If you dug around in your wallet right now, how many gift cards would you find?

According to a Bankrate.com survey, Americans are sitting on over $20 billion in unused gift cards and store credit. Almost half of people age 55 and older have unused gift cards. And while 31% of people in this age group estimate these cards and credits are worth $49 or less, 18% say they are worth $200 to $499. 

A quick inventory of my kitchen junk drawer proves I’m as guilty of hoarding these cards as anyone. 

Among other things, my stash includes a PlayStation gift card intended for a nephew who plays Xbox, three partially used Claire’s gift cards from when my daughter was younger, a Visa gift card possibly worth 86 cents, two gift cards for Boston-area restaurants (I live in Pennsylvania), and a credit for a free small fry valid at a Burger King in New Jersey.

“You can sell unwanted gift cards at sites such as Cardpool, CardCash, and GiftCardSpread.”
–Ted Rossman
Bankrate.com analyst

I’m embarrassed to do the math, but I’m solidly in that $200 to $499 range. 

“Gift cards and store credits are real money, so treat them as such,” said Bankrate.com analyst Ted Rossman. “If you’ve been holding onto a gift card from a store you don’t like, there’s nothing wrong with regifting it, using it to buy a gift for someone else, or even selling it.”

To get the most from these cards, start by figuring out what they are worth.

First, check the balances

A card with a $50 value may no longer be worth that much. Some gift cards lose value over time — after a year of inactivity, you could be charged a monthly service or dormancy fee that can quickly wipe out your balance. And gift cards can expire after five years, though some states offer more protection for consumers. Call the number or visit the website on the back of the card to check.

Verify the value

If it looks like a card is expired, you can always try to use it, or call and see if the value can be reinstated. It doesn’t hurt to ask. 

It seems like it should be obvious that we should use these cards, but the Bankrate survey and my own experience prove otherwise. 

For cards that have a number and PIN, you can take a photo of that information and often use it without having the physical card with you. You can also use many cards online. 

If you need the physical card, put it in a place you can access when you’ll be able to use it. If you’re worried about theft, put a note in your calendar to remind you to bring a card to a store or restaurant.

If you haven’t used a card because you don’t think there’s anything you need or want from that store, check if the card is valid at other stores. Claire’s, I discovered, is affiliated with Icing, a store that carries some kitchen and home goods. Many restaurants are part of chains or groups. And for online stores, poke around on the websites — you might be surprised at what they carry. I once found whiskey tumblers and trays to make large ice cubes at Home Depot. 

1. Sell or exchange them for cash or other gift cards

“You can sell unwanted gift cards at sites such as Cardpool, CardCash, and GiftCardSpread,” Rossman says. 

Through Cardpool, you can also sell gift cards for cash at some Target stores. Cardpool says you can get up to 92% of your card’s value back. YMMV — with a quick online test, I found that a $100 Giant grocery gift card would net $84, while the same amount from Applebee’s would only yield $65.

CardCash converts your gift cards into a Starbucks eGift card. And Gift Card Spread lets you set the price you’d like to receive for your gift card, and you’ll find out within 24 hours if your offer was accepted. 

2. Regift them

Just because a gift card isn’t right for you doesn’t mean someone else can’t use it. Just make sure you verify the value before you pass it along. For some cards, you can add value, so you can round that awkward $18.43 balance up to an even $20 or $25.

3. Donate them to charity

Ask local shelters, domestic violence agencies, or food banks if they can use your gift cards, either to support their services or to share with their clients. At Charity Choice, you can donate your cards to more than 1,000 charities and get a tax deduction. And GiftCards4Change contributes to a range of causes.