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Why billions of dollars in gift cards go unused every year

SALT LAKE CITY — Gift cards tend to show up at the top of major surveys of people asked what they want for Christmas or other special occasions.

Whether you love them or lean on them in a pinch, make sure you USE them. Most of us do not, according to new data shared with the KSL Investigators.

According to Bankrate, 51 percent of U.S. adults have unused gift cards, and the average person is leaving $116 on the table, which adds up to around $15.3 billion nationwide.

“It is a lot of money for sure,” said Bankrate’s Ted Rossman.

People surveyed say they planned to use their gift cards, ya know, eventually. But if and when that happens, many will be sad to learn that it’s too late.

Half of our cards have lost value because one expired, or we lost it, or the store went out of business — and some gift cards have fees, slowly draining them down to nothing.

So why are so many going unused?

Rossman said it’s largely psychology.

“People think that gift cards are a little bit of a like: heads, the store wins, tails, you lose,” he said.

Meaning, either you don’t use all of it, so you’re leaving money on the table, or the gift card isn’t enough, so you end up having to spend money at a place you may otherwise not have visited.

Others may feel it makes them look cheap if they throw down a gift card, rather than a credit card — especially at a restaurant, when many are struggling to get back on their feet post-pandemic.

“It was a real pandemic talking point about: ‘Hey, let’s support our local restaurants and other businesses by pre-paying for services and it gets cash flow now,” Rossman said.

If you’re not going to spend it, consider selling it. There are a handful of online gift card exchanges.

“You normally take a little bit of a haircut on the price, maybe you’ll get 80 or 85 percent of what it’s worth,” Rossman said.

Most stores allow you to trade in old, unused gift cards for new ones.

In Utah, it is a violation of the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act to issue a gift certificate that has an expiration date, without disclosing the expiration date on the gift certificate or its packaging.

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