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How Do You Buy a GIFT with a Gift Card?

The key to buying a gift with a gift card is knowing where the card can be redeemed, how much is on the card and what you’ll do with excess funds.

Before debit cards, we paid for purchases with “cash, check or charge.” (Seriously, did you know we used to write checks at the grocery store to buy milk and bread? Hardly anybody does that anymore.) Then debit cards came along, making it easy to spend money in our checking accounts without having to write the physical checks or stop by an ATM en route to a favorite store or restaurant. Now we have gift cards (and even egift cards). Simple as they are to use, there are a few steps you can take to make buying gifts with a gift card even easier, and it all starts before you get to the store.

To make shopping with gift cards easier than ever, check the balance on the card, determine where the card can be redeemed and decide what to do with any left over funds (or have additional money on hand the purchase amount is greater than the balance of the gift card).

1. Find Out Where the Gift Card Can be Redeemed

If you have a universal gift card such as a Visa® or Mastercard® gift card, then the card is redeemable almost anywhere. You can use these cards online, in stores and by phone wherever Visa or Mastercard debit cards are accepted. If, on the other hand, you have a gift card to a store or restaurant, then you’ll want to look at the back of the card to see if there are any restrictions on where the gift card can be used. Can it be used online? Must it be used in a store? Is the gift card redeemable at all locations or only specific ones? Find out where you can redeem the gift card before attempting to use it buy a gift.

2. Check the Balance

Before you load up your shopping cart with things you want to buy, find out how much money is left on the gift card so you know how much to spend. This is especially important if you’ve had the gift card for a while, because the balance may not be what you expect or remember. Bank-issued gift cards, for example, often have non-use fees that can deplete the value of a gift card over time. If you haven’t checked the balance in a while, you might be surprised by the remaining amount. This can also happen with a merchant gift card, but for a different reason. I once pulled out a gift card that I’d had in my wallet for months, thinking that I’d never used it. When I discovered the card only had a few dollars left on it, I remembered having spent the majority of the funds shortly after receiving the card. Don’t let that happen to you.

3. Have a Second Form of Payment Handy

When you get to the cash register, hand the gift card to the cashier to pay for your items, but be ready to submit a second form of payment if the gift card balance will not cover the entire bill. Since you know the balance of the gift card, there should be no surprises.

Sometimes, however, gift cards with adequate funds get declined at restaurants, gas stations and other service merchants where a final sale total isn’t known until the full transaction is complete. For example, when your lunch bill totals $30, you’re still expected to pay that amount plus a gratuity. Many older credit card processing systems will automatically run a gift card for 20% over the bill amount to be sure the card will cover the anticipated tip. In this example, a gift card with $35 on it may be declined–even though you clearly have enough to cover the initial total. If this happens, ask the cashier to run what is called a split-tender transaction–taking $35 off your gift card first, then paying the balance of the bill with cash or another form of payment. (Read here to find out other reasons why gift cards get declined.)

4. Use the Full Value

If at all possible, use the full value of the gift card when you redeem it the first time. The danger in not using it all at once is that you may forget to use the remaining balance entirely, leaving the money to escheat to the state, the store or somebody else except you–the person who was supposed to use the gift card to buy a gift in the first place. Or, like me, you could forget that you’d used most of the card’s value already and come up short next time you try to use it to make a purchase. Personally, I’d rather buy something extra than hold onto a gift card that only has a few dollars on it. (In California, state gift card laws require merchants to cash out gift cards under $10. That’s even better than buying something you don’t need.)

Truthfully, this may seem like a lot to remember, but you really shouldn’t have to. Unlike the days when cash and check ruled the checkout line, I’ve found that most cashiers are completely proficient in handling all sorts of gift card transactions. Hand over a plastic card and the clerk is ready to swipe. Present an egift card on your smartphone and he or she will know just what to do. Need to check the balance? No problem. There’s a website on the back of the card that you can check or the cashier may be able to do it for you. So don’t stress over using a gift card to buy a gift–find out where you can use it, check the balance on the card and then get ready to shop. If you run into any problems, the cashier will mostly be able to help.

Let me know if you have other gift card questions or need gift card help. You can leave a note in the comments or reach me at @GCGirlfriend on Twitter.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Gift Card Girlfriend

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