The holiday season is prime gift-giving time.
But many of us are guilty of turning to gift cards for some people on our shopping list. And we’ve all received gift cards as presents at some point.
They may seem fun at the time. Especially if it’s for a brand you love. But in practical terms, it’s often better to receive cash. That way you can spend it on whatever you need.
A virtual gift card, or a physical, pre-loaded debit card with a balance on it, is perhaps a nice compromise. However, many of these cards won’t allow you to complete transactions that exceed the balance on your card. What can you do about that?
That’s what a listener of the Clark Howard Podcast recently asked.
How Do You Zero Out the Balance on a Virtual Gift Card?
How do you avoid wasting money with a gift card that won’t allow you to make a purchase beyond the remaining balance?
That’s what a listener wondered on the Dec. 20 episode of the podcast.
Asked Kyle in Arizona: “How do I use all the remaining funds I have left on my virtual Visa gift cards? Merchants don’t recognize them as gift cards. And if your purchase is larger than the funds on the Visa card, your transaction will be denied. I have three or four cards with various remaining balances and cannot figure out how to use the remaining funds in full, and I don’t want to throw them away.”
Not being able to zero out your account on a purchase, and then pay for the remaining balance, is an annoyance. But if you want to avoid wasting the money, you have one obvious option: find a way to spend it.
“With a virtual card, make very small purchases until you’ve emptied it out,” Clark says, pointing to eBay, Amazon and Walmart as good options. “If you order something online — food for pickup — you can use a virtual card to pay for that and get the money cleared off.”
Given the choice between a virtual Visa or MasterCard and a physical gift card from the same brands, Clark prefers a physical one. He admits that when he’s down to a few dollars, he uses it for fast food.
“Many people don’t eat bad food like I do,” Clark says. “But shopping online for inexpensive items is the best way I know.”
Paying for a small but exact amount of gas at the counter, if you can use your card in person in a store, is another way you can drain the final dollars and cents.
You may also be able to sell your gift card online, but don’t expect to get dollar-for-dollar compensation. And if the balance is low, it may not be worth the hassle.
Gift Cards: The Breakage Problem
The breakage on gift cards — or the amount of money that people give to companies to buy them that never gets used — is extraordinarily high. It’s difficult to get exact figures. But the general consensus is that between 5 and 10% of gift card money never gets used.
Starbucks claimed $181 million in revenue from unsold gift cards in 2021, for example.
“All the retailers laugh at us behind our backs. Because they make billions of dollars on what the industry does call breakage,” Clark says.
“It’s reported in their financial reports about how much money they make pretending that they’ve given somebody money that they’ve never actually been able to spend easily or at all.”
Spending all the money on your virtual or regular gift card is one way you can push back against this unsatisfying practice.
Gift cards from Visa or MasterCard that are loaded with cash are probably better than gift cards from a specific business. But when your balance gets low, you may get declined for a purchase that’s larger than the money left on the card.
The main way to make sure that money isn’t wasted is by making small purchases until you’ve drained the funds.