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12 budget-friendly gift card and cash gift hacks

Inside: Avoid the budget freak out for the holidays with these smart hacks for gift cards! Here are the “gotchas” you need to know about … and the hacks for getting the most out of your budget when giving cash gifts and gift cards.

As a single mom in college, I made it my survival mission to stretch my dollars (and pennies) as far as they could reach. I worked my deal magic during the holidays the most. Sniffing out deals like a bloodhound enabled me to give thoughtful, lavish gifts on a Top Ramen budget.

Enter gift cards and cash gifts.

gift cards and candy canes on green striped wrapping paper

When the whole family started asking for gift cards and cash, my deal-working magic fell flat.

How can you give gift cards or cash on a budget? It's not like gift cards go on sale, right?

My heart pounding, I’d check my bank balance with one eye closed. A $20 gift card costs $20. And is $20 enough for a gift?

I was paralyzed by the fear of appearing cheap.

Whoever said, “It’s not the gift, but the thought that matters” never gave a gift to a teenager. As they gingerly pick up their gift from under the tree I’d swiftly look away to escape the scathing judgment of their half-mast eyes as they open a wimpy $20 gift card. I’d suck up the last available credit on my cards, scrounge for change in the bottom of the dryer, and eat beans for the next month to avoid the stinging embarrassment of not giving “enough”.

This post may contain affiliate links – if you click and buy we may earn a commission from the seller without any extra cost to you. I am not a financial professional and this post is not financial advice. I am sharing my experience.

Resenting people who ask for cash and gift cards

My lip would snarl into a Grinchy grimace whenever anyone was selfish enough to ask for a gift card or money. Who do they think they are? Don't they know I’m a single mom barely scraping by with just two nickels a month?

Then my mother-in-law sent me a huge box for Christmas, filled with billowy plus size clothes in flowered pink prints from the PX, the military base store. I usually wear black. BLACK!
I couldn’t get onto a military base to return or exchange the huge box of clothes. I donated them straight to Goodwill, tags on and all.

The waste of it all got to me:

  • Wasted money
  • A waste of effort
  • Wasting time

I started asking gift cards the next year. And I’m not alone …

Most popular gift idea: gift cards

Gift cards have been the most popular item on wish lists for 12 years in a row. It's no wonder we're all struggling with our holiday budgets!

graph of gifts consumers would like to receive in 2018

In an October 2018 holiday shopping survey, 60% of consumers said they want gift cards or gift certificates as gifts. According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF), gift cards were the 2nd most popular gift, with most people expecting to purchase 3-4 gift cards for people on their list in 2020. 

Why gift cards are popular gifts

Everyone is tired of getting re-gifts, clearance deals, and that ugly sweater Aunt Gertrude made as gifts.

Reasons why gift cards are popular gifts:

  • People want experiences, not things
  • Gift cards allow people to choose what they want
  • Returns are difficult
  • Being discovered as “cheap” is embarrassing

Let's dive into each of these issues:

Experiences over things

As a busy mom, I would rather create memories with my kids than buy them gifts that add more clutter to their rooms and my house. Experiences like movie night, theme park passes, and airline travel can be gifted with gift cards.

Gifting experiences is preferred by people looking for a simpler, modern lifestyle, like millennials and minimalists.

People “enjoy greater well-being from life experiences and consider them to be a better use of money”, according to a recent study by San Francisco State University.

Giving an experience is more intimate because you need to know more about a person to gift a vacation or theme park pass to them rather than giving them a coffee mug. If “it’s thought that counts”, how much more thoughtful can you be than giving an experience?

gift card mall at Lowe's store

Get them what they want

One of my friends asks for Disney gift cards all year long. She saves them up to buy her annual pass every year.

My nephew asks for gift cards so he can use them as needed. He doesn't need headphones now but when this set breaks, he'll use the Best Buy card we gave him to replace them.

Reasons people ask for gift cards:

  • Buy their own gift
  • Saving them for a larger purchase
  • Saving them for a sale or later purchase
  • Using them to buy gifts for other people
  • Selling them

Yes, people sell the gift cards they get as gifts in order to get the cash. Ask why they want the gift card to find out if they'd be happier with cash.

Got cash gifts on your list? Keep reading because I’m gonna be sharing my budget-friendly hacks for cash gifts too!

Key takeaway: People want gift cards as gifts so they can get what they really want.

