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.

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