How to use technology to get the most out of gift cards


(Photo via 401(K) 2012)

Unwanted gift cards pile up in many Americans’ sock drawers this time of year. Still, you may be surprised to learn that gift cards are the single most requested gift during the holidays, with six in ten Americans saying they’d like to receive them more than anything else. So it’s safe to assume that our collective decision to buy four percent more of them this holiday season than the last, was driven by pragmatism, and not —as gift card haters may insist— pure thoughtlessness.

If, like me, you have a stockpile of gift cards redeemable at stores that just aren’t common retail destinations for you, you might have started contemplating low-tech uses for them, like re-tiling your shower, or turning them into guitar picks. Never fear! You can extract the maximum amount of value from your gift card arsenal if you let technology be your guide.
First, if you plan to use your gift cards for yourself, but you tend to forget they’re there, here are some tricks:

Hack your commute with Proximity Alerts for Android

This reassuringly bland, free app for Android helped me remember to use the Starbucks card languishing in my wallet for almost a year. There’s a similar app called Geo Proximity Alarm for iPhone, but it’s 99 cents.


Proximity Alerts stores the location info for any number of locations, and, when you come within a certain range it takes an action of your choice. It seems like the makers intended it to be used as a way to automatically text grandma, “Almost there,” when you get off the freeway near her house, but you can also use it to simply vibrate in your pocket when you’re within, say, a mile of Starbucks. I wouldn’t normally set out with Starbucks as my destination, so this helped me remember to pop by when I was in the neighborhood. You’ll have to enter the info for each Starbucks (or Chipotle, or Macy’s), and you’ll need to know specifically where it is because the app itself doesn’t let you search for businesses within its Google Maps frame. Speaking of Google Maps:

Go on a free stuff bender with Google Maps Engine

Not to be confused with regular old Google Maps, Google Maps Engine is a way to use the Google Maps functionality to build and share custom maps. How this helps with gift cards is:

  • Step1: Grab all your gift cards and plug all the corresponding locations into Google Maps Engine.
  • Step 2: Create an elegant map.

  • Step 3: Turn your elegant map into an elegant itinerary.

  • Step 4: In the words of Homer Simpson, paint the town red… with savings!

Consolidate your gift cards with Gyft for iPhone and Android


(Photo via iTunes)

Gyft, which is in cahoots with Big Gift Card, lets you upload your gift cards into the app itself, which can then be scanned by participating retailers. The upshot: You don’t have to carry around the cards to use them, which is a beautiful thing. It also lets you buy and trade participating gift cards within its walled garden, and for those who love point systems, it has one of those too. On average it looks like $1,000 worth of app usage gets you a $10 e-voucher, so happy hunting.

Squeeze every last cent out of your “open loop” gift cards

“Open loop” gift cards, which are most often just prepaid Visa or American Express cards, are the best cards of all in one way: They work anywhere. Unfortunately, they come with a strange set of limitations: restaurants, gas pumps, hotels, car rental agencies, and some other places, won’t let you drain one of these cards completely. I took a prepaid Visa card out to a fine French restaurant one time and despite having enough money on it, it got rejected. Their computer assumed if I spent everything I had, that I wouldn’t tip.

The rationale for this embarrassing ordeal is that prepaid cards have an entire other life as a convenient and nonjudgemental alternative to credit cards for the credit-challenged. Payment systems are treating you like a deadbeat (whether this is a nice way to treat the credit-challenged is fodder for another blog post), rather than assuming you may well have a wallet full of perfectly valid credit cards to pay the rest of your bill. In an unpredictable, and not entirely transparent set of situations, payment systems will put a small hold on your card, use most of the rest of your card, and then leave you with a few dollars that are pretty hard to get rid of.

Some of these come with an app that lets you track how much is left on the card. These apps can actually be useful for revealing such holds.


Side Note: Tracking the amount of money you have left on a card in this way is similar to the elaborate world you can be pulled into when you register your Starbucks card online, which is definitely a way to go. It gets you secret deals, and is a must if, like my dad, you get a thrill from earning loyalty points.


When you’re down to $2.50 left on a card, that card might start collecting serious dust, because redeeming $2.50 is not exactly the most thrilling way to use a gift. Some transaction systems might further chop your $2.50, into $1.50 and a $1 hold. If you have a low utility bill, Visa’s prepaid card FAQ says paying bills is a good way to use those last bits of gift card value without anyone putting a hold on your card. If you simply don’t have the patience for all this, do what I did:

Move 97.25 percent of your gift card money into your bank account with Square!


(Photo via Candid Giggles)

You’ve used Square to pay with a credit card at a trendy coffee shop. But did you know that Square dongles are free, and work on your Android or iOS device? This means when someone gives me a prepaid gift card for $50, what they’ve really done is put $48.62 in my checking account —and given $1.38 to the good folks at square, thanks to a 2.75 percent transaction fee— because I like simplicity. I’m told that if you do this too often, your Square account will get flagged, because it resembles something like a money laundering scam or worse.

Simply charge yourself the full value of the card, swipe your gift card through your own Square dongle, sign for it, and the money will appear in your account the following business day.

Other ways to turn gift cards into cash


We once just had eBay for this, but we now have myriad online marketplaces for gift cards. I won’t endorse any of these, because I haven’t actually used them, and even the reputable ones look a little sketchy, but Lauren Goode at AllthingsD just wrote an elaborate piece about this, in which she filtered,, and the now-defunct right out, and focused her attention on the apparently more trustworthy, and Her conclusion: these places all get you a sale price nominally below the stated value of your card, perhaps only by $1, and they also take a commission of around 15 percent. I suggest using Gyft instead if possible.

According to a piece from a few years ago in The New York Times, ten percent of gift card value goes unredeemed in a phenomenon industry insiders call “breakage.” In 2007, Best Buy alone made $16 million dollars from this unredeemed gift card cash. I don’t know if any of the high-tech solutions I just outlined appeal to you, but for a savings conscious person like me, the idea of corporations making all this money for nothing gets me more irritated than a person has any right to be. So for my sake, don’t let “breakage” happen to you!

Mike Pearl is a news contributor for VICEGristDeathandtaxesmag and others. He takes public transportation and the vegetarian option when possible.


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