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The ultimate tips for holiday tipping on a budget

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, they say, unless you’re talking about your finances.

From a money perspective, the holidays put a huge strain on family bank accounts, especially when all of those extras – like year-end tips – push your budget past its breaking point.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit of giving, or feel pressured into having to financially reward everyone with whom you’ve come in contact.

But while you want to find a way to thank everyone at holiday time, you shouldn’t have to deplete your limited cash reserves to do so.

January (and its fearsome pile of bills) is right around the corner.

That’s why I’ve learned to set aside extra funds to cover all of the holiday tips I want to give and to be a little stingy about who I reward.

Well, put in a more positive way, I’ve become more selective about who gets end-of-year tips or thank-you gifts, and to place reasonable limits on the presents I bestow.

Here’s how I suggest you do that.
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How to Save Money by Buying Gift Cards Online

Starbucks Gift CardWhenever I buy something online, I look to try to reduce the price of the item as much as possible. As a consumer, there are a variety of tools you can use to be a savvier shopper. Most consumers know to use a credit card with at least 1% cash back to reduce the price a small bit. Others shop online to avoid sales tax.

However, one trick I’ve used lately is buying store gift cards on the second hand market. If you’ve seen gift card industry statistics, they’re astonishing. There are billions of dollars lost each year in gift card value and several startups have stepped into the space because they sense an opportunity. The online buying and selling of gift cards is growing and that means opportunity not only for these startups, but savvy consumers.

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 Frugal Living 
comments Gift Certificate Coupon Codes & Tips

I remember when I first heard about a few years ago. Their offer back then is the same as it is now, you can buy a $25 Restaurant gift certificate for $10. Every few weeks, they run a 70% or 80% off promotion where you end up getting a $25 Restaurant gift certificate for two bucks. Two freaking dollars… three if you only use 70% off.

A few years ago, hardly anyone took them. You went on the site, did a quick search for your area, and chances are only a few obscure restaurants were available. When I first looked, I didn’t even recognize a single restaurant in the 15 miles around my zip code! That’s not to say there weren’t any popular restaurants, we just didn’t know about them.

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How to Sell or Trade in Gift Cards

As you may or may not know, I’m not a big fan of gift cards but many people are and many people enjoy both giving and receiving gift cards. However, sometimes you get a card that you don’t really shop at often or a card to a store that simply isn’t in your area, what can you do? There are only two options – sell it or trade it. Fortunately there are websites for both!

I’ll first profile some options if you want to sell your gift cards, then some options if you are willing to trade for another gift card. I’ll also give a brief fee breakdown across the various sites to give you a better sense of how much a transaction would cost. Finally, I put in an order of how I would go about cashing out a gift card in order to maximize return and minimize expenses.

Sell Your Gift Cards

To get the most out of your gift cards, other than by using them, I recommend selling them. The two best options for this are to sell them on eBay or sell them on Craigslist because both marketplaces are very big and the demand is very high.

eBayWith eBay, you’ll have to contend with seller related fees such as a list fee and a final value fee, but you have access to eBay’s marketplace and you’ll get the highest percentage return for your card. If you don’t have a seller account or you’re unfamiliar with setting up eBay auctions, this is probably not a good option for you because setting up an auction on eBay won’t be easy and buyers may not trust you because you have little feedback.

With Craigslist, listing a card is simple and costs absolutely nothing. The downside is that you likely will want to conduct the transaction in person and for cash. This is because the person buying will want to confirm the value of the card and if you’re in the area, they’ll probably want to meet. Doing the transaction in cash protects both parties.

I didn’t get to check this site out much myself but Gift Card Rescue is another place you can try selling your gifts card to. The difference between card value and sale price doesn’t seem to be as large as some other sites.

Another option worth pursuing is to ask your friends if they plan on buying something at those stores. If so, you might be able to avoid all these headaches and sell the card directly to them.

Trade In Your Gift Cards

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of selling your cards, you can always trade them on websites that specialize in trading gift cards. They almost always have options for you to directly sell them the card but they take a percentage off the value as a service fee. The two most well known structured gift card trading sites are Card Avenue and Plastic Jungle, I’ve used neither.

Card AvenueCard Avenue is like an eBay for gift card and a swap site all rolled into one. You can list a card for auction or you can trade with other members. Some of the benefits of the site are that you can buy insurance for your gift cards and there is a validation system (Cardassure) to confirm the other trader has the amount they say they do. For auctions or trades, Cardavenue charges a 3.95% on the card value plus a $0.50 closing fee. On auctions, the fee is charged only to the seller. On trades, both sides pay that fee. Payment is through Paypal.

