Don't buy just because you have a gift card

It seems contradictory: Yes, you want to use that gift card quickly, but you don't want to buy just to buy.

If you really want to make a smart purchase, "wait for something that you actually really need or want," says Mendelsohn.

Still stuck with an aging gift card and don't know what to buy? Or maybe the card isn't to a store you love?

Either re-gift the card or use it to buy a present for someone else, Mendelsohn says. And take the money you free up and treat yourself.

"It's a great way to not spend your own money," she says.

Gift cards also make great tools for saving money toward big purchases, says Mendelsohn, adding that her family used the cards to pay for two computers.

"Particularly with kids," it's a great way to impart the lesson of saving for a goal, she says. "Even though it's a gift card, it really teaches them -- you can accumulate and get something really meaningful."

Share a 'heads-up' with e-gift cards

A new twist on gift cards that is really gaining in popularity? Electronic gift cards, Breyault says.

One problem with e-gift cards? Recipients don't always realize what they are. "A lot of times people will receive it and won't even look at it -- they'll assume it's spam, Mendelsohn says.

"So you can pre-empt that by saying, 'I wanted you to have this on your birthday, and I'm sending it, so watch out for it,'" she says.

Want to ensure an e-gift card reaches its destination? Double-check the recipient's email address, Mendelsohn says. A typo or old address can mean your recipient never gets your e-gift card.

Follow up with a note to confirm it actually arrived and was for the correct amount, she says.

What you might not know: All those protections the Credit CARD Act confers on your gift cards apply to e-gift cards, too, Breyault says.

Yes, Virginia, there are gift card thieves

It's a sad fact: If someone comes up with something cool, someone else figures out how to steal it.

One favorite trick: Scammers copy gift card numbers and check periodically to see if the cards have been activated, says Jay Foley, the principal partner for ID Theft Info Source. When they are, the thieves use the numbers to spend the money loaded on the card.

One way to fight back: Check the balance periodically before you use the card. Some gift card providers allow you to do that through their websites. While you're there, you can also find out what the policies are in cases of loss, theft or fraud.

If you see unexpected activity on your card, report it to the store or the gift card issuer. In some cases, you may also need the receipt from the person who originally paid for the card.

Another strategy: Use the card as soon as you get it, Foley says.

Saving it for something special? Put the pertinent information, plus the receipt (if you have it), in a safe place. If anything happens to the card itself, you have the data you're likely to need if the issuer will replace it.

Keep it fun

"Gift cards are terrific because they allow people to buy what they want," Mendelsohn says. "But a gift card can seem like a thoughtless gift if you don't let them know that you care."

So include a note telling recipients why you wanted them to have this gift, she says. Or get creative with the presentation. Two of her favorites:

  • Gifting your child's teacher with a $10 Starbucks gift card? Wrap it in a coffee mug.
  • Giving a card to someone who's saving for something special? Print a picture of the goal, and fasten that to the top of the box.

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Chances are, Mendelsohn says, there's a very good reason you wanted the recipients to have this particular gift card. It may be for a restaurant, product or store they love or for something they really want to buy. "At least connect the dots for them," she says.

You can be creative with gift cards in many ways, she adds. One of her favorites for bar and bat mitzvah gifts is an inexpensive wallet with a handful of gift cards to favorite places. The gift cards can be for movie theaters, clothing stores, coffee shops, music retailers or computer gaming stores, among other places.

"Kids love that -- it's a treat," Mendelsohn says. "And parents are thrilled."