Returns are a PITA (and I don't mean the bread)

Remember the waiting room scene in Beetlejuice? Bad music, a bunch of weirdos, and waiting literally forever? That’s what it’s like waiting in the return line after the holidays. Don’t wish that on your friends and family! Well, at least not on the ones you like.

Here’s why returns are the 7th circle of hell:

Some items can't be returned:

  • the retailer went out of business (hello, all my Sears purchases in 2018!)
  • it's handmade or one-of-a-kind
  • it's personalized
  • item was on clearance or seasonal and is disallowed from returns or exchanges
gift cards and candy canes on green strip background

Getting to the store can be a challenge

My extended family lives on a ranch in a remote, rural area. Walmart is an hour away. Target is over 100 miles away. It would cost more in gas to make a return than they’d get back.

I'd rather give a gift card to them than some item that will go straight to their small town swap meet because it's too much of a hassle to return or exchange for what they really want.

It’s crowded

People are STILL shopping for deals after the holidays. Stores are crowded and lines are long.

Shipping for online returns is almost impossible

Most retailers have a shipping deadline for holiday returns and you have to cover shipping costs yourself. Again, it's easier to toss the gift than return it in some cases.

Skip all the returns hassle and just gift cash or gift cards. Give them what they want!

Minimize embarrassment

Give a gift you got a deal on and you'll feel on top of the world. They politely accept it. When they return the gift with a gift receipt they discover you paid $7.64 for the incredible $100 blender you gifted. Now you're embarrassed and they get a $7.64 credit on a paper in-store gift card. Lame.

Skip the embarrassment by giving them a gift card to a store they love. Everyone knows the value. Everyone knows what you spent. No one has to wait in a return line. Or get stuck with a paper gift card to a store they won't ever shop at.

How do you give gift cards without busting your budget and losing your mind?

Giving gift cards is no fun. Hand over a greeting card and they know what's inside. Feign excitement, pretend-read the words inside the card, and make a mushy face to show gratitude for the cash or gift card they knew they were getting. This is a zero-joy game on all sides.

But does it have to be that way?

I've collected over 120 creative ways to give gift cards that induce side-splitting laughter for the giftee, the gifter, and everyone else watching!

On that post, the number one question I get asked is, “How do I get gift cards or give cash without blowing my budget?”

1. Can you get gift cards free?

What if you could get gift cards cheap or for “free”? Take the pain out of giving cash gifts?

The first step is you need a plan, Stan. A plan to give gift cards and cash without busting your tiny gift budget or blowing the kids' college fund to smithereens.

Grab this free printable checklist to help you plan how to maximize your gift card purchases this holiday season. Don’t worry, it’s free!

Signup box to get 2 free gift checklists

Buying gift cards like a boss

Giving cash and gift cards can make a painful dent in your wallet. Gift cards don't usually go “on sale”. You can't get a deal on cash money. Cash is cash is cash.

But you can make the most of your gift card or cash giving experience with these expert gift-card-giving tips that I've discovered over the years. I use these tips to feel like a gift card boss-babe all year long!

2. Use credit card points to buy gift cards

I have a credit card that earns points on my purchases all year long. Every month they have a special on a variety of gift cards.

I let my points amass on the account until I see a deal for the gift cards I know my friends and family will want for gifts.

For example, right now I can get a $100 gas gift card for 10,000 points instead of 11,500. Cost to me? $0. My nephew and daughter always need gas!

I’ve gotten gift cards for major retailers like Best Buy, Starbucks, Target and more through this rewards program. My dad’s eyes bugged out when I gave him a $100 Best Buy card for Father’s Day. I was happier than a clam knowing the gift cost $0 for me!

3. Buy gift cards with a credit card that earns miles

You can purchase gift cards at most retail locations with a major credit card. Use a credit card that will earn airline miles when you purchase gift cards, saving you money on future travel.

4. Earn rewards from frequent Shopper programs

Shop for gift cards at stores that have a store rewards program.

Earn up to 5% on your gift card purchase at BestBuy through the Best Buy Elite Rewards program.

Get rewards points on gift card purchases at Staples that you can use to get that new planner you've been eyeing.

5. Double up on deals for more savvy savings

For example, purchase a gift card at BestBuy with your Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card. As a Best Buy Rewards Elite member, you earn 5% on the purchase plus earn a mile for every dollar you spend on the Southwest card.