Plastic JunglePlastic Jungle is just like Card Avenue except it’s more expensive (10% fee on sales and trades!) but they do offer an option where you can sell your card directly to Plastic Jungle if it’s on their list of QuikCash merchants, which is why I list it. The list isn’t very extensive and the payout is 55-65% of face value but it covers many major brands.

Much like how you can try to sell your cards to your friends, try trading them. You can trade on sites like Craigslist or even try your favorite online bulletin boards. When the minimum cut is around 4.5%, it’s often worth it to do a little leg work to see if you can swap with people you already know.

Auction Fee Breakdown

To give you an idea of how much you’d pay to sell a $100 gift card (assuming it sold for $100), I calculated all the transaction fees by vendor:

How to Maximize Returns

Of those sites, which gives you the best ROI for your card? It’s really difficult to say but in general trading will give you the best value because you’re trading gift card value for gift card value. You get less whenever you convert the gift card to cash because you’re going from a more restrictive currency (Home Depot dollars) to a less restrictive currency (anything dollars), so keep that in mind. This is the order I would pursue my options:

  1. Trade card for card with friends, online acquaintances, etc,
  2. Sell card to friends, online acquaintances,
  3. Trade card for card or sell for cash on Cragistlist,
  4. Sell or trade on Card Avenue,
  5. Sell on eBay,
  6. Sell or trade on Plastic Jungle,
  7. Sell directly to Plastic Jungle.

Do you have any advice for trading in or selling gift cards? Is there a site you use that is better the ones I listed? If so, please let me know as I think many people are hungry for this type of information right now!

 Your Take 

You Take: Why Do People Like Gift Cards?

Gift CardsI think gift cards are stupid. But, rather than rehash why I dislike them (here’s a quick recap: you are forced to use them at a store, companies screw you with fees and expirations, easy to misplace or lose, and aren’t that much more “thoughtful” than cash), I’m curious to hear the pro-gift card folks out there on why they like them?

For the pro-gift carders, do you like giving them or receiving them? I can understand why people would like giving them – it shows you know the person a little bit, at least you know where they like to shop, but doesn’t force them into a particular item.

On the flip side, I cannot understand why someone would rather receive a gift card from store XYZ instead of cash. You can use cash to buy whatever you want wherever you want. You can use cash to pay off debts, you can use cash to light your cigars… you can’t do any of that with gift cards. If you’re pro-gift cards… please share with me your perspective.

After saying all that, we buy gift cards because that’s become the accepted norm. For wedding gifts, if we can’t find anything on the list because all the good stuff has been bought or because we were simply too slow, we get a gift card from the store where the registry is held. If it were up to me, I’d do the Chinese custom of giving money in a lucky red envelope.

(Photo: smcgee)

 Personal Finance 

Bankrupt Retailers, Bankrupt Campaigns & Just Banks

You can delay the reaper but you can rarely totally avoid him and this past week Linens ‘n Things filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a few weeks after they were originally predicted to have succumbed. If you read my post about how they were going under and how you shouldn’t hold onto gift cards, then you wouldn’t be one of the 400,000 customers stuck with $42M in worthless gift cards.

Mrs Micah talked a little about contributing to presidential campaigns and how the contributions amount to very speculative investing. It’s an interesting thought, especially after noting people contributing to “lost cause” campaigns like Huckabee’s, that definitely gets you thinking. I was never one for political campaign contributions, I think my money is better served going towards health/medical related charitable causes.

Lastly, I did a roundup of the best high yield savings accounts.

 Personal Finance 

Linens ‘n Things May Declare Bankruptcy, Don’t Hold Gift Cards!

It took a while but LNT is liquidating its remaining stores as of October 14th, 2008.

Linen ‘n Things has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, freezing $42M in gift cards.

We received many gift cards as wedding gifts (thanks!) and fortunately none of them were Linens ‘n Things cards because they’ll be filing for bankruptcy tomorrow ($15 million quarterly payment is due!). What does this mean for gift card holders? There is a possibility that Linens, as Sharper Image did, will suspend the acceptance of gift cards and anyone holding one will be left with nothing. Gift card holders are considered unsecured creditors during bankruptcy, which puts them after secured creditors and thus less likely to receive anything. You didn’t think you were lending a company money when you bought it, huh? 🙂

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