Some people love them, some people hate them. Worse, a large number of us who receive them on special occasions are indifferent to them, or even forget about them entirely.
Such is the sad fate of gift cards – millions of which go unused each year and have a collective value estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Almost two-thirds of American consumers have at least one unspent gift card tucked away in a drawer, pocket, wallet or purse. And at least half of those consumers lose a gift card before they use it, according to a new report from Credit Summit, an online provider of financial advisory services.
The report said there is as much as $21 billion of unspent money tied up in unused and lost gift cards. Of those surveyed, a majority of respondents said their unredeemed cards were worth $200 or less.
The Credit Summit report is based on a December 2022 survey of 1,200 consumers aged 16 and older. (Of the respondents, 60% were female, and the income range of those surveyed ranged from less than $25,000 to more than $150,000 per year.)
“Gift cards are extremely popular and almost everyone enjoys getting them. But many people leave them sitting in a drawer to redeem on a special occasion. Use them, don’t save them,” said Rebecca Stumpf, an editor with Credit Summit.
“If someone has given you a gift card, they want you to spend the money,” she said.
A separate study on gift card usage found the average amount on unused gift cards last year was $175 per person, up from $116 in 2021.
“I thought with high inflation, people would go to town with their gift cards. but I was surprised,” said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst with CreditCards.com and Bankrate.com.
According to a July 2022 survey of 2,372 US adults conducted by CreditCards.com, 47% of respondents said they have at least one unused gift card voucher or store credit.
So why aren’t we using up what people have taken the trouble to give us?
“Inertia is a big factor,” said Rossman. “Sometimes the gift card is for a store that you don’t particularly like or it’s not convenient to go there.”
Still, ignoring the gift of free money is unwise, he said.
“They’re not going to get more valuable over time; it’s the exact opposite, as inflation eats away at the value. And the longer you hold onto these unused gift cards, the more likely you are to lose them or forget about them or have the store go out of business,” said Rossman.
Some Visa, Mastercard and American Express gift cards add penalties if they’re not used in a specific period of time, said Stumpf. Under federal law, however, a gift card cannot expire until at least five years from the date it was activated; the law also places general limitations on fees for dormant cards.
And if you just don’t want to be bothered with the card you received, there are some easy fixes there, too. “There are several websites on which you can sell or exchange them,” said Rossman.