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Experts say 50% of gift cards go unused: Here’s how to spend them — old and new

Received a gift card for the holidays? We're breaking down how you can spend them, redeem them for cash and more!
Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

You might have been gifted or given a gift card (or two) during the holidays. If you ask us, it's a convenient way to show someone appreciation — especially if you know they love a certain brand or are just hard to shop for.

Gift card giving is a popular option for consumers and has become a booming industry over the years. According to Capital One, 54% of people buy gift cards to give as gifts with an average value of $47; bringing in nearly 500 million dollars in revenue a year.

But did you know a large number of those gift cards go unspent? NBC senior business correspondent Christine Romans recently joined TODAY and shared that "half of gift cards never get used." While that might seem like a hefty number, chances are you might've found a card lying around unused, or with a remaining balance.

How to use gift cards | Do gift cards expire? | The most common gift cards given | Top products

How to use gift cards

So if you do happen to receive or find one, don’t let that money go to waste. Firstly, you’ll want to check the balance on older ones, and doing so is easy. The physical card will normally have a website on the back for support or you can go to the retailer's website and enter the unique code and pin to reveal the current balance.

There are other ways you can redeem this newfound cash. Romans shared on TODAY that if you're having trouble paying the bills, you can actually trade or sell the gift cards for cash on websites like CardCash or Raise. If you go this route, you'll generally get 70 to 80 cents on the dollar, says Romans.

Do gift cards expire?

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), gift cards are protected under law and can't expire until five years after the activation date. Even better news? Many popular retailers, like Amazon and Sephora, say theirs don't expire at all.

The credit card-type gift cards might have an expiration date though, you'll notice it's marked on the card itself like a normal credit card.

The most common gift cards given

According to a recent Google Trends search by the Shop TODAY team, some of the most popular gift cards don't come as a surprise — and were up in search as high as 600%. The list includes favorite retailers such as Amazon, Sephora, Lululemon and Apple, as well as open-loop gift cards like American Express and Vanilla Visa, which you can generally spend anywhere.

We asked Shop TODAY staffers how they like to spend theirs (particularly the Amex and Visa options) and many surprisingly said on necessities like groceries. Another favorite way to spend was updating their clothes, whether it be a splurge or taking advantage of sales.

So if you're looking to spend your holiday gifts, we're here to provide some inspiration for your gift card shopping spree based on the most popular gift cards found on Google Trends. And some items are on sale — meaning you can get even more bang for your gift card buck!

Amazon | Lululemon | Apple | Sephora | Ulta | American Express and Vanilla Visa

Top products

Amazon

Easyoulife Genuine Leather Credit Card Holder

Never lose a gift card again and keep them all together by picking up this card holder. It comes in 20 colors and has slots for 26 cards, plus it's only $10 so you'll have plenty left to spend on your Amazon gift card.

COSRX Snail Mucin Power Essence

Gift cards give you permission to shop for yourself and stock up on skin care must-haves. You can grab this No.1 bestselling snail mucin essence on sale for 44% off. The brand says you can expect deep hydration on dry skin.

Stanley Quencher H2.0 Tumbler

You've probably seen all the buzz on the viral Stanley Quencher. Whether you're a first-time buyer or looking to grab a new color, you can grab one of the 25 shades on Amazon for $45! According to the brand, the durable 40-ounce tumblers will keep your drinks at their desired temperature for hours.

Fitbit Inspire 3

If you're looking to stay aligned with your New Year's wellness resolutions, investing in a Fitbit is a good place to start. According to the brand, the No.1 bestseller can track your steps, heart rate and stress levels. And it's on sale for 30% off!


NuFace Mini Starter Kit


Associate editor Emma Stessman said she likes to treat herself to higher price items with gift cards to help with the initial blow. Her last Amazon gift card purchase was a microcurrent device from NuFace. The beauty tool is meant to help tone, contour and lift the muscles and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, says the brand.