Think about ways you can stack credit card and store programs to your advantage.

cashback on credit card used for Christmas

6. Get gift cards with cash back credit cards

I use a cash back credit card for all of my household purchases all year long. I let the cash back accrue on the card until Christmas time. Then I use that fat stack of cash back to buy my gift cards. It's literally free money!

A warning about credit cards

Pay off your credit card on time every month to avoid interest charges and late fees. I don't recommend using credit cards unless you are disciplined enough to pay it off and use them responsibly. But if you are disciplined, then you can make the credit card companies work for you!

7. If you don’t ever want credit cards … do this!

I get it. I swore off credit cards for many years. And if you’re a follower of Dave Ramsay, credit cards are a no-no.

Consider getting a Target REDCard, a debit card you use exclusively at Target. It’s connected to your checking account and allows you to save %5 on every purchase made at Target and Target.com with the card.

While you won't be stacking cash back on your card every month, you will be saving 5% on your purchases, which can free up some of the money in your budget to go to Christmas gifts.

OPEN your Target REDCard online right now:

8. Earn gift cards free

Use apps to earn gift cards for free.

Play games for money or gift cards. Find a game you love to play and earn freebies or cash while playing.

Or use shopper apps from your favorite stores to earn gift cards or rewards you can use towards gift cards.

Imagine if you could buy something you were gonna buy anyways and *poof*!, you get a free gift card at checkout. That’s how Target’s coupons work.

Here’s where to find the “free gift card with purchase” info:

  • your weekly Target flyer, in the mail or posted at the entrance to the store
  • Target app
  • at checkstands, the coupons are usually posted on the partition behind the cash register

Here’s how to get your “free gift card with purchase” deals:

  1. Check the Target App, checkstand, or weekly Target flyer for “free gift card with purchase” deals on items you’d normally buy.
  2. Buy the items
  3. Read the fine print to make sure you bought the correct items
  4. The cash register should automatically stop the associate from checking you out and prompt them to generate the free gift card. If it doesn’t happen when they scan the last item you needed for the deal, stop them and ask them to check on the deal for you
  5. Separate your “free gift card with purchase” items from the rest of your order to make it easier to check that the gift generates correctly. Don’t worry about being “extra”; Target associates will gladly check out your multiple orders without judgment.

9. Restaurant Holiday Gift Card Deals

During the holidays you can earn free gift cards when purchasing a certain amount of gift cards at restaurants like IHOP, Olive Garden, and Chili's.

IHOP is offering a free $5 bonus coupon when you buy $25 in gift cards.

bonus gift card deal at Olive Garden

Olive Garden offers a free $10 gift card with the purchase of a $50 gift card.

How it works:

Go to a restaurant you'd eat at anyways. Buy the gift cards before your meal, earn the free gift card, and use the gift cards you just bought to pay for your meal.

Now you just got a free gift card doing something you would have done anyways!

Our last meal at Olive Garden for our family of 4 (2 adults, two teens) was $72. We could have gotten two $50 gift cards with our cash back credit card and earned points on the purchase, earned $20 in free gift cards to use for a gift, paid for our meal with the $50 gift cards, and used the remaining balance for a lunch next week. It's all about strategerie, friends.

10. Where to get discount gift cards

Yes, there are places where you can buy gift cards at a discount! Check out these sites:

  • GiftCardGranny.com – get discount gift cards
  • Cardpool.com – gift card exchange where you can sell your gift cards and buy gift cards at a discount. Sell your gift cards to recoup the cash. Buy new gift cards to gift, with no money out of pocket.
  • Knoji – ask people who love shopping to find deals for you!
  • RetailMeNot – just be careful to verify that the deal is legit first
  • Target App – yes, Target has run sales on gift cards, most recently in December 2018 with 10% off gift cards up to $300!

Be sure to check the fine print on these deals.

We recently scored $1800 in Target gift cards for 10% off, $1620 total. The fine print for the deal said “one per household”, online and in-store, for 10% off up to $300 in gift cards. After going in-store we realized the stores were not enforcing a household limit.

We bought six $300 gift cards for 10% off, saving $180! Using a credit card that earns cash back we also earned $24.30 on the purchase. That’s a net of $204.30 in benefits!

For gift cards you'll use as gifts, you could split the gift cards into any denomination at purchase, as long as the total for each purchase was under $300. For example, buy five $20 gift cards for $90 instead of the $100 face value.

11. Maximize your gift card buys

Double dip by using the cash back from your credit card to make your gift card purchase.

