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The answer to gift-card bulge

Got a wallet full of promissory plastic, or a handful of half-used cards in your desk? Technology can help.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 2, 2013 4:04PM

Logo: Woman sitting on steps with smartphone (Image Source, Image Source, Getty Images)Did you get any gift cards for Christmas? Lucky you. Maybe you ran right out and spent them, or traded them for cold, hard cash.

But maybe you consigned them to a wallet that's already bulging with partially used and/or forgotten plastic scrip. Or maybe you tossed them in a dresser drawer for "later."

(You wouldn't be the only one: My daughter found several such cards almost a year after I put them in her Christmas stocking  -- and she found them purely by chance.)


Unused cards are at risk for two reasons: 

  • Spillage. That's the industry term for cards that get lost or forgotten. Of course, you can carry them with you but that makes your wallet kind of unwieldy. It also subjects you to . . . .
  • Theft. "If you lose your wallet or it's stolen, there go your gift cards," says Scott Gamm of Help Save My Dollars.  

Should your cards go missing, there’s only a 33% chance of their being replaced by the retailer, according to this MSN Money article. No law requires issuers to offer compensation -- and many of those who do require a receipt or other proof of purchase.

A simple solution exists.

That is, if you have a smartphone: Download a free app that will keep all your gift cards in one place. Apps like GoWallet, ClutchGyft, Tango Card and Lemon Wallet corral all your cards so they can be scanned at the cash register.

No more gift-card bulge in your wallet, or the "D'oh!" moment when you realize that once again you forgot to take the cards with you to the mall.

These apps have other functions, such as allowing you to re-gift cards electronically or helping you track deals. However, this article focuses only on the apps' ability to corral your gift card info.

Some of the players

Not all retailers can scan cards directly from your phone, but most can hand-enter the info at the register. However, some might require the original plastic, according to tech writer Jason Cipriani. For example, when he entered a Red Lobster card on Gyft, it indicated the restaurant would "more than likely require (me) to have the physical card."

Here's a quick look at some apps:

: Andrea Eldridge of Nerds On Call likes the app's ability to organize store loyalty cards as well as gift cards.

GoWallet: "It's snappy, responsive, and can really save you a lot of additional room within your wallet," says Luke Patrick of The iPhone App Review.


Gyft: David Pierce, a senior editor at The Verge, like this app's geo-sensitivity. Any time he enters a store or café for which he has a gift card, Gyft emails a reminder. Sometimes an email is triggered if he merely walks past those establishments. In the past "a few dollars (would) just rot away" because Pierce tended to forget card balances.

Tango Card
: Tech writer Gamm is also the forgetful type, so he set a reminder on Tango Card. Now he gets periodic pings reminding him to use up card balances. (It's just as easy to forget a gift card on a phone as in a dresser drawer.)

More on organization

Suppose you lose your phone? According to Pierce, many apps store your card info online; make sure you choose one that does. Whoever finds your cell can't access the material stored on it without a password. That's sort of a moot point since your phone should be password-protected.

(You do have a password, right? If not, stop reading and get one. Seriously.)

If you don't have a smartphone, organize your promissory plastic the old-fashioned way: by making a list of the cards' bar codes and PIN numbers. Yours might be among the 33% of gift cards that are potentially replaceable if lost -- that is, assuming you call to cancel before whoever finds it goes shopping.

You should also register your cards with the retailer that sold them; do this through the websites or by calling the 800 numbers on the card. "If something happens, the retailer can issue you a new one," Gamm says. That is, if the merchant is among the 33% that does make good.

Another option is to use the free gift card registration service offered by ScripSmart, a gift card ratings site. Doing so will get you a monthly email reminding you to use the cards, as well as an alert if a retailer files for bankruptcy.

More on MSN Money:

Jan 8, 2013 9:11PM

Hi there Donna, Thanks for the great post on gift card apps -- there are a lot of great programs and websites out there for managing gift cards, and we hope you enjoy ours. 

One note to Gift Card Girlfriend: You don't ever need to use a Sharpie again by using GoWallet or any of the apps mentioned here. We, of course want you to use, but nonetheless, your days of writing your card balance on the card itself are over. 

Happy New Year, everyone!
-- Samantha Fein, Senior Director, Online Marketing for Blackhawk Network, the makers of GoWallet
Jan 8, 2013 9:10PM
Hi there Donna, Thanks for the great post on gift card apps -- there are a lot of great programs and websites out there for managing gift cards, and we hope you enjoy ours. 

One note to Gift Card Girlfriend: You don't ever need to use a Sharpie again by using GoWallet or any of the apps mentioned here. We, of course want you to use, but nonetheless, your days of writing your card balance on the card itself are over. 

Happy New Year, everyone!
Jan 4, 2013 1:30PM
My nephew, age 10, said he liked gift cards to get things he wanted, he preferred them to cash because with cash his Father made him put some of it in the bank..... I will not get him gift cards again, better that the $$ are part of teaching the kids to save and learn the difference between money and plastic, it is a practice that will serve them well in later life
Go to the store and buy a "money holder" or ask your bank if they stock them.  Around the holidays, some do.  This is a special card sized to hold a bill.  Stick a fifty or hundred in it, say, "Merry Christmas" and make it easy on everyone.  Either that or actually buy a gift.  

I go along with the giftcard bit because people seem to like them, but they make no sense at all.  A carefully selected gift shows thought and appreciation.  Money in a card shows practicality and efficiency.  What does a giftcard show except successful brainwashing of the public?

Unless you get a bonus such as some restaurants add to their cards, there is no point.
Jan 3, 2013 1:09AM
I've definitely got the gift card bulge, and I love it! It means personal shopping without feeling guilty and entertainment for the kids without breaking the budget. I use Tango Card, Go Wallet, and Gyft. I don't need all three, but haven't found a clear winner in best features. So I keep testing them all out.

Another trick is to get out a Sharpie Pen and write the value right on the gift card itself. That way you are never left to wonder how much is available to spend. If you only use part of the value, then update the balance with the pen.  I know it's old-fashioned technology, but it works.

Also, know the laws of your state. For example, I live in California. Gift card balances under $10 can be redeemed for ca**** a great benefit because you can typically spend what you need. If a few dollars are left on the card, just get cash instead. Gift card bulge in wallet up.

Jan 2, 2013 4:32PM

gift cards is a money making machine for all retailers..

most of the gift cards holders NEVER use them.lose them

or they sell them for dirt cheap to some co. or bottom feeders

cheap ppl...those cards are 110% profits to retailers..some co. charge

ppl. monthly fee like 2$ to $4 A MONTH.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.