose the
items they desire or like the most.

Before Buying a Gift Card

While purchasing and giving a gift card may seem easy, there is
a wide-range of factors that could make or break the success of
this transaction. Below are a few considerations to pay
attention to when selecting gift cards:

1) Gift Card Starting Point: After you’ve decided to purchase a
gift card, you should think long and hard about the individual
that the card is for. The value and type of card should match
the style, character and tastes of the recipient. One of the
reasons retailers like gift cards is that users often buy more
than the gift card’s value, so make sure you activate the card
with enough value to buy a decent present.

2) Type of Gift Card: There are two main types of gift cards to
choose from: store-specific or general-purpose. The purchase of
a store-specific gift card is a more personal, heartfelt
approach because it says, “Hey, I know what you like and where
you like to shop!” Does Aunt Vera have a sweet tooth? Select a
gourmet chocolate gift card from the likes of Ghirardelli or
Fanny Farmer. Is your nephew very picky when it comes to
clothes? Choose a gift card he can use at his favorite store
located within a specific mall.

With a general-purpose gift card, the recipient can use the
monetary allowance to purchase whatever they wish, wherever a
credit card like Visa, MasterCard or American Express is
accepted. Before buying, be sure to ask about exceptions or
restrictions on the use of the card. For example, you probably
won’t be able to purchase an airline ticket with a
general-purpose gift card.

3) Read the Fine Print: When giving a gift card, never ignore
the fine print. Unreasonable service fees or activation fees,
as well as shipping and handling charges, certainly put a
damper on giving or receiving this type of present. Generally
speaking, store-specific gift cards have fewer fees than
general-purpose cards from companies like Mastercard or Visa.

4) Internet vs. Store Gift Cards: While some gift cards permit
you to make purchases from both local and online stores, many
do not. Before buying a gift card, ask about how it can be
used, and think about who this present is for. What type of
card would they be most likely to use? Do they spend a lot of
time surfing the Internet and feel comfortable ordering online?
Or would they rather visit a store in their neighborhood? Be
sure to buy a gift card that matches.

5) E-Gift Cards or Certificates: When time is of the essence,
you can often purchase a gift certificate at an online retailer
and have it emailed directly to the recipient. The emails
contain a verification code of some sort that must be entered
into an online order form when a purchase in made in order to
activate the gift. Such “e-gift” cards are certainly convenient
but since they almost invariably must be redeemed online, keep
that in mind before buying.

5) Gift Card Scams: It is possible for gift cards to be
tampered with, and it’s amazing how ingenious thieves can be.
For example, in one con, thieves make note of the identifying
information displayed on gift cards being offered for sale,
then periodically call to check if they’ve been activated. When
they are, they use the order code/PINS to shop online, thereby
draining these cards of value before you get them. Protect
yourself by examining both sides of cards yourself before
purchase, keeping an eye out for signs of tampering and/or the
exposure of the cards’ PINs. Immediately after buying a gift
card in a store, ask the cashier to scan the card itself to
ensure the plastic you bought is valid and bears the proper
value. (This will protect you against the card’s having been
swapped out of its packaging for a zero-balance one.) Never buy
them from auction sites – according to the National Retail
Federation, many of these cards are stolen or counterfeit.

Using a Gift Card

If you have received a gift card, the first thing you should do
is familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of your present.
Knowing the details and limitations of the card will allow you
to make the most of your purchases, as well as avoid
unnecessary deductions from your funds.

1) Expiration Date: Some gift cards expire within six months to
a year, while others a bit longer. You should check for an
expiration date on your card to avoid a loss of funds. Once you
exceed the expiration date, you will no longer be able to use
the gift card. This limitation can be found either on the front
or back of your card and often requires reading the small print.

2) Monthly Fees: Depending on the gift card you have received,
you might get zapped with a monthly fee for “maintenance.” It
could be less than a dollar or more, but depending on the
original or remaining amount, this may prompt you to act
quickly when making purchases for fear of losing a chunk of
your gift.

3) Gift Card Balance: Checking your gift card balance is as
easy as calling a toll-free number or reviewing your account
online. This is a great way to keep track of what you’ve spent
and what you have left. Depending on the amount of money left
on your gift card, you may have to carry extra cash when
shopping, in case you see an item that exceeds your remaining

4) Unwanted Cards: If it so happens that you get a gift card
from a store you don’t like, it is possible to trade cards at
several places online. For example, at and, you can trade gift cards at equal face value
for a small fee. Just do so quickly, before any fees are
assessed to your card.

Buying gift cards is certainly convenient for you, and are
usually welcomed by others – but taking the few simple
precautions in this article can truly maximize their value.