Sorel Women's Out 'N About III Classic Waterproof Boot

If you're looking to grab some winter essentials, these waterproof boots feature rubber roles to make walking through snow and slush easier and safer.

Lululemon

Lululemon Align High-Rise Pant with Pockets

Receiving a Lululemon gift card is an exciting feeling; you can use that towards a new pair of "buttery-soft" Align leggings. This option has pockets and comes in over 15 colors.

Lululemon Everywhere Belt Bag 

Or might we suggest grabbing the viral Lululemon belt bag while it's on sale? The fleece option is perfect for all your cozy fits for winter.

Apple

Apple MagSafe Charger

Apple gift cards were trending big time, according to Google Trends. One way to spend them is to buy some handy accessories, like this magnetic charger. The brand says it's compatible with iPhones 8 and later, and AirPods with a wireless charging case.

Apple Pencil (USB-C)

The Apple Pencil makes working on iPads easier, as well as drawing or notetaking. It magnetically attaches to your iPad so you don't have to worry about losing it.

Airpods (2nd Generation) Wireless Earbuds

Whether you missed the major sales or were hoping to score a pair of AirPods during the holidays, you can still use your Apple gift card towards a new pair of earbuds. You'll get up to five hours of listening time and can even engrave your case, which is only available at Apple.

Sephora

Color Wow Dream Coat Supernatural Spray

This Shop TODAY-reader favorite helps fight frizz to leave your hair looking smooth. And that's not all, this hair care product can also be used as a heat protectant to help prevent further damage.

Rare Beauty by Selena Gomez Soft Pinch Liquid Blush

You might be looking to pick up a few viral beauty products, like the Rare Beauty liquid blushes. You can choose from over 10 matte and dewy finishes.

Tatcha The Dewy Skin Cream

Shop TODAY editors, TikTokers and Sephora reviewers rave about the benefits of this splurge-worthy cream. It's made with hyaluronic acid, Japanese purple rice and squalane, which is an ingredient that experts say is a great emollient for hydrating the skin.

Ulta

Biolage Strength Recovery Shampoo for Damaged Hair

You can stock up and save on luxury hair care like jumbo versions of shampoo and conditioner at Ulta. This strengthening shampoo is said to reduce breakage and hydrate damaged hair.


Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

A gift card might help soften the cost of this Shop TODAY Beauty Award-winning exfoliating treatment. Media coordinator Lauren Biggerstaff, says she saw immediate results after use: “I used it three times a week, but even right after use, the next morning my skin looked brighter and more even,” she said.

American Express and Vanilla Visa


Old Navy Extra High-Waisted Cloud+ Jogger Leggings

Editorial director Adrianna Brach says she'll often use her gift cards to take advantage of the current clothing brand sales. Right now you can stock up on cozy essentials at Old Navy, including these spandex-blend joggers for 30% off.

Abercrombie & Fitch Notch-Neck Sweater

This cotton-blend sweater can be dressed up or down, from pairing it with casual leggings to work slacks. You can score it for 40% off at Abercrombie and Fitch right now.

New Balance Women’s 608 V5 Cross Trainer

If you ask us, a good pair of comfortable shoes is essential. If you're looking for an upgrade, these Shop TODAY Wellness Award-winners offer a foam midsole and lasting support, says the brand.

“It’s rare for me to find a sneaker that I don’t have to break in, but these kicks delivered comfortable, supportive strides almost immediately,” says senior SEO editor Jess Bender.

GAP Big Puff Cropped Jacket

As temperatures continue to drop throughout the season, it's a good time to grab a winter coat while it's on sale. This GAP puffer coat is currently 50% off; the brand says it's both extremely warm and water-resistant.

Patagonia Down Sweater Vest

This Patagonia vest is a great additional layer for outdoor activities, errands and more. According to the brand, it comes in four colors and is made of windproof fabric — grab it now while it's 40% off.