A few years ago, when we wanted to find the perfect gift for an elderly friend living in our apartment complex, we thought a $100 gift certificate to this local spa would be much appreciated.

It was, except for one thing. This woman thanked us, saying she looked forward to a relaxing experience, then put away the gift certificate and never used it. She let it expire.

It was a hundred dollars down the drain. This was a kind of mini-imitation of the way that governments often spend our money. I’d like to think that this was an extraordinary occurrence. But it really isn’t here in the United States.

Millions Pay Billons for Nada

Millions of people like our neighbor subsidize some of the biggest companies in America. They buy services through gift cards, then ask nothing back in return.

That’s because they never cash in gift cards or store credits. Others wait so long that an inactivity charge reduces card value. The collective gift/card store credit amount is $20 billion. Those numbers are according to a new survey by Bankrate.com.

How Much on Average? A Lot

That’s about $167 for every adult American in unused gift card or store credit.

“I have to admit these amounts are amazing. People are just getting these cards and then forgetting about them,” says Ted Rossman, a Bankrate card industry analyst.

Rossman says some corporations have “billions of dollars in unused value. Perhaps they should be in banking,” he adds. But it begins with customers in no hurry to collect.

“Gift cards don’t take up much space in a drawer, but that doesn’t mean you should let them sit forever,” adds Charles H. Thomas, financial planner and founder of Intrepid Eagle Finance.

Lots of Different People Blow Money

The Bankrate study found the policy of let’s pay and get nada crosses many different lines.

For instance, 22 percent of respondents say the unused credits range in value from $50 to $99, twenty one percent between $100 and $199, fourteen percent between $200 and $499 and five percent have unused credits of $500 or more, according to Bankrate.

Millennials tend to have the biggest unused credits—about $234—compared to Baby Boomers, $151, Generation Xers, $128, and Generation Zers, $103. And those with an annual income of $80,000 or more are the most likely to have unused value, the study said.

Your Money Is Dripping Away

“According to the 2009 Card Act,” the Bankrate study said, “an issuer can charge a monthly inactivity fee pulled from your card’s balance on gift cards that have gone unused for a year or more. You do, though, have five years from activation until your gift card can legally expire.”

However, this doesn’t have to go on; you can be a smart consumer even if you don’t want to use that gift certificate at a certain store. Indeed. there are ways to stop subsidizing big companies besides just using your gift card or unused store credit.

Rossman says some sites will buy the unused value on cards of about sixty cents on the dollar. Rossman says some of these sites include Cardpool.com, CardsCash.com and GiftCardSpread.com.

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Gregory Bresiger
Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent financial journalist from Queens, New York. His articles have appeared in publications such as Financial Planner Magazine and The New York Post. The eBook version of his latest book "MoneySense" is available now for Free Download by clicking HERE

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