How Do I Use Promotional Gift Cards?

Gift Card Girlfriend answers the gift card questions you’ve been asking.

Companies are increasingly turning to gift cards to reward loyal customers, new customers, top employees and so on. I bet you’ve even received a reward card recently. Though they go by different names–prepaid debit card, reward card, promotional credit card, prepaid gift card, etc.–from a customer standpoint, these cards work similarly. The most important thing to know about promotional gift cards is that they come with restrictions that aren’t legally allowed on regular gift cards. Below are my tips on how to successfully use promotional gift cards.

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1. Activate the Card Immediately

If gift card needs to be activated, then log into the website or dial the number listed on the back of the card and get it done quickly. If there’s a PIN number to be obtained, do that as well. A card that hasn’t been activated will not be accepted at the cash register.

2. Check When Gift Card is Valid

Unlike regular gift cards (the kind you buy to give to friends and family), promotional gift cards often have a window of usability. That means they might have an expiration date and, possibly, a “not good until” date as well. Check when the gift card is valid and use it as soon as possible. Gift cards that expire are not likely to be replaced. Put the card in your wallet next to the debit and credit cards you use most often so you remember to use it. (Read “5 Tricks to Help You Remember Your Gift Cards” for other suggestions.)

3. Track the Balance

If your card is issued by a bank (e.g. Visa® Reward Card), then keep track of the balance because you’ll have to tell a cashier how much to charge the card. If you don’t know the dollar amount available, you risk charging too much and having the transaction declined or charging too little and being stuck with a card that only has a few bucks left.

4. Read Transaction Instructions

I received a prepaid debit card from my utility company that said it needed to be processed as a “credit” transaction. A reward card I received from my cell phone company said I could process it as a “debit” transaction if I used the PIN provided. Check out the rules of your card before attempting to use it.

5. Spend it All in One Transaction

To avoid missing the usability window and worrying about the balance, use the card immediately and all at once. If you don’t have a pressing need, then use the prepaid gift card to buy another gift card that doesn’t have restrictions. For example, if you receive a five dollar MasterCard® Reward Card that is only good for three months, use it to buy a five dollar Amazon e-gift card, then apply the e-gift to your Amazon account. When you shop later, the five dollar credit will be waiting.

6. Split Tender if Needed

If the purchase you’re making is greater than the value of the gift card, ask the cashier if you can complete the transaction with two forms of payment, called “split tender.” Use the full value of the promotional gift card first, then pay the balance of the bill with another payment option.

7. Pick the Right Stores

While I don’t endorse any one particular store, I do find that cashiers at well-established merchants or nationwide chains are prepared (or their payment processing systems are more versatile and up-to-date) and able to handle whatever payment method I throw at them. The cashiers at my local Target store, for example, do a great job of accepting reward cards, split-tender payment, bank-issued gift cards, and more. Local shops that don’t run the same amount or variety of cards sometimes struggle. My success at using reward cards online also varies depending on the flexibility of the website’s shopping cart.

8. Get out a Permanent Marker

In this day of technology, it may surprise you to learn that a permanent marker may be the best tool to help you successfully use a promotional gift card. When you activate the card, write the dollar amount, valid dates and transaction requirements on the front of the card. If you receive any other special instructions, write those down as well. Having this information handy when you get to the register and want to use the card could be the difference between whisking through the checkout line versus waiting for a manager to be called. Trust me, I’ve done both.

If this all sounds overly complex, I promise it isn’t. Using reward cards used to pose quite a challenge because cashiers didn’t know how to redeem them and cash registers weren’t technically able to do so either. But that has changed. All you really need to know now is how much money is on the card and when you’re allowed to use it. The rest of the shopping experience is up to you.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Gift Card Girlfriend

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