Triple dip by also using a store rewards program for the purchase.

I do this trick to buy gift cards all year long!

  • Go to a store like BestBuy or Target that has a rewards program for all purchases
  • Select the gift card you want to buy (they have a whole rack of cards from tons of other stores, restaurants, and movie theaters)
  • Make sure the amount is less than the cash back you have available on your credit card
  • Buy the card with your cash back credit card
  • Apply the cash back to your credit card balance for the amount you spent on the gift card

Now your gift cards were “free” AND you earned cash back through your credit card plus 5% rewards from BestBuy. If that doesn't make you excited, kick yourself in the shin!

12. Spend $0 on Christmas

Using these tips this year, I've earned loads of free flights, $750 in cash back, over $300 just this year in Best Buy Rewards, and over $500 in free gift cards from my points credit card. My Christmas shopping cost me $0 out of pocket.

Yes, I said I spent $0 on Christmas thanks to my credit card and gift card magic!

You can do this too! Subscribe to my list and get my free gift card checklist in your first email.

Signup box to get 2 free gift checklists

Be sure to check the program terms to make sure that you are earning points and Rewards on your gift card purchases.

What types of gift cards should you give?

graph types of gift cards consumers plan to purchase 2018

Here are the most popular gift cards, in order:

  1. Restaurant
  2. Department Store
  3. Pre-paid credit card (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc)
  4. Coffee Shop
  5. Entertainment
  6. Online Merchant
  7. Electronic Store
  8. Book Store
  9. Grocery Store
  10. Gas Station

If you are not sure which type of gift card to give, you can be pretty safe with a gift card in the top 4.

Tips for giving cash

Cash gifts can be boring to give. Twenty bucks is $20. Make giving cash more fun with these tips:

Go inside the bank

You can give five $20 bills or you can give one hundred $1 bills. What do you think is more fun to open?!

Go inside the bank to make with your withdrawals. The teller will give you your cash in whatever denominations you like. Want $100 in pennies? I hope you brought a dolly or wheelbarrow!

You'll need coins, coin rolls, and small bills for the best cash gift giving ideas.

Save coins all year

Pay cash and save your coin change all year long. I keep mine in an adorable rubber ducky shaped “piggy bank”. As you need a cash gift, roll the coins with paper rollers from the dollar store and turn them in for cash at the bank.

Stockpile dollar bills the same way. Try paying cash. Then every time you get a dollar bill in your change, store it in a safe place until you need those Washingtons for a gift.

Get rare bills and coins like $2 bills and dollar coins

I'm giddy every time I get a half dollar, dollar coin, or $2 bill. Save these to include with your cash gift!

Sell your stuff

If you have stuff you no longer want, the holidays are a great time to offload it for some extra cash money. Bonus points for a less cluttered home.

Here are two posts to help you get started:

These tips will make you the best gifting-maven your family has ever seen! Avoid ho-hum gift reactions by wrapping your gift cards and cash gifts in unique, creative ways.

Make giving gift cards and cash gifts more magical with these ideas:

Download the gift card planner:

Signup box to get 2 free gift checklists

The Bottom Line:

These tips will make you the best gifting-maven your family has ever seen, even when they ask for cash or gift cards. Avoid ho-hum gift reactions by wrapping your gift cards and cash gifts in unique, creative ways.

Spend $0 on Christmas but get everyone on your list what they want? 

Sign up for my Christmas Hacker challenge!

You'll learn how to:

  • earn $500+ cash back all year long on everything you buy
  • get FREE gift cards!
  • find discounts on gift cards
  • give cash gifts without attacking your savings account

Discover the exact steps that my family takes each year to spend $0 out of pocket on Christmas but get everyone gifts like top of the line makeup, Nintendo Switch, and Adidas shoes!

Want in?

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long pin graphic for 12 gift card hacks on a budget

About the Author

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Jennifer Priest is a 20+ year designer in the arts & crafts industry and home DIYer with a passion for creativity. An Army veteran raised on a ranch, from her experience, she shares smart DIY projects that save money and fun craft ideas that anyone can make. Besides blogging, Jennifer is a Master Practitioner and Trainer of NLP, Hypnosis, and MER, and coaches other online entrepreneurs on money mindset, business, and living an intentional life. When not blogging, Jennifer is having adventures in the wilderness, on road trips, playing with her cats, and making paleo food.

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